Sunday, February 10, 2008

An Ego At Work

Mine, to be precise.

In the early 1970s, I got into backgammon. Although I honestly can't say what brought it to my attention, I think it was seeing it for the first time at a bar in Boston, the "99," mentioned previously in some posts. When it comes to competitive games, I have a fairly addictive personality, so I bought a board and several books.

One day at the bar, I lamented the fact that it often happened that there were no backgammon players there, and one of the regulars told me to go to a club in Brookline, a Boston suburb, where "They'll clean your clock for you." I did, and they did.

I believe that its name was the Boston Chess Club, and that it is now defunct. Although there were chess boards there, the two most popular games at the club were backgammon and gin rummy. There was also the occasional bridge game and very rarely, a chess game.

In addition to a few locals, the backgammon players included a number of MIT students, trying (fairly successfully) to hustle a buck. Backgammon stakes were one dollar and two dollars a point. If you were a member, the club paid your losses and you paid the club, or you collected your winnings from the club and the club collected from the losers. I believe that the first time or two that I played there I had to fork over a $40 or $50 deposit to cover potential losses.

Over the course of a few months I lost about $300 in these dollar and two dollar games, and I've never made a better investment. There were some future great players there (mentioned below) and I learned a lot. I began winning and a short time later club attendance began to decline, (I'm sure there is no connection between those two events.) until one night I went there and although the door was unlocked there wasn't a soul in the place, and that includes anyone who was supposed to be running it. Time to move on.

I found a running $10 a point game at a restaurant and bar in Boston, The Courtyard, located only a couple of blocks from where I worked. My recollection is that the game was populated by local businessmen, mostly brokers.One fond memory of that period is paying about $60 for a backgammon board in a carrying case and winning $990 that night, using that board at The Courtyard.

Somehow I learned that some of the club's regulars had migrated to the Cavendish Club. Memory fails, and I cannot tell you what suburb that was in at the time (it might even have been that same suburb, Brookline), but I joined and played frequently for $10 a point.

Regulars at one or both of the clubs when I was playing included (in the order I met them) Danny Harrington ("Action" Dan Harrington, to you poker players), Bill Robertie, and Chris Peterson, all names now familiar to serious backgammon players, but then on their way up. I believe the first two were former state chess champions of Massachussetts, and in fact I first met them at the Boylston Chess Club. So . . . I was getting a pretty good education by playing with some fine players, yet unknown, for small stakes. I do not however, claim to have achieved the level of play of any of the three of them.

Flavor was added to the membership by characters known as "Spinach," "Phred," "Ghoti," "Wolf Man" or just "Wolf," and "Wonder" (Steve Sion, the bad boy of bridge).

An occasional visitor and player at the Cavendish Club was Paul Magriel, then one of the top tournament backgammon players in the world. I knew him to say hello to, and in fact played in the occasional game with him. In the early to-mid 1970s, word got around that he was writing a book on the game, and we were all hopping from foot to foot, waiting for it to come out. In 1976 I had to spend three months in Dallas on business, and the book was released during that time. I bought a copy ($20) at a Dallas book store and set about devouring it.

Although it is now a little outdated (later analysis of some positions have found better solutions), this book is still considered the "Bible" of backgammon. Nevertheless, I found some recommended moves troubling and spent a great deal of time studying them. It may horrify some book lovers, but I went so far as to pencil notes in the margins about these situations.

A few months later I learned that Magriel would be at the club one upcoming Saturday, and I said, "Oh, good." Several members looked at me inquiringly and I said, "I have some disagreements with his book and I want to ask him about them."


Much laughter and teasing. No, I didn't think I was as good as Magriel, or for that matter several other members of the club, but the positions were troubling to me and one aspect of my personality is that I can't just accept things I don't believe. I have to understand why they are true.

On his arrival, Paul was gracious enough to spend perhaps a half hour with me at one of the empty tables, going over my notes. His reactions can be separated into three categories:

  • "Right. That's a printing problem." Generally this was not a typo so much as one or more of the diagrammed pieces being placed inaccurately on the board.

  • "No, the book is correct, and here's why." He educated/convinced me on all but two or three positions.

  • "Yes, you're right." These reactions were immediate, and I imagine that others had pointed them out long before our discussion. Ta-daaaaa!

    (I updated the notes in the book, and to this day they sit there proclaiming "PM agrees" or "PM disagrees.")
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