Why, the rest of us would like to know, has the tiny northern European nation of Denmark produced such a disproportionate number of the world’s top backgammon players? To be sure, part of the answer must lay in the cold-as-ice, imperturbable Scandinavian temperament, as displayed most famously by the “great Dane”, backgammon and poker superstar Gus Hansen. But in my opinion, the rest of the story is institutional.
Backgammon in Denmark
Backgammon has always been a popular game in Denmark, mostly played as a café recreation; but in 1987 the power of the people was mobilized when the Danish Backgammon Federation was established. In short order, the Federation organized a system of intra-national leagues, with many of the participating teams finding sponsors in the cafes from which their members hailed.
The leagues consist of a hierarchy of 12-team divisions, with each team playing every other one in its division twice a year, for a total of 22 matches. Teams that do badly in a year are “relegated” to a lower division. Those that do well are promoted. With the Danish tendency to wager on almost anything finding expression in substantial side bets -- on particular matches or on the ranking a team might hold year’s end or even on whether a team will be relegated - league play has always been entertaining and very competitive. As a result of all this action, the experience of walking into a café in Copenhagen for a backgammon game is comparable to that of entering a similar shop in Moscow to find a chess game. In either venue, a random patron is likely to be a shockingly strong opponent!
I learned just how competitive the leagues were this summer, when, after the WSOB Prague tournament, my buddies Sander Lyloff and Morton Holm invited me to visit with them in Copenhagen for a week. Our friendly understanding was that I was to pay my room and board by playing a few matches for their team, Nemoland.
Nemoland vs. Temple
“Nemoland,” it turns out, is the name of the café, located in the famous Copenhagen hippie community Christiania, that is the team’s sponsor. Christiania was formed some years ago when the Danish government abandoned some army barracks in the city. Squatters invaded the barracks and their surroundings, and after a few more years of benign neglect by the authorities, the area evolved into a “freetown”. Pretty much anything goes in a freetown. A long table displaying any number of varieties of hashish was doing a brisk business not fifty meters from the site of our match.
At first I had harbored some illusions that team Nemoland had recruited me as a “ringer” to add some extra strength to their lineup in our first match against team “Temple.” But when I saw whom else was on the team: Sander, Morton, Mads Anderson, Katja Spillum, 2007 Nordic Open winner Thomas Jespersen … I realized that the regulars did not need my help.
Nemoland did prevail in this match, 4-0; but most of the excitement was elicited by the side bets. Top board for Temple was one of the most successful poker pros in Denmark, Thomas Christiansen. Not in the least afraid to gamble, Christiansen welcomed any and all to bet with him that he would win the match and that he would outplay his opponent, Morton Holm. A total of $14,000 was wagered on these propositions; and when the dust had cleared, that sum was owed to Nemoland. No slouch at all, Christiansen played at a world-class Snowie error rate of 3.5 in the 17-point match; but Morton “just give me the money” Holm laid down a scintillating 2.8 to capture the gold. I was quite pleased with myself to have played at 3.0; but my opponent Thomas Myrh, a Dane whom even the other Danes knew nothing about (!), bested me with a 2.8! These are numbers rarely seen in live events, and should give you some feeling for just how deep the expertise runs in the Danish player pool.
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