Poker is everywhere. Everyone and his mother has a home game. Texas Holdem stars like Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth and Howard Lederer are as familiar as those from Desperate Housewives. The quiver of excitement when someone pushes all his chips to the center of the table and says, "I'm all in" has proven so compelling that we now watch
B-list celebrities play the game badly on Bravo. You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that many famous poker studs have a jones for -- and migrated from -- another game: backgammon. The world's oldest recorded game, backgammon is believed to have started in Mesopotamia and thus predates even poker legend Doyle Brunson. I recently observed an invitation-only tournament at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas Resort thrown by Mike Svobodny, perhaps the world's best-known backgammon player. In attendance were several familiar names from the poker world, including the legendary Chip Reese, who wound up finishing runner-up; swashbuckling Gus Hansen, voted one of People's "50 Sexiest Men Alive"; and Abe Mosseri, a high-stakes limit poker specialist. They weren't there for the money, as the top prize of $100,000 won by Mosseri was less than half of what he had raked in on a single poker hand at the Bellagio a few nights earlier. They were competing in part to honor their friend Svobodny, one of the most respected and well-connected gamblers around. But to a man they professed a profound and obvious joy in backgammon for its mental challenge, social nature and for the fact that the player is in every hand -- unlike poker, where players often must fold and wait for better cards. There's no down time in backgammon.
What appealed to you about the game to dive so deeply into it? The stakes we were playing for. At that time, there was only one book of any depth on backgammon. I read it and reread it over and over, and every time I did I learned a little bit more. And I got some tips from my friends who were world-class players. The World Championships used to be in Las Vegas then, and I won the intermediate division, the first tournament I ever entered. Compare backgammon to the other games you play. It's the game that I play the least and enjoy the most -- probably because I've never taken it all that seriously. To play at the top level today, you have to spend every day at it, analyzing positions with the software. It's a grind, and I never had to do that back when I was playing for high stakes.
Interview With a ChampionAlso attending the tournament was the reigning backgammon world champion, Dennis Carlston. It is a slightly misleading title, however. Carlston is barely a part-time player these days and is no longer considered among the game's true elite; the Backgammon World Championship, held each summer in Monte Carlo, was as spectacular a run for Carlston as it was surprising. Still, Carlston, a youthful 59-year-old with an MBA in finance who manages portfolios for private clients in San Francisco, was a topnotch player back in backgammon's disco era heyday. His colorful history also includes time as a professional poker and blackjack player, games that, like backgammon, he still enjoys at a very high level today. Carlton starting playing backgammon in the early 1970s, just before it became really popular in the U.S. At that time, the Mayfair Club in New York City was the center of backgammon in the U.S., but "we'd go from Las Vegas to the Bahamas to Switzerland to Monte Carlo to Greece for backgammon events," he recalls. "It was an around-the-world, nonstop, crazy time in my life."
What are the intellectual challenges of backgammon vs. poker? Both of them require survival instinct. The games get the better of so many people. Both take a great deal of discipline and are very mathematical. You have to have a very strong sense of probability to be successful at either game. Backgammon is right there in front of you. You move the checkers around. It's a totally different game from poker. There's something subjective about poker -- intuitive, psychological. It's getting inside your opponent's head. You do that in backgammon, too, but even more so in poker. I can sit down with people and give them all the mathematics they would need to be a world-class poker player. But unless they have instincts -- it's hard for me to say what exactly they are -- they can't do it. In poker, it's more important to play your opponents' hands than your own, and that's where most amateurs get it wrong. They only play their own cards. Professionals are mainly playing their opponents' cards. When you do that, you can play any cards in your hand. What do you see as the cause of backgammon's declining popularity over the years? I guess most people would say poker, and that has taken its toll. It used to be every bar you went into there was a backgammon set up. It was just the "in" thing to do. Decorators were putting nice sets into peoples' homes. Movie stars played. A lot of the wealthy amateurs who helped support the game lost a lot of money to professional players when the pros began to study the books and computer software that became available. The pros' level of play rose dramatically. Instead of 10 to 15 world-class players, now there were 200. All of a sudden, the amateurs were at a real disadvantage. Can you foresee a backgammon renaissance? I think it's hard to replicate what poker has done. They're starting to show some backgammon on television in the U.K. It will be interesting to see how well received it is. How big a role does luck play in backgammon? In the long run, skill does dominate, but in the short run, luck can win, which is part of what makes backgammon attractive. I mean, how would you like to sit down with a chess grandmaster and play a game? You have no chance. But if you want to play one game of backgammon with the world champion, you do have a chance.
As if to prove the point, we concluded our interview with a single winner-take-all game. As a novice, I rolled great and eked out a win over the world champion. I considered retiring on the spot, but have grown to enjoy the game regularly at home with my wife. As with chess, you can get a backgammon set for $20 at a toy store, or you can buy yourself a beautiful piece of art that will make you want to play all the time. Here are three gorgeous sets to get the dice rolling and the checkers moving:
Antonios Neroulias' backgammon set with an ancient ship theme features a hand-carved African walnut cover: $681 at backgammonhellas.com . A black leather backgammon set from Dal Negro wouldn't look out of place in a boardroom, and classes up any game room: $796 at thechessstore.com . Taki-Boards are anything but tacky and come in a variety of hardwood finishes, checker colors and playing-field surfaces: $850 at chicagopoint.com .