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Rolling the Dice in Paradise

High-stakes backgammon players flock to Monte Carlo to pit themselves against the competition and soak in the opulence
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

In poker it's the riffling of chips. In backgammon it's the rumbling of dice. Either way, when that very distinct sound reverberates from multiple sources simultaneously, you can assume that something serious is transpiring. In both instances, it is the percussive sound of people playing a game that seems simple on the surface but is brain-bendingly complex at its highest level. Such is the case as I watch the action in Monte Carlo at the Fairmont Hotel.

The Mediterranean Sea, visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Fairmont, is an illustration of affluence, punched up by yachts, private helicopters and cruise ships. Inside a nondescript ballroom at the hotel, which could be located anywhere from Newark to Naples, there's also plenty of affluence, but you'd never know it. People are dressed down, Champagne is not on offer and the energy is focused on rolling dice and moving checkers around a felt-topped board.

On some levels, this event, dubbed the World Backgammon Championship, feels like a throwback to the old days of poker, to a time when the World Series served as the centerpiece of an unambitious universe, populated by players focused on the game and unconscious of marketing opportunities. With a prize pool that is modest by Hold'em standards—1,000 euros to enter, first place pays a bit more than $100,000—these people play because they are passionate about backgammon.

While a handful of successful hustlers are in attendance—including one who's so press-averse that not being included in this story was a condition of his competing in Monte Carlo—most of the players are affluent guys who love the game but have built considerable wealth elsewhere. They're gentlemen gamblers, like Freddie Chamanara. Drawn to risk, Chamanara's suitably set up so that he can blow $100,000 on TV's "High Stakes Poker" and walk away with nothing more than a shrug of disappointment.

"Compared to poker, backgammon is very cruel; there is a lot of luck, there is no discipline required and the game can suddenly change," the Chicago-based Chamanara says, before settling into a match for $1,000 a point, where getting shellacked could constitute a six-figure loss. "I come out here for the action. I love the side action. But I also love Monte Carlo."

Indeed, for many this event is as much a social occasion as it is an opportunity to play a difficult game against a particularly competitive field. Much like the World Series of yore (which poker veteran Mickey Appleman once dubbed "a convention of gamblers"), the World Backgammon Championship is at least partially about renewing friendships, settling old scores and evening up on debts that had incurred during the year. And a nicer place to do this doesn't exist.

Situated along France's Mediterranean coastline (but officially in the independent principality of Monaco), Monte Carlo is home to Alain Ducasse's first restaurant, a three-star Michelin called Le Louis XV (order the foie gras and pigeon if you eat there, then finish up with a selection from the restaurant's cigar cave), stunning beachfronts and the world's most elegant hotel/casino: Hotel de Paris along with its adjacent Casino de Monte-Carlo, which both date back to the nineteenth century and, in a lot of ways, remain pretty much unchanged.

Fittingly, this particular backgammon tournament has been held here for 30 or so years, and the location nicely dovetails with the game's enduring image. It's long been the hobby of choice for jet-setters, European sophisticates, wealthy Americans and those who enjoy trafficking in that world. One participant here likes to talk about having taught Hugh Hefner to play backgammon aboard the Playboy pasha's private jet. Others have squared off against Arab potentates, Russian oil oligarchs and Hollywood icons. Because players follow the money, Gstaad, Cannes and Monte Carlo have long been stopping points for those who seek the steepest action.

When in Monte Carlo, the highest rollers all love Hotel de Paris with its old-world oak-accented suites and sophisticated party atmosphere that defines this locale in high season.

Despite those refinements, some people are drawn here purely by the game. They travel to Monte Carlo for opportunities that are financial rather than social. And, more often than not, they possess brains that eclipse their bankrolls. Case in point is a Belushi-proportioned genius named Matvey Natanzon. He is known as Falafel, and, by looking at him, it'd be easy to assume that he earned his moniker in the fry shops of downtown Tel Aviv. But in truth, Falafel, who was born in Russia and moved to Israel at age 4, spent his teenage years near Buffalo and received his nickname while playing backgammon for bucks in the parks of Lower Manhattan. On the road to game-playing enlightenment, he eked out a living and fortified himself on fried balls of ground chickpeas.

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