Victor in press
Esquire, April 2018
Walking through the lobby of the Fairmont hotel in Monaco, home to the Backgammon World Championship, is like striding through an aquarium. Well-tended women, summa cum laude graduates of the Ivanka Trump School of Advanced Moisturizing, move through the first-floor casino as if in schools, their older boyfriends, many of them Russian, in tow. Call girls, only slightly less well tended, perch on couches and sip cocktails from long straws. There’s a throwback bad-taste glamour here in Monte Carlo, the Las Vegas of Europe. One waits for Engelbert Humperdinck or some other sideburned lothario of the 1970s to sidle past in a leisure suit. Yet the Fairmont, in its way, is an up-to-date sin palace. There’s the thumping of EDM from the hotel’s Nikki Beach roof bar. Out front there’s a crush of valet-parked Porches, Bentleys, and Maseratis glinting in the July sun. The hotel sits on a hairpin turn that bedevils Formula One Grand Prix racers and has caused countless crashes. The calm on my first morning is shattered by a distraught gambler who rocks the lobby’s ATM as if it were a pinball machine, slapping it and calling it his bitch because it refuses to dispense money he no longer has.
Among these beautiful people, the most elite backgammon players stand out, the way roadies do on an Ariana Grande tour. Some 190 players are here from all over the world competing for $250,000 in prize money. Nearly all of them are men. Many, if not most, are unshaven introverts in cargo pants or dad jeans. They’re “froggish men, unpleasant to see,” in the words of an old Randy Newman song. On the first morning, I see a crowd gathered around a match in the hotel’s conference room. I peer across the rows of heads. Akiko Yazawa, then the world’s number-three-ranked player and among the game’s few great female adepts, is competing. It’s fun to watch her play, in part because she’s brilliant and in part because, as one spectator tells me, “she’s attractive-attractive, not just backgammon-attractive.” Akiko wears a T-shirt with a backgammon board on it. The caption: “And they call this fun?”
I’ve traveled to Monaco to compete in the World Championship. I feel I am plausibly ready, at least in the sense that George Plimpton was plausibly ready to sub in for a few plays as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. I’ve been playing backgammon since I was a kid, often in all-night, low-stakes gambling binges with friends. Lately I’ve been really working on my game. I live in New York and I’ve sat in with the hustlers in Washington Square Park and Bryant Park in Manhattan. I’ve devoured a pile of books with titles like Backgammon: The Cruelest Game. I’ve watched classic matches on YouTube, the way a wide receiver studies game tape. I hired a tutor, a pro who lives in Virginia, and took online lessons. Additionally, I’m sickly addicted to a pro-level backgammon app on my iPhone. I play twenty or thirty games a day. It’s my go-to stress reliever. It beats a black-tar-heroin habit.
Just before I flew out—in a moment of pride or panic, I’m not sure which—I reached out to Victor Ashkenazi, the number-one-ranked backgammon player in America. Victor lives in New Jersey and at the time was a vice-president at Goldman Sachs. I’d read about him. I emailed Victor out of the blue, told him I was going to compete in Monaco, and asked: Would he agree to a match with a relative novice, to let a guy know what he was in for? Victor texted me back: “Haha why not?”
We meet on a warm spring Saturday at Bear and Birch, a Russian banya, or spa, in Freehold, not far from where he lives. It’s where Victor goes to unwind. The place is modern and well lit, yet it has that emotional five-o’clock shadow that clings to so many restaurants and other spaces in New Jersey. You can imagine a Sopranos-style hit going down in a corner sauna. Victor, who is in his late forties, is late and apologetic. He has a six-pack of beer under his arm. (The place is BYOB.) He’s so tall that he has to lean down to say hello, his shaved head gleaming. “You want to have sauna?” he asks. So we sit, towels around our waists, and bake. Victor’s family emigrated from Russia in 1995, he tells me, when he was twenty-five. Back then, he knew maybe twenty words of English. “I’d played chess as a kid, and I noticed the chess games in Bryant Park for small stakes,” he says. “Then I noticed this other game, one I’d never seen back home. They were playing for more money than in chess! Backgammon was more competitive and volatile. The crazy arguments helped me to learn English.”
