By Robert Wachtel
It had been seventeen years since I had played backgammon (and lived) in Great Britain. I left in 1993 as the reigning national champion, having won that title by vanquishing another vagabond American, Alan Steffen, in the final of a tournament held by the storied backgammon entrepreneurs Martin and Bambi de Bruin, on the Isle of Man -- that picturesque tax haven located in the Irish Sea halfway between Scotland and Northern Ireland. I had also enjoyed the singular honor, during the winter of 1992, of having been barred from playing at the Double Fives, a bi-weekly chouette club run by another classic backgammon couple, George and Diana Sulimirski. “Nothing personal, Bob,” explained George, ever the mannered Polish gentleman, “but you are too good for us.” I had been making my rent money for the previous six months, as George did year-in and year-out, from the games the Double Fives: but it was his club, and he decided that there was not enough gravy available to feed the two of us.
It was, to be sure, high time to stop resting upon these ancient laurels; and so I happily accepted the invitation of my friends Roland and Simonetta Herrera to brave the English drizzle and try my luck at their tournament in late August in Bristol, the Bristol Backgammon Open.
The summer weather was, to be sure, just as I not-so-fondly remembered it: cool, overcast and wet, except for one sunny day that was accompanied by a vicious windstorm. But the climate indoors, in the tournament rooms and in the Herrera’s spacious, 3-story house, was always warm and sunny.
Accomplished classical musicians with a passion for backgammon, the Herreras turn their home into a veritable players’ hostel once a year. I was given the privilege of sharing the upper floor with the Japanese Zen master himself, Michihito (“Michi”) Kageyama. From four to seven other visitors, including the talented young Polish player Anna Mielich and Danish expert Michael Sorensen, occupied the lower berths. Roland and Simonetta treated us like family, lavishing upon us one delicious and healthful meal after another: all organic and vegetarian, complemented by the freshest juices imaginable. When we were not stuffing ourselves or being chauffeured to and from the tournament site or on various sightseeing or sporting expeditions, we gathered in the downstairs anteroom for hours, telling backgammon stories or discussing positions.
The tournament itself, ably run by Brits Mike Main and Ian Tarr along with Roland's cheerful young assistants, Philippa and Francesca, was held in a military installation (a first for me) within Bristol city limits. Let’s just say that the security was adequate, and that we were not required to obey the directions posted on the bathroom doors, which segregated the facilities not only by sex but by rank as well!
I seemed to find my old form quickly. Before I knew it I was in the quarterfinals, where I was paired with Julian Fetterlein, one of the very best British backgammon players. No worries: in a 15 point match, I leapt to 11 to 6 lead and was holding a 2-cube and playing for a gammon. But then ... well, I have only myself to blame ...
Most contemporary tournament matches are played under time limits that are regulated with clocks. This is certainly a good thing. It ensures that the rounds get started pretty much according to the schedule advertised on the tournament brochure; and it eliminates the frustration of playing an opponent who won’t play even obvious or forced moves quickly because there is no downside to his elaborately fussing over every decision.
My problem is that I tend to record a lot of positions early in a match. This procedure, whether you use a camera as most people do or whether you write positions down, as I do, takes some time. And in this match, there had been lots of interesting decisions to make in the early games. Which meant that I now had only a few minutes left on my clock.
Still, things were easily manageable. But now, my opponent, instead of allowing himself to be closed out, came in with an ace and made my one point. And on the very next roll, he jumped my five-prime with double sixes.
Now that he had escaped the gammon, I should have doubled, and he would have had to pass; but I played another move or two quickly. Still, I retained my advantage, and we finally reached this position with me still holding the cube:
I redoubled to 4 now. If Fetterlein takes, he must, of course, immediately redouble to 8, since 4 points will win the match for me anyway. But even if he wins an 8 cube, those points will only get him to 14-11, when I will still have about a 17% chance to win the match. All this computes to him needing about 13% winning chances in this game. In fact, he only wins this position 10% of the time, so a pass was correct. But all this is difficult to calculate under pressure. Fetterlein took, and I had only a small hurdle to jump to secure my spot in the semis.
Nor did I falter. I rolled a very respectable 6-3. But then it happened. Fetterlein shot a 4-4. I rolled a 4-2 and he rolled ... a 3-3! I was down 14-11, and never had a chance after that. I lost my next (consolation flight) match without much of a fight, and went away empty-handed.
And the results: local hero Wayne Felton finally stopped my nemesis, Mr. Fetterlein, to top a field of 45 players. Neither did the foreigners make an impression in the consolation tournament, where Murray Sharp bested fellow Brit Peter Bennett in the final. Mr. Bennett brought his 17-year-old son, Andrew, to the tournament, where he dazzled us all with an amazing repertoire of magic tricks. Which made us all happy, at least, that we were not card players.
Other results: the last chance flight was split between Ray Tannen and Rachel Rhodes. Young Ms. Mielich took the Advanced division crown, and Michi won the warm-up tournament.