By now Benson had come to the last players to be auctioned. "One of them is tall, handsome, witty and well-bred, and the other is Takis," he said.
Crash! Takis Theodorocopulos threw a champagne glass at the rostrum. Takis, 35, Greek, karate champion and former Davis Cup tennis player, is a gentleman journalist for the National Review and heavy gambler with a fortune somewhere behind him. He was bought for �400 by his friend John Zographos (Greek, 45, called "King Zog," Cambridge, investments and real estate). Wait, a player had been overlooked. The Hon. Michael Pearson (29, Gordon-stoun, the Household Cavalry, film producer, son of Lord Cowdray, whose family in this century controlled more than 1,500,000 acres in Mexico, with attending mineral rights and the country's only Atlantic-to-Pacific railroads) was sold for �500. Then Benson himself was peddled for �500, and most of the players retired to the ship's casino to get in shape for the next afternoon when half of them would be losers. The ship's casino was a very good place to get accustomed to losing.
In the game of backgammon each player has to move 15 disks around the board as determined by skill and by the roll of the dice, which obviously means it helps to be lucky. The first player to get all his disks off the board wins. A disk can be "hit" by an opponent if not protected, and must start all over again. A "doubling cube" is used to raise the stakes and test the nerve or sense of the players. If you are offered a double and feel the odds are too strongly against it, you can decline and forfeit the game and cut your losses, or you can accept and perhaps defeat the odds and win extra points. "A good player is one who knows when he has the advantage," said American Tim Holland. "A mediocre player is one who thinks he has it when he doesn't. The cornerstone to backgammon is anticipating future moves."
It is said that among players of equal skill luck is about 80% of the game. Supposedly the superior player will overcome the luck factor and beat his opponent if they play long enough. But a player who can count up to 24 (the sum of a roll of double sixes) and can keep his head clear enough to march his men in orderly fashion is liable to beat a master anytime by shaking hot dice. Holland, 43, who is not reluctant to acknowledge that he is tops at backgammon, estimated that five or six of the 32 players in the Dunhill tournament could be rated among the world's elite 50.
A few of the best players in the world play not at the Racquet or the Clermont, but at New York's Mayfair Hotel in a place called The Dump. They are known as Dumplings. Some of the Dumplings don't get their shoes shined, their sweaters don't cover their bellies, they have social connections that reach into the wrong Queens and they are too shrewd to be allowed access to big games like the Dunhill tournament.
"You can't blame Dunhill for not inviting them," said Holland, who occasionally plays at The Dump but usually at the Regency in New York. "Dunhill has worked hard to build up the Beautiful People aspect of this promotion. Five Dumplings could come on board and take everybody's money. How would that look?"
Some say the best players are found at none of those places but in sleazy little clubs in Beirut. Obolensky learned to play the game in Turkey.
Jack Vietor is an American, 59, educated at St. Paul's and Yale, former publisher of
magazine, grandson of the inventor of Jell-O. Though he has held the Vietor Round Robin Private Backgammon Tournament at his home in La Jolla, Calif. since 1962, Vietor says he is merely an amateur. He says one big problem with backgammon tournaments is keeping the hustlers out.
In the first round of the Dunhill tournament Vietor beat Philip Martyn. Martyn had been twisting in agony in his seat at each throw of the dice, raising his eyebrows as if to ask heaven how things could be going so badly for one who deserved so much better. Vietor was flushed and sweating, lighting cigarettes while previous ones still burned in the ashtray. Both men looked as if the game were as pleasant as sinking in quicksand. "A lot of top players go through pain when they play. They fight as if they think they can control the dice," said Claude Beer (American, 36, former squash champion, winner of the Clermont Club British backgammon championship in 1970 and the 1974 Las Vegas World Championship). "I always try hard, but it's not worth agonizing over."
At the final roll Martyn leaped up from the table and rushed out of the room like a Tex-Mex border-town tourist who just found out that wasn't chicken in his taco. In a minute or so Martyn was back to shake hands with Vietor.