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World Backgammon Championship 1967 to 1979: Results and Some Historical Notes

If you Google ‘World Backgammon Champions’ you’ll find a number of lists scattered around the web. For the years after 1979, when the tournament moved to Monte Carlo, the lists basically agree except for some minor points like the actual score of the final match. Prior to 1979, however, the lists differ in a number of respects. In this post I’m going to lay out what I think is an accurate list for the period 1967 to 1979, based on printed sources of the time and some conversations with players who were then active. I’ll also explain how some of the discrepancies between the various lists came to be.

1967-1968: Tim Holland Dominates

Year Venue                       Players    Winner            Runner-Up          Semi-Finalists

1967 Sands Hotel           ~128       Tim Holland     Porter Ijams                ?

Las Vegas

1968 Sands Hotel           ~128       Tim Holland     Reggie Kernan            ?

Las Vegas

 

Prince Alexis Obolensky had organized the first international backgammon tournament at Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island in March, 1964. Although it only attracted a field of 32 players mostly from New York and Miami, everyone had a good time and Obolensky decided to repeat the event in 1965. This time 64 players showed up, including a few Europeans. In 1966 Crockford’s and the Clermont Club in London decided that London needed some of the action, and the international backgammon scene was off and running.

In 1967 the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas hosted the first event known as the World Championship of Backgammon. At the time the Sands was the premiere location on the strip, famous for being the Rat Pack’s favorite hangout when they came to town. The organization of the tournament remains a little murky. In The Backgammon Book, Oswald Jacoby and John Crawford give Obolensky as the organizer. But in a 1974 interview in the New Yorker, Tim Holland claims that Charlie Wacker of Chicago, the winner of Obolensky’s first tournament in the Bahamas, put the tournament together. At this late date it might be impossible to ascertain the whole truth, but it’s possible that both players were involved: Wacker might have come up with the idea and/or some funding, while Obolensky supplied his directing skills.

Tim Holland of New York, one of the top players in the world, edged Porter Ijams in the finals of the 128-player event. Ijams, who lost to Charlie Wacker in the 1964 Bahamas final, thus earned the dubious distinction of being the runner-up in two of backgammon’s most important inaugural events.

In 1968 Holland won the event for the second time in a row, this time besting Reggie Kernan, an Englishman who spent most of his time in Paris. The venue was once again the Sands, and the turnout was about the same as the year before.

 

1969-1970: The Mystery of Alice Topping

Year Venue            Players    Winner          Runner-Up       Semi-Finalists

1969 No tournament

1970 No tournament

For over 40 years it’s been generally believed that a two-year gap followed Holland’s win in 1968, before the event resumed again in Las Vegas in 1971 with Holland winning for a third time. Recently, this belief has been challenged with a claim that a tournament was held in 1969 and Alice Topping was the winner. Both Wikipedia and bkgm.com now list Alice Topping as the 1969 winner, followed by a one-year hiatus in 1970. Is this claim credible? Let’s sift through the available evidence and see.

First, let’s establish that Alice Topping was a known player at the time. An attractive Chicago socialite, she played in a number of tournaments in the early years and hosted an ongoing and popular chouette at her townhouse. The November 1976 issue of the International Backgammon News has a picture of her at the auction dinner for the Monte Carlo tournament held in July. But was she a World Champion in 1969?

Let’s look at some of the evidence.

The recognized authority for the results of backgammon tournaments in the very early years of the backgammon boom has always been the international tournament section of Jacoby and Crawford’s The Backgammon Book. Pages 192 to 193 of the original hardcover edition gives a listing of major tournaments held from 1964 to 1970, when the book went to print. Oswald Jacoby and John Crawford were among the very best players of that period and they attended most of the major events that were held. They list Tim Holland as the winner of the 1967 and 1968 Las Vegas tournaments. They don’t, however, make any mention of a 1969 or 1970 event. They do, however, list the winners of several other events in 1969 and 1970. So if a World Championship was held in Las Vegas in 1969, they either never knew about it (unlikely) or knew but forgot to mention it (also unlikely).

In 1973 Tim Holland wrote Beginning Backgammon, one of the early beginner’s manuals. The author’s blurb in the back cover starts as follows:

“Tim Holland is widely hailed as the world’s leading player of backgammon. For three consecutive years he won the World’s Championship of Backgammon, a tournament that has been held in Las Vegas annually since 1967.”

