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Backgammon Hustler

In the Jet-Set World of Little Ivory Disks, Impeccable Manners are Essential When Separating a Fool and His Money
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 2)

"I pick my spots well. I'm not a gunslinger. I don't need to beat the best. I'd rather play the guy who can't see, hear or think. I want to beat the donkey," he says, chuckling.

"There are gentlemen--well, Mr. McGrill, for instance--that I consider geniuses, great theoreticians who don't care about money. If you offered them one billion dollars in exchange for 10 points off their IQ, they probably wouldn't do it." He glances around his penthouse suite overlooking New York's Central Park, and laughs. "Me? I'll take the money."

Simon has just finished playing a weeklong match against a Pakistani fellow, a banker, whom Simon met at The Traveler's Club in Paris. The Pakistani fellow beat Simon out of $250,000. Simon is not unhappy.

"I'll eventually take this guy for a couple million," he says dispassionately.

He views himself as a walking casino, capable of absorbing losses, sometimes large losses, but playing all the time with an advantage. Even the most famous casinos on the Las Vegas Strip have a bad day, a bad week, maybe even a bad fiscal quarter. But in the long run they tend to get the money. So does Simon.

And like the casino that trumpets the number of jackpot winners who have periodically emptied out the casino's slot machines, Simon doesn't hide his losses. He advertises them. "If one of my clients beats me, I want them to enjoy themselves and spread the word. I want people to know how beatable I am. I want people to think I'm not as good as everyone says I am. If they didn't think they had some chance of winning, why would anyone play me?"

In this regard, Simon is not a hustler in the traditional sense, in the pool-shark-who-acts-as-if-he's-never-seen-a-cue-ball fashion. His deception is far subtler. He tells potential opponents, "I'm too good for you"--and they being highly successful titans of the globe, winners in the arenas of business and finance and power, are eager to prove him wrong.

Unlike poker, in which higher stakes usually mean better players, high stakes in backgammon don't necessarily produce better players. Most professionals will tell you the big games are lousy with bad players. For some reason, they say, Simon attracts them like a flower does a bee. "The 10 best pigeons in the world are desperate to play with him," one top professional complains. "Nobody else can get near them, and they're falling all over themselves to play Simon. In my opinion, he's not the greatest player. He's very good, I think, but not great. But he makes more money than anyone in this business because he finds the games. Actually, that's not true," the pro says, reconsidering. "The games seem to find him."

This assessment does not bruise Simon's feelings. "I played a guy last year. He lost a hundred thousand to me in four days--and he was truly happy. He thanked me!"

Sometimes good players become surly when lesser players beat them. It happens all the time at the poker tables and almost as frequently over the backgammon boards. This, of course, only alienates the "pigeons." Yet many allegedly "professional" gamblers, many of whom are seriously deficient in self-esteem and are more concerned with inflating their ego than their bankroll, seldom miss an opportunity to snivel or whine.

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