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A Short History of Modern Backgammon

If you’re new to backgammon, you might wonder how the game took on the form it has, with many books and websites available and tournaments all over the world. In this post I’ll give you a short history of the growth and development of backgammon since 1920, when the game began to take on its modern form. Enjoy!

1920-1926: A big upswing in popularity occurs, centered in New York and fueled by the invention of the doubling cube and the chouette sometime shortly after World War I. The game gradually spreads out from New York to become a nationwide craze.

1927: Henry Holt and Company publishes “Modern Backgammon”, a 110-page book which first describes the doubling cube and the chouette. The book is a modest success.

1928-1940: The game grows in popularity and articles appear in sophisticated magazines of the period like Vanity Fair and Collier’s. About 20 more books appear, almost all aimed at beginners.

1940-1964: The advent of World War II causes backgammon to pretty much disappear from the national scene. It’s preserved in a few private clubs in New York, Miami, and London.

1953: The first regional backgammon tournament, the Indiana Open, is held in Indianapolis. After a 54-year run, the last Indiana Open is held in 2006.

1964: Prince Alex Obolensky decides backgammon would be a very popular game with the right promotion and publicity. He contacts his friends from the private club circuit and runs the first major tournament in the Bahamas in March, 1964. A total of 32 players show up including Nick Sargent, considered the best player in the world at that time. Charles Wacker of Chicago defeats Porter Ijams of New York in the finals. In May, Sports Illustrated runs a long piece about the tournament, probably due to Obolensky’s influence.

1965-1970: The Bahamas tournament is held again in 1965 and attendance doubles to 64. John Crawford wins. Obolensky adds other tournaments and creates a little circuit through the 1960s. He interests a lot of Hollywood celebrities (Lucille Ball, John Wayne, Polly Bergen, Jim Brown, and others) whose presence at tournaments generates more publicity. Tournaments are now attracting fields of 64 to 128 players. A small group of top players emerge, including Tim Holland, Oswald Jacoby, John Crawford, and Barclay and Walter Cooke.

1968: The first World Championship of Backgammon is held in Las Vegas and Tim Holland wins. Holland wins the second World Championship the following year. After a two-year hiatus, the tournament is held again in 1971 and Holland wins for the third time.

1970: Viking publishes “The Backgammon Book” by Oswald Jacoby and John Crawford, the first new backgammon book in 30 years. The book is much more advanced than books from the earlier period and quickly becomes the de facto standard text.

1970: Obolensky hits the jackpot when he gets Hugh Hefner to take up the game. Hefner promotes the game in Playboy, showing celebrities and pros chouetting at the Playboy Mansion with nude beauties gazing on adoringly. Young men everywhere take notice. In New York, a group of math types and games players take up backgammon, gathering in Village hangouts like the Olive Tree Café and Singapore Sam’s for small stakes chouettes. The Mayfair Club on 57th Street and the Racquet and Tennis Club on 54th become the center of the big chouette action. Some budding stars begin to emerge, including Paul Magriel, Stan Tomchin, Chuck Papazian, and Mike Senkiewicz, all former chess players. The New Yorkers develop a new, highly aggressive, and complex approach to the game which becomes known as ‘pure style’.

1970-1976: Tournaments spread to Europe. A group of dominant European players emerge led by Joe Dwek, and including Philip Martyn, Lewis Deyong, and Kumars Motakhasses. Lots of new clubs open up in the US and Europe and a professional class of young touring pros starts to develop. A big tournament can now attract 200+ players with a mix of celebrities, wealthy amateurs, and pros. More articles start to appear in national magazines.

1972: The June issue of Harper’s features an article by Jon Bradshaw describing the booming backgammon scene in New York. The article contains the first ranking list of top players, based on an informal poll of players at New York’s Mayfair and Racquet & Tennis Club and London’s Clermont Club, the gambling center of British backgammon. Tim Holland heads the list, followed by Barclay and Walter Cooke, Paul Magriel, and Claude Beer. The list is heavily skewed towards New Yorkers (10) and Londoners (4), with Oswald Jacoby of Dallas the only outsider at #11.

1975: Obolensky holds the first invitation-only Master’s tournament at his club, Oby’s, in Miami. Twelve of the top American players are present, and Chuck Papazian defeats Arthur Dickman of Miami in the finals. (Dickman, although largely forgotten today, was a great natural player and one of the world’s best for a long time. In addition to his runner-up position here, he was also runner-up in two consecutive World Championships, in 1974 and 1975.)

1976: The World Championship moves from Las Vegas to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Baron Vernon Ball wins the inaugural event at the Paradise Island Casino. Philip Morris sponsors the tournament. Magriel’s monumental book Backgammon is published in November, 1976 and quickly becomes the ‘Bible of Backgammon’.

1977-1981: The peak of the boom. Tournaments everywhere. A one-night event at a local club might attract 150-200 players. A new group of top players emerge, including Roger Low, Jason Lester, and Billy Horan from New York, Kent Goulding from D.C., Mike Corbett from Florida, Malcolm Davis and Sandy Lubetkin from Texas, and Nack Ballard and Nick Maffeo from California. The New York Times launches a weekly backgammon column by Paul Magriel, which runs for four years.