The blurb isn’t precisely accurate if Holland won a third title after a two-year hiatus, but does get the general point across, and very likely the publisher wanted to keep the writing simple and to the point. The claim was repeated in Holland’s other two books, Better Backgammon (1974) and Backgammon for Players Who Hate to Lose (1978). A similar account appeared in a New Yorker interview with Holland in 1974.

Holland died in 2010 and his obituary was carried by the Associated Press. Regarding his tournament wins, the obituary states

“He won the World Backgammon Association Championships in 1967, 1968, and 1971 (no tournament was held in 1969 or 1970.”

Although Holland, Jacoby, and Crawford have all passed on, there are still players around who were active in those days. Lewis Deyong, who would eventually come to run the World Championship in the Bahamas and Monte Carlo, was a regular player in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s and now lives in London. I corresponded with him recently and he was certain that Holland won three straight times, with an interlude between the second and third times.

While Paul Magriel didn’t play his first tournament until 1970, he was an active player in New York in 1969, and later played a lot in Alice Topping’s chouettes in the early 1970s. In a recent conversation, Magriel noted that although he spent a lot of time with Topping and her friends, he never heard a reference to her winning a World Championship.

While it’s impossible to prove a negative, there’s clearly quite a bit of evidence to suggest that no tournament designated as the World Championship of Backgammon took place in 1969 or 1970. One would have to believe that Jacoby, Crawford, and Holland omitted it from their listings (compiled just a couple of years after the event supposedly happened) and that Magriel and Deyong, two of the best players of the time, never heard of it. Possible, perhaps, but very unlikely.

As to Alice Topping herself, Deyong and Magriel offered an explanation as to how such a misunderstanding might have occurred. Deyong relates (and Magriel confirms) that in the early 1970s Topping won a big event at the Pierre Hotel in New York. In one of the great upsets in backgammon history, she beat in the last three rounds Gino Scalamandre, Tim Holland, and Paul Magriel, three of the top-10 players in the world at the time. Keep in mind that a ‘big tournament’ in those days would have featured a field of about 128 players, and matches usually started at 17 points and ended with a 25-point final. It’s a wonderful story from backgammon’s early years, and well worth remembering even if it wasn’t for an official world championship!

 

1971-1975: Rebirth in Las Vegas

Year Venue                Players    Winner                    Runner-Up             Semi-Finalists

 

1971 Las Vegas           ~128       Tim Holland                  ?                                  ?

1972 Las Vegas           ~128       Oswald Jacoby       Edward Burns                ?

1973 Las Vegas           ~128       Carol Crawford      Lewis Deyong                 ?

1974 Las Vegas           ~128       Claude Beer           Philip Martyn                 ?

1975 Las  Vegas            147        Billy Eisenberg     Arthur Dickman      Stan Tomchin

MGM Grand                                                                                                Norman Zadeh

 

The next five years saw the tournament revived in Las Vegas, with Holland winning his third consecutive title in 1971. Holland’s victory was followed by an all-star collection of winners: Oswald Jacoby, generally considered the world’s best all-around gamesplayer; Carol Crawford, John Crawford’s wife; Claude Beer, one of the top players in New York; and Billy Eisenberg, a former world bridge champion.

The only small controversy here concerns the site of the 1975 tournament. Some lists show it as taking place in the Bahamas; however, a long article in Deyong’s European Backgammon News for February, 1975 shows the tournament took place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. (This would have been the first MGM Grand, located where Bally’s now stands and destroyed by fire in November 1980.)

 

1976-1978: Paradise Island or Monte Carlo?

Year Venue                      Players    Winner              Runner-Up                 Semi-Finalists

 

1976 Bahamas                ~128       Vernon Ball         Arthur Dickman       Tom Jarvis

Paradise Island                                                                                            ?

1977 Bahamas                   216       Ken Goodman     Jim Crosby               Jason Lester

Paradise Island                                                                                              Bobby Lorenz

1978 Bahamas                  242       Paul Magriel       Kal Robinson            Al Hodis

Paradise Island                                                                                             Kent Goulding

 

In 1976 the World Championship was moved from Las Vegas to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The site was the Brittania Beach Hotel, which sat on the ground now occupied by the Atlantis Resort. The tournament was a modest success, with Vernon Ball beating Arthur Dickman in the finals (Dickman’s second successive runner-up result).

