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ON A DICEY CRUISE
Edwin Shrake
September 16, 1974
The voyage promised to be rough, with high-rolling in the richest backgammon tournament ever, but a first-class gambol was assured
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September 16, 1974

On A Dicey Cruise

The voyage promised to be rough, with high-rolling in the richest backgammon tournament ever, but a first-class gambol was assured

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Esmond Cooper-Key woke up early on a Tuesday morning in his London town house with the feeling, as he later said, that he was about to do something many people, not the least of them being his wife, might consider naughty, or even mondo bizzarro. But the hell with what they might think for the moment; he could either lie back and reflect about obstacles to what was becoming his plan or he could get up and carry on with it. Esmond opened his suitcase and threw in a tuxedo, a pair of sneakers and random garments that his eye fell across. He trotted out to the car, drove to the bank as it opened, wrote a check for cash and headed for Heathrow Airport, where he caught a noon flight to New York.

About eight hours' worth of champagne later, at Kennedy Airport, Esmond Cooper-Key climbed into a taxicab and asked to be delivered to Pier 84 on the Hudson River side of Manhattan. There, beside the pier, gathering power of sorts from the broken boilers that had stranded her near Bermuda two weeks earlier, rose the astonishing bulk of the Queen Elizabeth 2. From keel to funnel, as high as a 13-story building. From bow to stern, longer than three football fields. Yes indeed, this was the place he was looking for. Esmond plunged through the ring of toy balloons at the end of the gangplank and hurried toward the First-Class cabin he had just booked for the QE 2's return voyage to France and England that very same evening.

Up on the Quarterdeck, in a room colored maroon and gold and tucked away behind one of the two First-Class restaurants, gaffers were setting up movie lights, cameramen from Paragon Films were tinkering with their machines and pretty girls were tugging into place a board that said DUNHILL INTERNATIONAL BACKGAMMON TOURNAMENT with spaces below for the names of 32 invited players and the results of the matches.

Esmond's name was not on the list of 32, but he had, after all, once reached the quarterfinal of a junior backgammon tournament at the Clermont Club in London, and he was a friend of some of the assorted elegantini—an earl, a lord and what not—who had been included. Besides that, Esmond had bought his own ticket, which most people had not, for what was until then the richest backgammon tournament ever held. In all there was close to $100,000 to be played for out in the open, not to mention the private betting in a game of which Prince Alexis Obolensky says, "You don't play backgammon just for fun—always for money, even if you are playing the game with your little daughter, it should always be for money."

Not that Esmond came on board to look at money. They did it all with checks, anyhow; one never saw stacks of cash moving across the tables as one often does in Las Vegas. Esmond merely had a notion that he ought to go have a bit of adventure and meanwhile indulge his fascination with backgammon at the world's first floating tournament. However, six nights later when Prince Obolensky, a father figure of the modern version of the game, arose to speak at the black-tie gala that ended the tournament, it was a celebrating Esmond who walked past and said, "It's not necessary to hear from you, old chap," and dismissed Obolensky back to his table until part of the crowd began to applaud for the prince to return to his speech. By then so much had transpired that such a scene seemed not at all strange, and the next morning Esmond claimed not even to remember it.

"Waiter, actually my wife can't see a damned thing with you standing in front of the window, now can she?" said the old British gentleman.

As the QE 2 pulled out of New York Harbor during dinner hour the waiters found reasons to linger in front of the big windows, polishing away tiny specks with their napkins while the food cooled. The lights of New York are a rare and incredible sight. One of the headwaiters, a man not easily moved, could stand beside a table at a meal and recount tales of torture and mutilation he had witnessed during World War II in Kenya in the same stolid tone with which he discussed aircraft maintenance or snake handling. But the view of New York Harbor reached his soul. "It's a grand sight, sir," he said, "one of the grandest that exists, and I've seen most of them."

The lights of New York had barely vanished astern when the auction commenced in the maroon and gold room. An auction in backgammon is what is called a Calcutta pool at a golf tournament; players are sold and the purchaser wins if his player fares well. It is not uncommon for a player to buy himself at an auction by arranging for someone else to bid for him. He ordinarily buys back a piece of himself if he is bought by someone with whom he did not have an arrangement.

The auctioneer on the QE 2 was Charles Benson, 38, who describes himself as a constant gambler who spent four years at Eton studying racing charts. Benson is a racing correspondent for the London Daily Express , for which he tries to pick winners under the name Bendex. When Esmond Cooper-Key walked in, Benson was auctioning Philip Martyn (36, Lincoln College, Oxford, member of the 1964 British Olympic bobsled team). For a year and a half, Benson has lived with Martyn and Martyn's wife as what Philip calls "our permanent and very welcome guest."

"Philip Martyn is the world's first self-professed professional backgammon player," Benson was saying to a roomful of backgammon players.

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