Victor has a gift for numbers. He landed a job as a computer programmer, and at night he played online backgammon. “I have a good visual memory,” he says. “I remember positions and patterns. And I’m a sports guy. Backgammon is a sport. There are long hours playing—long, long, long. It’s like a boxing match. You have to have stamina and a strategy and the will to win.” He played in his first major tournament in 2007 in Las Vegas, the largest one in the United States at the time. He won it and he was hooked.
We climb out of the sauna. Victor pulls out a shiny black-and-red backgammon set that looks like it belongs to a Bond villain. (James Bond plays backgammon. In Octopussy, Roger Moore suavely defeats a cheating Middle Eastern cad.) The pieces on his board—these are called stones, blots, men, or checkers—are marble and have an agreeable heft. Hurling one, you could stop a charging Pussy Galore in her tracks. Backgammon is a racing game. You want to get your fifteen checkers around the board and then remove them, a process that’s called “bearing off.” If you get your checkers off the board first, you win.
I have a small shot against Victor, I think, because backgammon involves some luck. About 80 percent of the game is chance. This is one way it differs from chess. If you sit down opposite Magnus Carlsen, the world’s top chess player, you have zero hope of winning a game. Chess is 100 percent skill. A casino game like roulette, on the other hand, is entirely luck. Backgammon sits, tantalizingly, in between. It allows enough luck that, if only in the short term, David can slay Goliath.
We start playing. Here my memory goes somewhat blank. I am reminded of Mike Tyson’s comment that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. During the first five or six games, Victor doesn’t just beat me; he does to me what Sherman did to Atlanta. After about thirty minutes of abject defeats, I begin to pull my wits together. I slow down and analyze the entire board before moving, as the pro I’d studied with had taught me to do. I start counting my “pips”—the total number of places I need to move to win—to determine whether to use the doubling cube. I start to win the occasional game. My eyeglasses unsteam. Victor begins to heckle me. “What a luck-box,” he says, grinning, when I roll a series of doubles. He says it with a lingering Russian accent, so it’s like having Count Chocula dis you. Then his girlfriend (now his wife), Alia, who’s watching, chimes in. “Look at this guy, Victor—he thinks he’s a tiger.” Later, she says, “Look at his big balls. Hear his big balls clacking.” Victor adds, “What a luck-box.”
Soon I realize we’ve been playing for five hours. (We’ll play for eight.) I begin to appreciate once again why backgammon has more juice than any other game I know. Its highs and lows are intense. With its weird mix of luck and skill, it’s the game that most resembles life. Like life, it offers extreme reversals of fate—fate that can rain down on you like magic or bury you entirely. It’s a game that small children can play, yet it takes a lifetime to begin to master. It’s the only thing I know, besides sex and skiing, that you can do for eight hours and still want to keep doing. There’s something oddly moving about the game, too. In order to win, you merely need to find your way home.
By now it’s dark. We get up to leave. I see that Victor has barely touched his first beer, while I’ve had several. Don’t drink and play; that was my first unspoken pro tip. I think I’ve done moderately well until Victor remarks that my checkers play was poor and my use of the doubling cube was dismal. A game of backgammon may be only 20 percent skill, but if you put that number in Las Vegas terms, you realize how overwhelming that percentage is. In a craps game, the house is a favorite by only 1 percent, yet it rakes in the money. Imagine if the house were a 20 percent favorite. I never had a chance. Victor looks down at me and shakes his head. “My friend,” he says, smiling, “you are like a little child lost in the woods.”
Find the full article in the April 2018 issue of Esquire or here.
America’s Best Backgammon Player Works at Goldman Sachs
In the course of its recent resurgence, the ancient game of backgammon has excited all sorts of sporty elites.
Prominent fans include the hedge-fund analysts who treat it as a workout for both the mind and the adrenal glands—a speedy way to wager money playing the odds over and over again. (You can play a satisfying match in fewer than 15 minutes.)
