BY TIM CUTLER
What do Mick Jagger, Hugh Hefner, Tobey Maguire, Lindsay Lohan, and Leonardo DiCaprio all have in common? Backgammon. Not just casual Saturday afternoon games with friends and family, either – they are all avid players, internationally ranked competitors, and frequent entries at regional and national tournaments. The list of celebrities who play backgammon is endless, and one of the basic requirements for a movie set is that backgammon boards be included in the actors’ trailers. One of the biggest complaints that movie directors level against their stars is that they play too much backgammon and cause costly filming delays.
Backgammon is considered the oldest game on the planet, supposed to have originated in Persia more than 3,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans played their own similar versions. The first book on the subject was published by Edmund Hoyle in England in 1743, which laid down the official rules and settled various disputes about etiquette and protocol. As a result, everyone in the world now plays by the same rules.
Almost everyone has a backgammon board somewhere at home (it’s the back side of the chess- or checkerboard). The long triangles are called “points” and the round pieces are usually called “men.” The object of the game is to move all your men to your side of the board and take them all off. Of course, your opponent is trying to do the same thing, and that’s where tactics and strategy come into play. Rarely does a game last more than twenty minutes and match usually consists of three to five games.
Backgammon became wildly popular among the Jet Set in the 1970s, mostly due to the flamboyant leadership of Prince Alexis Obolensky, the founder of the International Backgammon Association. “Obe” was a marketing genius; by tying the game to royalty, wealth and exclusivity, it became almost unthinkable not to be a member of the IBA. Since then, the game has become a permanent feature of virtually every private club in the world. After a round of golf at Morris County G.C. or after lunch at the Union Club, your boss is going to expect you to play a few games. If you can beat him, he might sponsor you for membership; if you don’t know how to play, you’d better polish up your resume.
You can play backgammon online, either against a live opponent or a computer program. Some Internet venues keep your statistics, and the most sophisticated pay sites will perform a forensic review of your game to identify exactly where you made a fatal move.
Playing at home, at the club, or online all leads to tournament events. In our area, the New York Metropolitan Backgammon Club hosts the annual NY Metropolitan Open every January. Backgammon celebrities from all over the world play in one of three divisions: Championship, Intermediate or Beginner. And yes, there’s money involved. Farther afield, big tournaments include the Ohio State Championship (March 22), Los Angeles Open (June 7), Wisconsin State Championships (August 9) and the Carolina Invitational (August 29). Several international backgammon associations sponsor European tours with over a million dollars in prize money. This year, the Mediterranean Open will be held in Turkey (late May).
Getting started on the tournament circuit begins with the monthly “Pair- O-Dice” event at Lincoln Center in New York. Usually the third Sunday of the month, Intermediates pay an entry fee of $50 and have a good chance of winning it back. Bring your own board. And binoculars to watch the celebrities. You might even be paired up with a movie star! By the way, March 21 is “World Backgammon Day.”
A backgammon league will be forming at CCM this spring. More information and sign-up sheet is at the Office of Campus Life.