1978: The attendance record for a major event is set by the World Amateur Championships in Las Vegas in January, 1978, with 652 players (no pros allowed) and a $380,000 first prize. Barclay Cooke publishes Paradoxes and Probabilities, a fascinating (and highly controversial) look at the pure style of play. Paul Magriel wins the World Championship, defeating Kal Robinson in the finals.

1979: The World Championship moves from the Bahamas to Monte Carlo in July, 1979. The tournament ends up with 309 players in the Championship Division, still a record. Luigi Villa is the winner, defeating Jeff Westheimer of New York in the finals. Villa plays an exhibition match against Hans Berliner’s Gammonoid, the first backgammon program to play at an intermediate level. Gammonoid wins 7-1. Articles on Magriel appear in Sports Illustrated and the Atlantic. The Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine, a high-quality glossy, begins publication and features news, problems, and player profiles.

1982-1987: Interest slowly decreases from the peak but remains well above the pre-1976 period. There are still plenty of tournaments, but attendance is only 60% to 70% of the attendance in the peak years. More new stars emerge in the U.S.A., the brightest being Joe Sylvester of Michigan.

1984: Kent Goulding launches the First U.S. Invitational Championship in Washington, D.C. with 16 of the top American players participating. Mike Corbett of Florida defeats Sandy Lubetkin of Texas in the finals.

1987-1988: Backgammon starts to catch on in Germany, Denmark, and the other Scandanavian countries, bringing new blood to the European scene. Jerry Grandell of Sweden finishes second at Monte Carlo in 1987. Philip Marmorstein of Germany wins the World Championship in 1988.

1988: Kent Goulding stages the first World Cup of Backgammon in Boston. The biennial tournament attracts a field of 46 players from around the world playing long matches (from a 25-point first-round match to a 41-point final match). After a week of struggle, Joe Sylvester of Michigan defeats Ray Glaeser of New Jersey 41-31.

1990: Dr. Gerry Tesauro from the IBM Labs in White Plains completes work on TD-Gammon 1.0, using a new artificial intelligence technique called neural net programming. He tests the program against some top pros, who are impressed but still consider it a notch below the best humans.

1991: Kent Goulding and Bill Robertie publish Inside Backgammon, a magazine dedicated to problems, analysis, annotated games, and theory. The magazine has an eight-year run before folding in 1999. Dr. Tesauro releases version 2.0 of TD-Gammon, which is roughly equivalent in strength to the top human players of the day.

1993: A new crop of very strong European players begins to emerge, including Peter Jes Thomsen and Gus Jacobsen (later Hansen) of Denmark and Johannes Levermann, Dirk Schliemann, and Michael Meyburg of Germany. Yamin Yamin launches the ‘Giants of Backgammon’ ratings, where backgammon players vote every two years for the best of the best of the best.

1994: Jellyfish 1.0, the first commercial program using neural-net technology, is released. Most good players think the program plays well but has many weaknesses in the ace-point/back game area, causing its opening play to be too conservative.

1995-1996: Jellyfish 2.0 and 3.0 are released, with significant improvements in its playing level.

1997: An epic match is organized in Dallas matching Jellyfish 3.0 against two fine representatives of the human race, Mike Senkiewicz and Nack Ballard, in a 600-game session. After two days of play the result is exactly even, and it’s clear that Jellyfish 3.0 plays world-class backgammon. Jerry Grandell, nicknamed ‘Jerryfish’ because of his diligent study of Jellyfish’s style, wins the World Championship. Kit Woolsey writes “New Ideas in Backgammon”, the first major book to incorporate Jellyfish analysis.

1998: Snowie 1.0 is released, with a slight improvement in playing strength over Jellyfish, but a far superior user interface. Howard Ring of Chicago wins World Cup 6 in Dallas over Johannes Levermann of Germany, marking the end of the World Cup series.

2003: The poker boom begins with the arrival of televised poker. Backgammon players adapt well to this lush new environment, and many make a transition to the new game. Backgammon tournaments hang on, but attendance drops 30% to 40% from the 1990s period. Snowie releases version 4.0, with a separate back game neural net built in.

2006: Many strong new Japanese players begin to appear on the tournament circuit.

2009: Masayuki Mochizuki (better known as Mochy) wins the World Championship in Monte Carlo, signaling a major challenge from Japan to American and European domination of the tournament scene. He is followed by Takumitsu Suzuki in 2011 and Akiko Yazawa in 2014.

2011: Extreme Gammon 1.0 is released with a price tag of $80, far below Snowie’s cost. Its many new features and blazing speed immediately make it the industry standard.

2012: Extreme Gammon 2.0 hits the market, with even more features and enhanced playing strength.

2014-2015: Tournament attendance begins to rise again after many quiet years. Several new books targeting beginners hit the market, including “Conquering Backgammon”, “Backgammon for Losers”, and “Backgammon: From Beginner to Badass”.

2016: The New York Metropolitan Open sets a modern record with more than 40 players in its beginner division. Large beginner divisions are the surest indicator of a game’s rising popularity.

Posted: March 30, 2016 | In Backgammon Generally

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