By Robert Wachtel
“This is bad, very bad,” said Clive Kay, shaking his head in dismay. “Why, a week ago, when I left, it was -10 ?C. “Now it’s +10 ?C. This is bad.”
Our gang of four — Clive, the two Japanese backgammon superstars, Michy and Mochy, and I — had just left that morning from our last backgammon tour stop, Cyprus, on Pegasus Air, one of those budget European carriers that has transformed a motley assortment of tiny, remote, unloved airports into a profit-making network. And so, almost for free, we had hopped from Lefkosa in northern Cyprus to Gokcen in Istanbul to this postage-stamp-sized airstrip in St. Etienne, France (near Lyon). Our destination, Meribel, was now in sight: just a snappy, three-hour drive up into those imposing, ice-covered mountains in the distance: the French Alps.
Meribel, you see, is a picturesque little ski resort located just across the Swiss border from Geneva; and Clive — an easy-going, hedonistic Brit who has lived and owned a bar in Meribel for years — is the genius behind a unique backgammon tournament that was held there for the first time last year in mid-December. Keenly aware of how dependent the economy of an alpine village like this one is on cold weather and snowfall, Clive was sweating the Celsius through every mountain pass, all along the long and winding mountain road (can you guess that I am susceptible to car-sickness?) that finally led us, just as night was falling, onto a neat little frosty lane lined with a few cheerily-lit, wood-facaded chalets and a hundred shops selling every kind block and tackle, bait and harpoon, wax, oil, boot and parka that an aficionado might ever desire in his assault upon the slopes.
Speaking purely for myself, I was thrilled to discover that our venue, a jolly ski lodge called La Chaudanne, was (as its name implies) as warm and snuggly within as a pair of thermal underwear that have been sitting on a radiator overnight. For Clive’s prayers were being answered: the warm snap was ending, and the temperature was behaving itself, dipping lower every hour. Indeed, when I woke the next morning, I found the environs almost properly frozen. The snow-making machines were busy augmenting the natural stuff, blowing their bounty onto a slope that was used for the women’s downhill when Meribel hosted that event in the 1992 Winter Olympics.
Skiing in Meribel
Clive had done a great job promoting the tournament on Facebook and at other live backgammon events, and he was rewarded with a handsome turnout: 43 players in the main and 20 in the “midflight.” And indeed, not only was the venue picturesque, the investment was an excellent one: 100% of entry fees returned to the prize pool, and a host of extras negotiated with the local merchants: discounts at the local supermarket; reduced rates for lift passes and ski equipment; even a complimentary ski lesson for each tournament participant.
All of us rank beginners, Mochy, Michy and I set out that first morning to take advantage of this last offer; but (perhaps through some misunderstanding) we were turned away by the ski school, which told us we needed a fourth to qualify for the freebie lesson. I was relaxing back in my room an hour later, contemplating the spectacular scenery through my picture window, when Mochy rang. “We’ve decided to go out without the lesson. Would you like to join us?” For some reason I agreed (oh, I remember why now: the backgammon room would not be open till evening) and spent the next couple of hours with the boys choosing a ski shop (the one Clive had discounted for us was closed for the afternoon), being fitted for boots, poles and skis, and awkwardly hauling the paraphernalia to the ski lift a quarter of a mile away.
Only after another hour of struggling to don the gear, and then slipping and sliding around the lift area, did we learn that the true baby slopes, where we all belonged, were closed due to the recent spell of bad (i.e warm) weather. We took a lift anyway halfway up the mountain; and Mochy, who had a little experience, went down the green beginner slope a few times; but Michy and I recognized we were overmatched. We did not know even how to turn or stop on our skis; so after a bit more floundering and falling, we took the lift back down — and, with our last strength, carried the rented equipment back to its rightful owners.
Although this expedition had been, on the face of it, a disaster, I was pleased by one thing: I had remained fairly comfortable under the layers upon layers of thermal wear that I had purchased specially for this part of my trip. Living in Los Angeles, and having just spent the last week in sub-tropical Cyprus, I had not been sure how well I’d cope with the climate change. But at least my wardrobe had not malfunctioned.
Freezing at the Highest Backgammon Tournament
Or so I thought. It was crisp but sunny the next morning, and I blithely discarded a scarf or two as Clive and his staff gathered us all up for the cable car ride to “The HighestLittle Tournament in the World.” The conditions of this unique side event: it was an ordinary backgammon tournament, but to be played entirely outdoors, on the terrace of Les Pierres Plates Restaurant, at the top of the nearest peak: an altitude of 2739 meters! I hardly noticed, as Clive regaled me with the history of Meribel on the way up, how much chillier it was getting.
The view from the restaurant’s terrace was awesome. The sun was brilliant, the air sparkling clear, the icy mountain peaks that ringed our location majestic. But it was also cold … very cold. Clumsily sliding the checkers around the board with gloved hands, I battled through two, then three backgammon matches. I was approaching the semifinal, but then everything started going numb — and not comfortably. I was thankful when the lunch break was called; but despite the assortment of the hearty stews and soups we were served, I could not thaw out. Chilled to the bone, I asked special permission to play my next match indoors. I lost, and straightaway took the cable car back down to the village. It was only after soaking in a hot tub for an hour back in my room, with scenes from Into Thin Air playing in my head, that I began to feel my old self.
Next: Meribel Backgammon Part 2