By Robert Wachtel
The Nordic Open, held each year in Copenhagen on Easter weekend, is one of the premier events on the backgammon calendar. For various reasons, Denmark has become the strongest backgammon nation on the planet; and the Danes’ cousins, the Norwegians and Swedes, are also formidable players in their own right. Add to this the circumstance that Copenhagen is just a hop away from Germany, European powerhouse #2, and you begin to see why the Nordic has the reputation of being the world’s toughest event.
Many years ago, when backgammon tournaments were just convenient venues to meet up with your chouette or money-game partners from around the globe, I used to play the German expert Ralf Jonas in all-day, heads-up sessions that lasted for up to a week. Ralf, renowned not only for the quality of his play but for his endurance, never quit before his opponent – and I must admit he wore me down pretty well a few times. He was known throughout the backgammon world as “the iron man.”
But as the side games dried up, Ralf showed his face less at tournaments. The money went online; and so did he. Yet this year, having terrorized his virtual enemies for more than a decade, he returned. His reputation preceded him; and despite his long hiatus from real play, he was immediately considered a candidate for the Rest of the World team in its match against Denmark at this year’s Nordic. With six of the seven places on the team already decided, Ralf bested me in an online playoff for the final spot. He performed impressively in that playoff and followed through in the big match with some solid play in his heads-up speed backgammon sessions versus the Danish ace Morten Holm.
This, of course, was not nearly enough action for Ralf. He kept himself occupied by entering the championship division of the Nordic itself. After getting a bye in the first round, he began, in typical fashion, to start winning. In the third round (of 16) he faced off against Denmark’s Christian Srrensen.
We had all been introduced to Christian a few days earlier, when he was gracious enough to serve as the Rest of the World’s “training rat”: a sparring partner for us as we refined our techniques in practice sessions prior to the competition. A polite, apple-cheeked lad of just 17, Christian told us that he had been playing backgammon since age 5, but was still not of legal age (18) for online backgammon play! He gave us a good workout, and we all thanked him; predicting a bright future for him in his future backgammon undertakings.
Ralf dispatched Christian in that round-of-16 match, but the young man was not done. The Nordic has a “fighter’s bracket” structure. Instead of the traditional backgammon tournament format, wherein losers go into a new tournament (the “consolation”) with its own, smaller prize pool, the Nordic sends losers in the main flight back for a second chance at the main prizes. Entering the fighter’s bracket in the round of 64, Christian won two matches, got a bye, and won another match. He and three other “fighters,” including the Japanese superstar and member of the World team, Kageyama Michihito (Michy), re-entered the main draw, joining its four unbeaten survivors in a round of 8.
Christiancontinued to win. He defeated Sweden’s Kåre Aronsson – and then, in the semi, the great Michy himself. This set up the final: a rematch, remarkably, between Christian and Mr. Jonas, who had not lost yet! The format: best two out of three seven point matches for the Nordic Open championship.
Christianwon the first match – and, according to several witnesses (so dense was the crowd that I could not get close enough to see anything) was ahead in the second match and was playing for a gammon. But then Ralf shot an opportune 33, turned the game and match 2 around, and won match 3. Ralf was the champ, but it was a great coming-out party for the kid as well as the returning veteran.
Ralf called me over as he was enjoying a glass or two of champagne at the hotel bar after the closing ceremonies. He bought me a drink, and then asked, as if it were yesterday, about a session we had played in my apartment in Los Angeles about 20 years ago. He was shocked when I told him I didn’t remember it at all. “But you must remember the chess problem?” he insisted.
