Backgammon The Elegant Game


By Robert Wachtel

The contrast between the popular gambling games of poker and backgammon is a fascinating one.
Poker, the game of the American frontier, distils the drama of democracy and free enterprise into a few cards and the ability to market them as a product. It allows, indeed encourages, a variety of annoying, obnoxious and deceitful behaviours, all designed to gain for the player a competitive edge. Lying about your cards, taunting the opponent, staring at him, even insulting him outright: all are considered fair play in the wild west of primeval capitalism that poker represents.

Modern backgammon has quite a different image and weltanschauung. Though an ancient game, its evolution in the 20th century was anything but democratic. It is a creature of the private gentleman’s clubs of New York City and London, where it was available for a bit of an extra gamble alongside the patrons’ bridge sessions or casino plunges. Beginning in the mid-1970s, an international backgammon tournament circuit which preserved this “members-only” exclusivity sprang up, with stops in such patrician watering holes as Paradise Island, Bahamas, Monte Carlo, and Turnberry Isle, Miami and other luxurious backgammon venues.

The two games could likewise not be further apart terms of the dress and personal presentation of their participants. While poker players feel free to wear anything they like, no matter how ugly, or to brand themselves with zany costuming (i.e., Phil “the Unabomber” Laak or Chris “Jesus” Ferguson) the Euros have always striven to maintain a standard of formality and elegance in their attire. To illustrate the point, I have unearthed a deeply repressed anecdote from my formative years.

I spent most of my 20s in graduate school, keeping myself carefully sequestered from authority, responsibility, and the job market. When I emerged circa 1977, backgammon was all the rage in the United States. I had been quite a decent junior chess player before going to graduate school – and when I took a sabbatical from the academic world to return to my local chess club, I found the new game to be fun – and rewarding. I won some money from my friends, and decided to try my hand at the “international tournament” held on Paradise Island in the Bahamas that year. Even as a clueless chess nerd, I was vaguely aware that I needed to buy some clothes. I found a strange little tailor in the Italian quarter of Toronto (where I had studied) who made me a strange little suit. It was tweed: a winter outfit, and far too hot for the Bahamas.


But my major wardrobe malfunction occurred at the tournament’s gala dinner. It was advertised as “jacket and tie,” but the Toronto tailor had forgotten to make me a weird tie to go with his weird suit. No one I know had an extra tie, but I succeeded in borrowing a spare cravat (a kind of tie-ancestor) from a well-bred Canadian friend.

With my winter suit and frilly neck décor, I guess I was a sight to see. Anyway, that seemed to be the opinion of the legendary Joe Dwek, who gave me the bum’s rush each time I tried to enter the dining hall. Perhaps Dwek, a slick operator who had by this time made untold sums from the gentlemen of London, recognized me as some sort of a joker, a party-crasher hired by his enemies. I have no idea, for he never said a word, simply blocking me at the door and pushing me away as he might have a hungry dog looking for some free table scraps.
That of course, is the downside of exclusivity. It is no fun looking in the window from the cold, like some Dickensean orphan, at all the people having fun within. But over the years I have acquired rags enough to get me into affairs like these.

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