By 1977 tournament backgammon was rapidly picking up steam around the world, and the Paradise Island Casino went into partnership with Philip Morris International to sponsor the tournament with $15,000 added prize money. Lewis Deyong, who had successfully organized several major events in Europe, took over as the director. The efforts of all these groups and individuals made the tournament a great success and 216 players participated in the Championship section, a new record. The winner was Ken Goodman of Chicago, who beat Jim Crosby in the final. The prize fund was over $50,000 and the auction pool totaled $140,000. To put these numbers in a modern perspective, the first prize at Wimbledon that year was $25,000!

The 1978 championship was held at the same location, and saw the number of players in the Championship division grow to 242. Paul Magriel, then considered by most to be the best tournament player in the world, won the tournament by edging Kent Goulding in the semi-finals and crushing Kal Robinson 25-4 in the finals.

During the three years that the World Championship was held in the Bahamas, the Casino of Monte Carlo was hosting an event known as the European Backgammon Championship. It was also sponsored by Philip Morris International, held in July, and attracted a field comparable in size and strength to the Bahamas tournament. Here’s a list of the winners and runners-up:

 

The European Backgammon Championship

Year Venue                       Winner                          Runner-Up

 

1976 Monte Carlo           Joe Dwek                       Kumars Motakhassas

1977 Monte Carlo           Jean-Noel Grinda        Robert Brinig

1978 Monte Carlo           Richard DeSurmont     Philip Bimes

 

At the time there was no confusion about which tournament was the ‘real’ World Championship. Deyong’s International Backgammon News for those three years reported the Bahamas event as the World Championship, and the Monte Carlo event as the European Championship. Paul Magriel’s New York Times column did the same. The invitations sent out to players gave the two events as the World Championship in the Bahamas and the European Championship in Monte Carlo. Editions of Paul Magriel’s book printed after January, 1978 listed the author as Paul Magriel, World Champion.

 

1979: The World Championship Moves to Monte Carlo

Late in 1978, Philip Morris International decided to cease its support of backgammon events. Since the company was sponsoring the two largest events in the world, their decision necessitated a major shake-up. Fortunately, backgammon was then at the very peak of its popularity, so finding a new sponsor wasn’t the impossible job it would be today.

A group in London led by Lewis Deyong quickly located a new sponsor, Merit Cigarettes, a popular European brand with a high-end demographic. Merit, however, wasn’t willing to ante up for two tournaments; the decision was therefore made to combine the Bahamas and Monte Carlo tournaments into one World Championship, to be held in Monte Carlo in July. Lewis Deyong would continue to direct and the Societe de Bains de Mer, the Monte Carlo group in charge of major events in the principality, would provide logistical support. The 1979 tournament was the largest open backgammon tournament ever held, with 340 players in the Main Event, an Open prize pool of $119,000 and an auction pool of $194,000. Luigi Villa of Italy was the winner, defeating Jeff Westheimer of the U.S.A. in the finals by a score of 25-22.

 

1980: A Problem Arises from an Innocent Beginning

In the spring of 1980, the Monte Carlo organizing group sent out the brochures advertising the next World Championship tournament. Buried in the small brochure was an innocently worded section called “Past Winners”.  It then listed the three winners of the European Championship in 1976 to 1978, followed by Luigi Villa in 1979. In subsequent years, the invitation listed additional winners of the Monte Carlo World Championship, always preceded by the three earlier winners of the European Championship.

At first this didn’t really matter, as most of the active players knew who the official World Champions had been in those years. After a couple of decades, however, the list of Monte Carlo winners became a long one and new players didn’t know what had actually happened way back in the 1970s. The Monte Carlo “Past Winners” list thus became a de facto and presumably accurate list of backgammon’s World Champions.

In the web era, the confusion has proliferated. GammonLife  correctly lists the Bahamas winners for 1976-1978 as the World Champions. Wikipedia lists two World Champions for each of the years 1976-1978. And Backgammon Galore lists the winners of the European Championships in 1976-1978 as “unofficial World Champions”. Hopefully this article will help erase much of the confusion.

Posted: March 9, 2015 | In Backgammon Generally

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