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Norway Backgammon Cup
By Robert Wachtel
Last year I immediately headed south after Stockholm to play in the big WSOB tour stop in Prague. But this year: no Prague. Since it’s just an island hop from Stockholm, where I played the Swedish Backgammon Open, to Oslo, where I am lucky enough to have a friend or two, I decided to spend another week in the Scandinavian lands. So it was off the next weekend (September 10-12) to Åsgårdstrand, a little village located on a fjord on Norway’s southeastern coast (about 100 kilometers south of Oslo) to play in one of Norway's two big championship tournaments, the Norway Cup. A strand is a beach (in many languages); and Åsgård, you will remember from your high school mythology, was the ethereal city of the Norse Gods, within which they built their rocking banquet hall, Valhalla.
Åsgårdstrand is no ordinary beach town. It is famous for the quality of its light, and over the years it has attracted many artists, who have used that scenery as backdrop for their paintings. The best known of these, at least outside of Norway, is Edvard Munch (pronounced, my Norwegian friends patiently explained to me, with a hard “k” at the end, not a “ch” sound). Munch’s haunting composition “The Scream” is absolutely iconic: a symbol of an existential anxiety verging upon madness. And this painting, it turns out, uses as its mise en scène a small pier or wharf directly outside our tournament venue, the Thon Hotel. So if you had gotten a really horrific dice-spanking, it was just a matter of a few steps before you would be in position to create your own re-enactment of the Munch experience.
Robert Wachtel vs. 2009 Norwegian champion Dagfin Snarheim with The Scream in the background Photographer: Viktor Jæger
But Munch had his good days as well. Another of his best paintings, “Girls on a Bridge,” features the same pier (not, my pedantic Norwegian friends insisted, a real bridge) but in a far more cheerful light. So, if you’d had some good luck in the tournament, you could celebrate it right outside Munch-style as well.
Playing backgammon in the sunny smoking terrace Photographer: Viktor Jæger
Although the Norwegian character may have its depressive side, I did not see it over this weekend. The natives are fantastic drinkers, as they demonstrated to my astonishment, but they were always high-spirited, happy and friendly. I never encountered even a hint of the nasty behavior that seems to come with the territory in America when the booze really starts flowing.
The Backgammon Festival
The festivities – and that is absolutely the appropriate term for them – began on Friday night with a team event which resembled a fraternity-sorority toga party; for most of the participants arrived in costume. Unfortunately, I was reportorially unprepared for this kind of action. I eventually fished out my camera and took a few pictures, but I did not do nearly enough by way of learning what theme some of the teams’ outfits were supposed to express. The lovely Hanna Thorsen (nee Nilsson) did explain to me that the sackcloth and ashes that she and her teammates wore was not meant to identify them as penitents, but rather as slaves from some distant era. Which, I must admit, sounded all right to me.
Local backgammon player Hanna Thorsen in sackcloth and ashes
Our team, the Kamikaze Pilots, bombed out early. Perhaps this failure was due to our wardrobe non-function (my vanilla teammates weren’t into the costume thing for some reason. I would have liked to wear a bomber jacket, goggles and maybe a bandanna), but I was already beginning to see that I was at a disadvantage in this company. Every Norwegian seemed capable of playing quite solid backgammon at high blood-alcohol levels: but (on the basis of some self-experimentation I’ve done while playing on line) I know that I am not. My error rate rises exponentially with the number of drinks I’ve had.