Vast sections of America may be astounded to hear that there is such a thing as a professional backgammon player. But, in fact, there are a lot of them. Many with backgrounds in clubs like the Racquet in New York or the Clermont in London refer to themselves as gentlemen gamblers, amateurs who nevertheless play backgammon for very large amounts of money. Others go to backgammon tournaments the way professional golfers go to golf tournaments and hustle the sales of backgammon boards and books as golfers sell equipment. Gentlemen gamblers sometimes hustle a few books and lessons themselves, which makes the distinction between a gentleman gambler and a professional even more vague.
To those who still think of backgammon as that odd foreign-looking diagram on the back of a checkerboard, this may be hard to swallow, but backgammon in the Western world has broken out of the clubby atmosphere in which it flourished for a century as a smart, inbred game not meant for the public. (In the Middle East, they have been playing it in cafes for thousands of years.) People who might never be suspected of playing backgammon have taken it up)—housewives in Fort Worth, Gestalt therapists in Santa Barbara, Calif., retired postmen in Hollywood, Fla. Backgammon is getting as hot as Mah-Jongg and Scrabble were in their day.
With all that action in tournament prizes, gambling, auction sales, backgammon schools, backgammon books and equipment, it was inevitable that agents would be drawn to the scene by the smell of money. Thus came Mark McCormack, agent for professional sporting figures like Arnold Palmer, Rod Laver, Larry Csonka and Jackie Stewart. McCormack signed a contract that made Philip Martyn the world's first professional backgammon player with a manager. A number of people pick up a handsome, even a semiglamorous, living out of the game. As head of the World Backgammon Club and promoter of many tournaments since he staged a big one in the Bahamas 10 years ago (SI, May 4, 1964), Prince Obolensky, whose face looks like a granite outcrop, is an example of one whose profession is, in fact, backgammon. But Philip Martyn is one of the few who admit backgammon is his livelihood, rather than passing it off as a game he happens to be so good at that he doesn't need to go to the office very often.
So as Benson was selling his London host, Martyn, at the auction, Esmond Cooper-Key wandered into the maroon and gold room and bid �1,100. Esmond's smile seemed a bit too bright when he realized his was the winning offer. Already that day Esmond had flown across the Atlantic to begin sailing directly back home, and now he had just paid the top price for a player in the tournament.
"Why did you do that, Esmond?" someone asked.
"I only heard what they were saying about his professionalism, and of course I do know something about Martyn," Esmond said. "But I don't know anything really about whether he will win, do I? I mean, one doesn't follow backgammon players the way one might follow thoroughbreds. Actually, I thought the numbers would keep going up, and someone else would buy him. Well, there's no use crying, is there?"
Esmond sipped a glass of Mo�t and leaned on a railing that separated a gallery from the carpeted pit a few feet below, where the auction was in progress and the games would be played. "Some people are spending tremendous sums of money to promote backgammon, and I wonder why," mused Esmond. "I can't imagine the masses are clever enough to buy millions of boards, can you? I mean, backgammon is more of an in-here game than an out-there game, it seems to me."
From reading the invitation list of players, it was clear Richard Dunhill, the deputy chairman of Alfred Dunhill Ltd., intended his tournament to be an in-here affair. "Backgammon is a good promotion for our company because it has a certain snobbish appeal," Dunhill said. But Dunhill wanted to be certain the tournament was heard of out there. Hence free airplane tickets to New York and First-Class return passage to England on the QE 2 for members of the British press. Hence the invitation of celebrities to keep the press awake once the fascination with galloping checkers wore off. Singer-actress Diana Ross, who would have provided the tournament its only woman and only black in the same body, turned down the trip, as did Playboy magazine Publisher Hugh Hefner, in whose heart of games backgammon has replaced Monopoly. British TV star Spike Milligan came along to chat up the press, but spent much of the time in his cabin writing a novel. "I always thought backgammon was a particular cut of bacon," Milligan confided at dinner on the night of the gala.
Liberal M.P. Clement Freud, who occupied a penthouse suite, was knocked out in the first round as a player but served as a narrator for the film and phoned in stories to the
. Bulge-eyed and bearded, Freud (grandson of Sigmund, of course) roamed about the ship scowling and looking perpetually startled, as if he were afraid he might have accidentally said aloud what he had just been thinking, and that was why people were behaving toward him in such a manner.
Richard Dunhill, though, was pleased with his lineup. "It's been wonderfully traumatic wondering if we would make it," he said. The idea for the floating tournament was conceived a year before when Patrick, Earl of Lichfield, cousin of the Queen, winner of Male Elegance and Best Dressed awards and a free-lance photographer to boot, phoned up and suggested it. "I rushed out and bought a book on backgammon and became terribly keen on it," Dunhill said.