Mallorca Backgammon Challenge 2010

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By Robert Wachtel

Majorca! For a tennis enthusiast like myself, this otherwise obscure fragment of Spain floating a few hundred miles east of the mainland in the Mediterranean is instantly recognizable as the home of world number one Raphael Nadal – as well as the previous generation’s great champion, Carlos Moya. So after learning that backgammon organizer Chiva Tafazzoli had chosen the island (even though he confused me by using the proper Spanish/Catalan name ‘Mallorca’ in his brochure) as the site for a fresh new tournament, I booked a room at the playing venue, the windily-named Mallorca Marriott Son Antem Golf Resort & Spa, and immediately asked a friend to forward my clay-court tennis shoes, which had been sitting in a closet in Vienna, to the hotel.

backgammon organizer Chiva Tafazzoli

Chiva, tournament director

Chiva, tournament director

The better to cope with jet lag, I arrived at the Marriot on October 5th, two days before the tournament was to begin. But the shoes, which had been mailed some three weeks earlier, were not there to greet me. Nor did they ever show up. That, as a desk clerk at the hotel eventually explained, was more or less normal. The Spanish mails are torturously slow, and the receipt of a package weeks after a hotel guest has departed is not an uncommon occurrence. “It will be returned to the sender when it arrives,” he assured me. Well, no great loss: it turned out that the tennis facility on the hotel grounds (where, Chiva had been told, Nadal trained) had only hard courts anyway. There was that, and grass, as far as the eye could see, in the form of two (!) 18-hole golf courses. So maybe it was here, I imagined, that the King of Clay practices for the other surfaces, commandeering a slice of fairway from the golfers in Wimbeldon season.

Spanish Business & Shift Cars as Backgammon Winnings

I had more lessons to learn about the Spanish business model. I’d arranged to stay for a week after the tournament ended in an apartment the northern village of Soller, but had been persuaded by my British landlady there that it would be easy to move in a couple of days early, rent a car, and commute to the Marriot for the last two days of the event. This sounded like a fun adventure until I discovered that only standard shift cars were available on the island. My last and only experience with this species of vehicle had been in Vancouver thirty years ago, when I was paid, in lieu of cash for some backgammon winnings, with a used Volkswagen.

outdoor chessboard on the Marriott grounds

outdoor chessboard on the Marriott grounds

After a sleepless night trying to remember the shifting techniques I had never mastered in the first place, the landlady picked me up and drove me to the dealership the next day, where she had reserved a car for me. But she got a very late start, and by the time we got home, it was 1 PM. “It is lunch time,” she declared abruptly. “They are closed till at least four, possibly five, and no one will even answer the phone. That’s the way they do things here. They take their lunch very seriously.” Then she turned on me: “I told you to call them to confirm the reservation! I’ve held your hand enough. I’m done!” Since I needed to be back to the Marriott by three o’clock, when the consolation round began, I could not risk arguing with her. She finally stopped berating me for my stupidity, and then announced her solution: she would give me a ride back to the hotel from Soller and pick me up later, on the understanding that I pay her as if she were a cab service. We made it to the rental agency the next morning. “Don’t worry about insurance,” she told me, “Every one of these cars is banged up. They don’t even inspect them when you bring them back.” We had a ten-minute driving lesson, and then I was off. Which would have been the end of story, had I been aware that in Majorca gas stations are so stingily sprinkled about that they are noted on road maps as if they were tourist attractions. I must admit that this unique feature of the environment, combined with the local custom of renting you a car with the tank only one-quarter full, caused me a few moments of high anxiety when I got lost that night on my way home from the tournament.
And the Backgammon Tournament

Ah yes, the backgammon tournament. It seemed doable. Held in a nice warm climate at just the time that northern Europe was getting chilly, it should have attracted an assortment of cold-and-calculating Scandinavians, Russians, Poles, and Brits. But that influx of northerners never materialized. A few Germans showed up, but the rest of the field, except for this lone American, was all romance: about ten Greeks, and a smattering of Turks, Portuguese and Spanish. The whole lot of us amounted to only twenty-four players! Chiva rounded it off to thirty-two by allowing some rebuys, and I got ready to win my first backgammon tournament of the year.

Alas, I did not make it through round one. In a match to 11, I faced one of the odd Germans, Thomas Kazemieh. I played too cautiously early on, passing a fairly easy take and missing a redouble; but I started to find my bearings in the home stretch. At 6-6 I reached this position.

Mallorca Backgammon Challenge position

Mallorca Backgammon Challenge position

I am White, and have much the better game; and although one has to be extra-careful about redoubling in prime-versus-prime positions like this (which tend to be swingy, making ownership of the cube very valuable), my double from the center is clear. Kazemieh correctly took. I maintained an advantage until the game reached this stage:

Backgammon position from the Mallorca Challenge

Backgammon position from the Mallorca Challenge

If my opponent had more checkers in his or my outfield, I would have given serious attention to playing this 6-1 the “greedy” way: 6/off, 1/off. But since he was virtually assured of running off the gammon, I made safety my priority. And so I played 6/off, 5/4, minimizing shots … or so I thought.

My opponent did nothing special on his turn, and I rolled. But something very curious came out of my cup: a 3-2.

Safe play vs. greedy

Safe play vs. greedy

What was this? This tiny, flexible looking number leaves a shot? After swearing to myself for a minute or so, I finally played 6/4/1 (not hitting). That is the best play, but Kazemieh rolled a 3, hit me, redoubled me out, and went on to win the match.

Looking at the 6-1 again later, I realized that I had not really played it safely as I had thought. The “greedy” play leaves shots on 6-3 and 5-3; my “safe” play leaves four shots as well. Yes, the greedy play leaves shots on 6-6 and 5-5 as well; but it also bears a checker off, making hits more survivable; and those big dubs, which take off four and three checkers respectively, would put me in gammon territory if I were missed. Final verdict: if I’d had a checker on my two point, my play would have been right; but in the actual position, the greedy play is clearly right!

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