Then there are the tech types and neuroscientists who have been using the game to build the artificial brains of supercomputers at IBM’s Watson Research Center. And the socialites who’ve been growing increasingly giddy to enjoy a leisure experience that summons vintage visions of jet-set preps, as in a Slim Aarons tableau of poolside lounging; expect to hear a steady rattle of dice issuing from the yacht decks of Saint Barthélemy this winter.
If forced to pick one moment to represent backgammon’s conquest of the idle hours of our time, I would point to the morning of Sept. 29, 2015, when the MacArthur Foundation announced its “genius grants” and one awardee tweeted that he’d received the news groggily.
Thus, 2016 has witnessed the rise of a new social media status symbol—a backgammon selfie with the creator of Hamilton.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are more likely than ever to spend our train commutes absorbed in smartphone games, whose developers, such as Optime Software, report backgammon offerings as consistently outranking their board-game brethren. Then, arriving home, we open mailboxes bulging with catalogs that use backgammon boards as natty props underlining the carefree smiles of models in Fair Isle sweaters.
“Certainly, there is more interest in recent years,” said Max Parker, chairman of Geoffrey Parker Games, an English company widely regarded as the world’s top board-game manufacturer. “We sell out of everything we make.” The backgammon boom has created a new market for Parker’s bespoke boards and competition sets (up to $6,650 at Scully & Scully).
“It’s not necessarily the super-wealthy,” he continued. “It’s now the studious player who will save up and cherish something he’ll hand down to his great-grandkids.”
Backgammon descends from games played in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, but it assumed its modern character only in the 1920s with the introduction of "doubling" to raise the stakes rapidly. This device accelerated its popularity as a gambling game, thereby ensuring its somewhat louche glamour. The game’s snappy pace and snazzy board suited the mood of the Jazz Age and Prohibition speakeasies.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, when the game enjoyed its first renaissance, it was likewise considered both flashily posh and faintly risqué: Doubles, the new-money social club founded at New York’s Sherry-Netherland in 1976, derives its name from the game, and Playboy’s Hugh Hefner took a lot of pleasure from it in his wide-lapeled heyday.
Backgammon expert Chris Bray has written that the game “seems to flourish when there is disposable income.” And yet, each apex of its popularity has followed a financial crash, as in 1929 and 1973. Therefore, I must warily guess that this game will really blow up if the U.S. economy does, too. (Just a hunch.) We should probably consult the most passionate players, who know far more about macroeconomics than I. The top-ranked player in America is Victor Ashkenazi, a vice president at Goldman Sachs.
“There’s a lot of traders and hedge-fund guys playing,” said Bill Riles, president and executive director of the U.S. Backgammon Federation. “They’re probabilistically oriented. The game theory and risk-and-reward aspects relate to business and relate to life.”
Riles’s organization observes that the number of people entering U.S. national tournaments rose 35 percent from 2014 to 2016, and the man himself speaks to the game’s unique combination of instant and delayed gratification: “I can sit down and teach anybody how to play in 15 minutes,” he said. “It’s a very simple game, but someone like myself is still learning about its intricacies after 40 years.”
Some newcomers to the game would have been content, 10 or 15 years ago, simply to play poker. But as veterans of the Texas Hold ‘Em boom of the ’00s know, playing poker well involves a lot of folding bad hands and just sitting there, studying faces. Backgammon, meanwhile, is constant action, which is key to its appeal. As novelist Jonathan Lethem has pointed out, backgammon is “poker’s opposite.” When the New Yorker excerpted his new book about a backgammon hustler, A Gambler’s Anatomy, Lethem told the magazine that backgammon is “as naked as chess: what’s true on the face of the board is undeniable; there are no hidden cards.”
Max Parker tells the anecdote of a billionaire backgammon fiend who, after spending many thousands of pounds buying sets as gifts, asked Parker to suggest something new. Parker proposed his company’s luxury Scrabble boards. The client asked: “What’s Scrabble?” Clearly, this was not the kind of guy who was going to spend two hours on the floor with his kids figuring out where to put a “Q.”
On the contrary, the conversation pointed to a further aspect of backgammon’s appeal in our fast-paced age. As Parker said, “You play a game in nine minutes over a glass of wine, make a deal, and move on to the next thing.”
© Victor Ashkenazi, 2020