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A QUARTER A POINT ISN'T TWENTY-FIVE CENTS
E. J. Kahn Jr.
February 07, 1977
The man from the Harvard Club had it figured: 'With dice like yours, an illiterate could win.' But that was before the author's first match in the $191,795 backgammon tournament and the lucky roll that he will always remember
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February 07, 1977

A Quarter A Point Isn't Twenty-five Cents

The man from the Harvard Club had it figured: 'With dice like yours, an illiterate could win.' But that was before the author's first match in the $191,795 backgammon tournament and the lucky roll that he will always remember

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Finally, I get to play. My opponent is a woman, with long, tapering, curved fingernails that eventually have me mesmerized; they claw at her dice and checkers like hawks' talons. I run up a nice lead—6-1, 10-4, 13-9. I am distracted by a frightful dispute at the next table, about the correctness of a score. Deyong and Cooke are summoned to arbitrate, while I am trying to concentrate; the contretemps is settled by a roll of a die. A tough way to lose.

My own loss is hard to take, too—a 19-18 defeat. Would you believe that this woman—who has already been favored with the luckiest damned double four you ever heard of in your life—would, with the score 18-18, get the only throw that would give her a chance to survive, a five-four, 17-to-1 odds against her, for God's sake; and that an instant later this long-shot artist would defy the laws of probability again? Sixty-five years hence, will I remember the fateful six-two she threw as clearly as Ozzie Jacoby can recall the 1911 World Series? More clearly, I daresay; he was only a spectator.

I slink off to the casino to lick my wounds. I bet again on my wife's birth date and lose my plane fare and a bit more. Stavros looms at my shoulder; he says the dame who knocked me out is only a so-so player. I comfort myself before falling asleep with the reflection that it doesn't really matter whether or not she threw that outrageous six-two, or even the five-four. Why should I care whether I am one of the best 64 backgammon players on earth or merely one of the best 128? It is not winning or losing that counts. That I gave it my all is the only consolation I need.

THURSDAY: Today the first consolation round begins. I'll show them. I read in a backgammon magazine somebody has left behind at breakfast that my conqueror last night won the ladies' prize at Monte Carlo. So much for Stavros and his opinion. I visit the Grand Ballroom to check on the survivors of yesterday's combat. The casualty list is appalling. Half the seeded players are dead—Cooke, Jacoby, Dwek and Magriel among them. I hear that The Human Computer has been blanked, by an anonymous mortal. I am in good company.

I have a bye in the first consolation, too. I hang around for three hours—sociably hustling a couple of stray backgammon pigeons, from whom I win two or three—to learn who my second-round opponent will be. He plays slowly. By the time I dispatch him and thereby advance to the third round, it is 9:15 p.m. I haven't eaten since breakfast, but am instructed to be ready to play again at 9:30. I seek out Stavros at an elegant restaurant and bum a roll off his table.

My third-round opponent is a suave Swiss, with a Liechtenstein mailing address—an internationalist if ever I encountered one. He beats me, sort of fair and square, but only after accepting a preposterous double that no Harvard Club man in his right mind would countenance; and, after that imbecility, throwing a fantastic double five—35-to-1 odds against him, as I wish I could forget—that wraps the match up for him. Of all the infernal misfortune! I have no doubt that on the basis of what has happened to me, I could win the hard-luck-story competition hands down, but I don't intend to try for it. I believe a gentleman should take his gambling lumps in silence.

FRIDAY: Back in New York, I go to an Off-Off-Broadway revival of The Vagabond King. I cry throughout Only a Rose. The next time I run into Stavros, I must remember to ask him who won.

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