Rolling the Dice in Paradise
High-stakes backgammon players flock to Monte Carlo to pit themselves against the competition and soak in the opulence
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007
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"As you wish," the guy replies, stuffing me into the backseat.
I'm convinced that he has mistaken me for somebody else, but it still feels pretty damned racy to pull up to the club in such a fancy ride. Never mind that the people there are way too jaded to be impressed by a mere Bentley.
A couple mornings into the backgammon tournament, after I watch the starting field whittle itself down amid flurries of ever increasing side action, tournament organizer Patti Rubin steers me toward a gambler named David Nahmad. He is presented as a prime example of the game's old guard: a wealthy player to whom the action comes simply because he's got enough money and enough gamble to make it potentially worthwhile for certain players. His family, I've been told, is in the fine arts business and they have more or less cornered the market on Picassos. Nevertheless, he seems to be just as proud of having won the World Backgammon Championship in 1996, and his passion for the game is considerable.
A day later, over espressos at a beachfront restaurant near his apartment in Monte Carlo, he tells me that he views backgammon as being parallel to life itself. "The way you play, the way you attack, the way you defend yourself, it's a picture of life," says Nahmad, looking sporty in shorts and a golf shirt. "It gives you equilibrium."
Reportedly a multibillionaire, Nahmad is not into backgammon for the money; he likes the competition, which is why he prefers tournaments to cash games, and enjoys the reality that one high-risk play in a tournament can cost you the entire event. In a cash game, you can do all the gambling you want and reach into your pocket to right the wrong.
But even Nahmad, a man who could easily weather any backgammon loss, has his limits. He remembers playing once at the Monte Carlo Beach Club, gambling for $500 a point. The doubling cube was at 16 and he was concluding a set of games, preparing to roll dice with a likely outcome that would leave him ahead by 98 points or down by 48 points. "It was 50 percent either way, and a $75,000 swing," he recounts. "Plus, I was playing with a German who is always lucky against me. I don't know why, but he always seems to win. So I decided to settle—in a deal that was not in my favor—against somebody who uncannily beats me. Sometimes you get superstitious."
I can't help but wonder if Nahmad tossed the dice anyway, just to see what numbers would have hit. He shakes his head in the negative, squints into the morning sun and checks an incoming cell phone call. Rolling for fun, he explains, would not have been the same as rolling for real; he would have rolled the dice differently and the outcome would have been completely different. Then, before taking the call, he adds one other lesson that crosses over from backgammon to life: "Sometimes you have to hold back and not be so curious."
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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