Ernest hemingway once wrote that the rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. But among the 500 or so of the game's aficionados who descended on Monte Carlo last July, few, if any, remembered the writer's words, and those who did weren't likely to take umbrage. Drinking is one thing, but there could be no such thing as too much backgammon.
Last summer's 16th World Backgammon Championship at the Loews Monte Carlo Hotel went on for seven very long days of rattling dice and rattled nerves. The event was something of a backgammon Super Bowl, in which Texas millionaires squared off against European gentry and tens of thousands of dollars changed hands during casual games by the hotel pool. In two enormous green-and-white playing salons, backgammon addicts from almost 40 countries gathered to take a crack at beating the game's finest players. If one was unlucky enough to lose in the single-elimination championship, there were three consolation rounds for losers on each successive day. Jackpots (minitournaments of eight or 16 players) ran nearly 24 hours a day. And there was side action—in the hotel hallways, lounge, private rooms, anywhere that a board and two players could be accommodated. Restaurants were about the only places that put a ban on playing.
"It's like an orgy of backgammon," said a Frenchman who wouldn't give his name. "You can't get enough."
In the end, Michael Meyburg, a quiet 27-year-old from Nuremberg, Germany, and a long shot at 100 to 1, used a surgeon's concentration to knock off all the Kasparovs and Karpovs of the backgammon world and went home $60,000 richer.
Meyburg had never played in the world championship before. In fact, this was only his fourth tournament. A computer salesman who had married two months before the championship began, Meyburg had planned to enter the less expensive intermediate division, one of three categories. Just days before the tournament a friend from Munich agreed to provide Meyburg the money that he needed to upgrade to the championship draw, which cost each player about $750. The lanky, brown-haired Meyburg methodically worked his way through some of the best names in the game: Neil Kazaross, Paul Magriel and Perry Gartner, all from the U.S., and Georges Vadiakis of Greece.
Magriel, 45, a writer from New York, who, some consider, is the best all-around player in the world, didn't give Meyburg much of a match, losing 21-8 in the round of 16. Gartner, a New Jersey native who is in the import-export business, had been summarily dismissed in the second round. But he was so impressed with the young German that after their match, Gartner put down a sizable bet on Meyburg at 70-to-1 odds. Meyburg then made Gartner's trip to Monte Carlo worthwhile by thrashing fellow German Gerhard Mauerer in the final, 25-8.
Backgammon goes back to the 15th century, but it has always been treated as if it were chess's disreputable cousin. Its detractors insist that it is nothing more than a dice game that ultimately comes down to whatever a player rolls. And yet hundreds of books and articles on backgammon strategy have been published. Those who take the game seriously argue that while the chance element looms large in any playing of the game, a backgammon player's ability to use strategy is crucial to success.
"It's a totally different game than chess," said John Koonmen, 27, who was a semifinalist in Monte Carlo. Koonmen, a securities trader, learned backgammon as an undergraduate at MIT. "It's a very random game," he said. "Luck is probably 80 to 90 percent of it. But when you weigh that against casino games, where a two percent edge is big, then 10 to 20 percent becomes a huge edge."
Despite receiving virtually no media attention, the world championship—sponsored by the Soci�t� des Bains de Mer, the company that owns and operates most of the major tourist facilities in Monaco—made for an exhilarating week. The regulars came from France, Germany, Great Britain, the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries. But unexpected arrivals came from as far away as Brazil, New Zealand, the republics of the former Soviet Union, Panama, Egypt, Iran and Israel.
"Most of the players here are the best in their town or in their country or something," said Billy Horan, a former semi-pro Softball player from New York who is considered to be among the top five in American backgammon. "I know a lot of Europeans, but these are all a new group to me."