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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

(continued from page 1)

Along the way, Falafel became a professional gambler and evolved into a man who is regarded as the greatest backgammon player in the world. His success has afforded him a life that revolves around tournaments every couple months along with cash games when the stakes are high enough and the opponents appear trustworthy (backgammon is rife with cheating and welshing). Falafel recounts a recent trip in which he took on a wealthy businessman who ping-ponged from Vegas to Hawaii. Halfway through their series of matches, Falafel found himself six figures in the red. Then he turned things around and ultimately pulled down a cool 50 grand. "All I need to do," he says, "is play the right person a few times a year and I'm in good shape."

Falafel's high-flying career started inauspiciously. In 1991, after graduating from the University of Buffalo, with a degree in accounting that he figured he'd never use, he ended up in New York City. He had vague ambitions, arriving in town with the intention of playing chess.

In no time at all, however, Falafel recognized that more lucrative opportunities centered around backgammon. He watched for a while and had enough hubris to assume that he'd be good enough to clean out the regulars who gravitated to Washington Square Park and Liberty Park, both in Lower Manhattan, and both serving as the sites for loose cash games back in the 1990s. "I thought I was the best and started playing," he says. "Immediately, though, I discovered otherwise. I lost all of my chess winnings."

Nevertheless, Falafel was bitten by the backgammon bug. He became obsessed with the game and fell in with a group of young players—including Phil Laak, Gus Hansen and Abe Mosseri—who'd all go on to gain recognition in the poker world. Possessing the focus and determination to spend many hours watching and absorbing, Falafel dedicated himself to learning the game through osmosis; he took in the moves and strategies of backgammon's best players in order to model a style of his own.

He frequented gambling clubs around Manhattan and asked so many questions that a particularly skilled amateur told Falafel that he'd start charging him for answers. Much to the amusement of others on the scene, Falafel coughed up $2 or $3 per question. "They laughed," he remembers, "but what I learned proved to be worth a lot more than what I paid for it."

One lesson, which cost him nothing, came courtesy of Gus Hansen. Hansen was playing a Wall Street executive for $1,000 per point. "I paid attention to Gus and noticed him doing something unusual," recalls Falafel. "Before making his play, in his head, he'd work out possible rolls and possible moves that the other guy could make. Gus was talking out loud and running through the numbers in order to come up with the optimal strategy each time. I had never seen that before." Falafel adopted the approach and saw his game improve considerably.

After becoming self-sufficient through backgammon, Falafel fulfilled a promise he had made to himself and moved back to Israel. He took up poker (he is now a part owner of a Tel Aviv poker club and plays there three nights a week) but also amped up his obsession with backgammon. Working with an astounding computer program called Snowie, he memorized every mathematically correct move and tightened up his game to the point where it is now close to perfect (in every situation, there is always one play that is most correct). As a competitor in Monte Carlo quips, "When you see somebody playing perfect backgammon online [a number of sites host money matches], you know it's got to be Snowie or Falafel."

When I tell a globe-trotting friend of mine that I am going to Monte Carlo to report this story, he responds with a rare expression of envy. "You're going to the Yankee Stadium of gaming," he tells me.

Upon arriving, I think I know what he means. Without a doubt, Monte Carlo is one of the greatest places in the world to gamble. Gamble high enough and you'll be comped for meals that no casino in Las Vegas can hold a candle to. Joël Robuchon, who is the talk of Vegas thanks to his pair of eponymous restaurants at the MGM Grand, has been here for years with a two-star Michelin that is part of the landscape. Ducasse's Le Louis XV is a foodies' destination, a place where you can have the kind of simple, elegant and perfectly prepared meal that stays with you for the rest of your life. Even Café de Paris, which is meant to be a casual spot for a quick bite, is pretty fab. And, as another friend points out to me, when it comes to people-watching at an outdoor table, the place is second to none.

It is nice to see pretty girls, but for me the casino is the thing, and Casino de Monte-Carlo is the one that defines this place (there are three others, all run by the same entity, but none are nearly as compelling). It's where the big action goes down and where everything started, back in 1863. That was when Monte Carlo initiated gambling for the same reason that Atlantic City and Las Vegas would: to bring in revenue while elevating its status.

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