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The Road Less Traveled
By Robert Wachtel
The last few years have been tumultuous ones in the live backgammon tournament scene. Inspired by the fantastic worldwide growth and media adaptability of poker, a number of entrepreneurs invested heavily in the development of backgammon as a spectator sport and televised entertainment.
The money began flying in January, 2007, when the Gibralter-based company, Partygaming, parent of the online platforms PartyPoker and PartyGammon, launched the “world’s first million-dollar backgammon tournament” at the spectacular Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. A 33-year-old German, Andreas Märtens, won the $600,400 first prize in a nail-biting 23-point final match, edging out his 36-year-old Danish opponent, Lasse Hjorth Madsen, 23-22.
Mochy, Falafel, Eli Roymi, Clive Kay, Anna Mielech, and Robert Wachtel, who is demonstrating his Swedish Open 5-4 play. Photographed by Julio Nosti
Later that year, German businessman Andy Grötsch partnered with Sony Entertainment to stage a unique, invitational high-stakes tournament in Berlin, the “Crown’s Cup.” Sixteen players put up € 10,000 apiece, with a movie crew on hand to record the action. Some of the footage was truly priceless, including your correspondent’s own reaction of anger and grief when the last throw of the dice in the tournament’s final match cost him $100,000! The video was edited and dramatized as a TV series. I served as commentator for the English version, which was – and is still being – broadcast by Sony in Europe on its AXN satellite network.
Beginning of World Backgammon Tours
Neither of these events were repeated; but then the tours began. The French tournament organizer Eric Guedj and British TV producer Andy Bell teamed up with the French casino group, Partouche, to launch the World Series of Backgammon (WSOB), a year-long, multi-tournament competition that ended with a slickly produced, made-for-TV “shoot out.” Frédéric Andrieu, a French fashion photographer, earned €100.000 by beating American Bob Koca at the Palm Beach Casino in Cannes in July, 2008, in a fast and dirty 3-point (!) final match.
Meanwhile Guedj and Partouche launched their own tour within France in 2008 (but available to players from any country) with stops in eight different Partouche casinos, again ending in a “Grand Finale.” Not surprisingly the winner, Olivier Decultot, and the finalist, François Tardieu, were both Frenchmen.
Independent tournament organizer Chiva Tafazoli followed suit, creating a 3-stop, € 5,000 European tour (the EBGT), won by Thomas Jespersen (Denmark) in 2007, expanded to 4 stops and € 10,000 in 2008 and 2009, won first by “Falafel” Natanzon (Israel) and then Franz Berg (Austria) in 2009. Chiva continues to grow his business conservatively. He has teamed up with various national federations this year to introduce another tour: “the world backgammon tour” (WGBT) to complement his European tour.
Doubles semi-final match on the smoking balcony. Wachtel & Anna vs. Juergen Orlowsi & Bernard Kaiser
But the grand media schemes and enormous jackpots seem to be fading away. Bloodied by losses, Partouche withdrew its sponsorship from the WSOB in 2009 and abandoned its own tour. The WSOB then stumbled and sputtered through the last season without a sponsor. Its end-of-season “shoot out” was postponed, and the made-for-TV videos dried up to a trickle. The shoot out (first prize: $150,000, won by the London-based Japanese expatriate, Kazuhiro Shino) eventually came off in February, 2010, (and all prizes paid), if only through the angelic, personal intervention of British backgammon lover Will Cockerell.
Small Town Backgammon Events
For me, this lull in the high-pressure action is a welcome one. Each tour over the last four years rewarded not only results but participation as well – which meant that I traveled to Europe and entered a number of events not because I wanted to, but because I “had to” – had to, that is, if I wanted a decent shot at one of those huge, end-of-the-season prizes. But this year I have the same liberated feeling I did when, as an undergraduate chemistry student, I was finally allowed, after three-and-a-half years of compulsory courses, to take an elective or two in the second semester of my senior year.