Oh yes, something started crawling out from under a rock in my brain. One of those problems asking what sequence of moves could have created an impossible-looking position. “I gave it to you, and you took it with you to the bathroom, and when you came back you had solved it,” he said, looking at me expectantly, as if such a huge cue would be more than adequate to bring the whole scene back to me in its original clarity. But, no; I explained to Ralf that I had long ago resolved to make a virtue out of my bad memory, adopting the philosophy of one of my childhood heroes, the great German chess champion Emmanuel Lasker. A good friend of Einstein’s, Lasker said that he made a point of forgetting all the trivia that other people tried so hard to remember. Only in that way could he approach difficult problems with a fresh mind. Yes, I admit that was a bit defensive of me, but Ralf was good-natured enough to be amused by my double talk. We chatted a while longer, and then it was closing time. They threw us out of the bar. The Nordic 2011 was over.
Ralf continued his comeback. He took off for the USA, where he entered the American Backgammon Tour’s 1st Golden Gate Open in San Francisco on May 12-15. And guess what? He won it, besting Neil Kazeross in the final. And then he split the $1000 super-jackpot event with the Los Angeles expert Steve Sax. The iron man was back!
Advanced division: 77 entrants:
Winner: Caglar Erdogan (Turkey)
Finalist: Börge Sundbom (Sweden)
Semifinalists: Finn Bahn (Denmark, Pernille Rosendal (Denmark)
Intermediate division: 86 entrants:
Winner: Peter S.H. Jensen (Denmark)
Finalist: Michael Bjrrn Sejersen Jensen (Denmark)
Semifinalists: Jrrn B. Andersen (Denmark,) Jesper Jörgensen (Sweden)
Beginners division: 38 entrants:
Winner: Tina Mrller Weile (Denmark)
Finalist: Regitze Wallenstrrm (Denmark)
Super jackpot: 16 entrants:
Winner: Matt Cohn-Geier (USA).
Ladies tournament: 42 entrants:
Winner: Rie Jrrgensen (Denmark)
Finalist: Zhina Bergstrrm (Sweden).
Japancharity tournament: 64 entrants:
Winner: Ulla Hansen (Denmark).
Speedgammon #1: 32 entrants:
Winner: 1-Catalin Bucur (Romania)
Speedgammon #2: 32 entrants:
Winner: Mikkel Gaba (Denmark).
Portugalqualifier #1: 16 entrants:
Winner: Allan Christensen (Denmark).
Portugalqualifier #2: 16 entrants:
Winner: Jimmy Sorensen (Denmark).
Consultation mixed doubles: 50 teams:
Winners: Anne & Lars Trabolt (Denmark)
Finalists: Omid Badiei (Sweden) & Sara Utku (Sweden).
Consultation doubles: 44 teams:
Winners: Nicki Eerslew (Denmark) & Marc Brockmann Olsen (Denmark)
Finalists: Andreas Becher (Denmark) & Taus Brytler (Denmark)
Semifinalists: Fay Kristin Danielsen (Norway) & Pom Mickelsson (Sweden), Jan Petersen (DK) & Patrick ToxvFrd (DK).
Team event: 25 teams:
Winner: TrFk Vejret (team name): Kim K. Jensen / Karsten Schmidt / Claus Steensgaard (Denmark)
Finalist: Bossen og Bumserne (team name): Mads Peter Andersen / Peter-Michael Valeur Bosse / Claus Elken (Denmark).
Winner: Catalin Bucur (Romania).
Winner: Naoya Kihara (Japan).
Denmarkvs. the World: 1-World Team: Matt Cohn-Geier (USA) / Ralf Jonas (Germany) / Michihito Kageyama (Japan) / Masayuki Mochizuki (Japan) / Matvey “Falafel” Natanzon (Israel) / Bob Wachtel (USA) / David Wells (USA), 2-Denmark Team: Mads Andersen / Morten Holm / Thomas Kristensen / Sander Lylloff / Thomas Myhr / Marc Olsen / Lars Trabolt. Final score: 35-29.
Nordic open warm-up: 35 entrants:
Winner: Taus Brytler (Denmark)
Finalist: Franck Stepler (France)
Semifinalists: Ulla Hansen (Denmark), Jan Larsen (Denmark).