And so this summer I planned a tournament itinerary that would allow me to enjoy my new freedom. After the Nordic Open in early April (still compulsory), I sampled Marco Fornasair’s relaxed, intimate event, the Velden Open in Velden, Austria. Then, in August, I attended Roland Herrera’s Bristol backgammon tournament and Marcel Liechti’s Swiss Open in Montreux. All three of these mid-size gatherings were great fun. Instead of huge entry fees and cutthroat competition for distant (albeit huge) prizes, they offered interesting and/or beautiful locales and the opportunity to meet and socialize with new groups of people. And though I love my buddies, it has been a relief, for a change, not to see the faces of the same fifteen “giants,” the ones who never missed a tour stop when the jackpots were juicy.
Swedish Backgammon Open 2010
My next stop was the Swedish Open, held this year from Sept 3-5 in Stockholm at the Quality Globe Hotel – an adjunct to the famous Ericsson Globe, the Swedish national arena (and, according to wikipedia, “currently the largest hemispherical building in the world”). Indeed, one of the hotel’s more interesting features is an indoor dining gallery which directly looks out into the arena. There was an excellent breakfast buffet served on the gallery level – but on this weekend the hotel was inundated with female fitness buffs (there was a huge convention of them in town). This made for some nice scenery, but suffice it to say that the competition for yogurt, granola, and gallery seating, which began at the crack of dawn, was every bit as intense as the athletes’ workouts. And we saw even more of the females. Their gym was located on the same floor as our playing room, right next to the bar where, in typical Scandinavian fashion, the beer was flowing from morning till night. The atmosphere, with the towel-clad hard bodies milling about our watering hole, was downright convivial.
Last year was my first for this tournament; and in the Swedish Backgammon Open report I wrote then, I commented that it suffered from some structural anomalies. Happily, those issues were entirely solved this year by the efficient directing team of Ingrid Soderstjerna and Sara Utku. Last year’s Swiss system was eliminated in favor of a conventional double elimination structure, and this year’s clocked matches all employed a standard (Bronstein) delay.
Through the tireless efforts of Stockholm restaurateur and backgammon enthusiast Konrad Fröschl – and also, no doubt, because last year’s WSOB Cannes and Prague tournaments did not take place this year -- the Swedish is growing. Sixty-seven participants in the main and forty-nine in the intermediate (last year’s figures were sixty-two and forty-two) vied for prizes that were sweetened by a € 6000 contribution (last year it was € 5000) provided by the online gaming site DiceArena. Another attraction was a lecture/quiz, given by current world number one Masayuki Mochizuki (“Mochy”). Mochy’s subject was back games; and if you were able to get up for it on Sunday (9 AM start time) you could not help but learn some valuable lessons about this misunderstood dimension of the game.
Had it not been for the fact that I and my partner Anna Mielech were lucky enough to win the consulting doubles event, this would have been yet another frustrating tournament for me: I lost in the quarterfinals of the main event to Norwegian expert Hans Liby; and then, in my second go-round in the “fighter’s bracket,” I was eliminated in the semifinal round by Dane Steffen Lundström. Just shy of the money both times! In poker lingo: I “bubbled out” twice.
Swedish Open Results
In the championship division, Polish-born Swede Pawel Bielewicz bested Swede Michael Löfblad (the survivor of the fighter’s bracket) in a best-two-out-of-three-seven-point-match final.
Swedish Open winner Pavel Bielewicz. Photograph by Fred Westerby
Double elimination tournaments like this one have no consolation flight, so we move on to the last chance event. This was won by Frédéric Andrieu of France.
The intermediate division was won by Marcus Ekholm, with Walter Meuwis of Belgium coming in second.
The ladies’ tournament (21 entries) was won by Grete Arntzen of Norway; the consultation doubles (33 teams), by myself and Anna Mielech of Poland. Rickard Persson won the super jackpot (8 entries), and Patrick Linderoth won the rebuy blitz.