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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

He does not have a permanent address. But Simon Jones isn't hard to find.

The presidential suite of the world's better hotels. The finest restaurants in Paris, London and New York. The first-class cabins of transatlantic jets. These are his usual domains.

Whether in a dark Moscow nightclub or on a technicolor Balinese beach or upon the pulsing streets of Rio de Janeiro during Carnevale, you can pick Simon out of the crowd. He's the one with the beautiful woman draped on one arm and a little black briefcase in the other. The woman is, he'll admit, a frivolous accessory, one of the delightful spoils of being rich and generous. The briefcase, though, is another thing altogether. That briefcase is his life.

It contains a couple dozen polished ivory disks--"checkers," Simon calls them--two leather cups, four dice and a cube with various exponents of the number 2 on each side.

Simon is the world's finest backgammon hustler. Aside from the knowledge he stores in his head, his briefcase contains everything he needs to subsidize a life that seems torn from the pages of an Ian Fleming adventure. Simon Jones (his name and some identifying details have been changed) is in many ways a cipher, a phantom who occupies an all-cash shadow world that shields him from the scrutiny of inquisitive tax collectors and customs officials. But he is by no means obscure. Among the jet set, the preposterously wealthy

businessmen and royalty for whom no craving for luxury is unindulged, he is a regular fixture, as common a sight as a Bentley parked in the circular driveway of a European mansion. Simon is One Of Them. And this, it seems, is the secret of his gambling success.

In To Catch a Thief, dashing and debonair Cary Grant plays a dashing and debonair burglar, a charming con man who mixes easily with his unwitting victims. Some years ago, I interviewed a man named Albie Baker, the international jewel thief whose story inspired the 1955 Hitchcock classic. The thief insisted his lock-picking and safe-cracking skills were only average--"There were hundreds of guys who could do what I did," he told me--but his "people skills" were unsurpassed. Dukes and duchesses welcomed him into their social circles; politicians and city planners revealed their most secret confidences. All the while, Baker was relieving them of their precious metals. "Nobody suspected me, of course," the thief explained. "You don't suspect a member of your country club of burglary."

Simon's strategy is nearly identical. He has slept in the royal palaces of several Middle Eastern nations; he counts among his acquaintances the young (and reckless) scions of one of the world's largest distilleries and a major Italian bank; hall of fame athletes and Academy Award winners know his face. And most of them have sat across the backgammon board from him and happily watched Simon relieve them of their excess cash.

"All of these people, they like to be entertained," Simon remarks, in the hushed, clipped tones of a well-bred British schoolboy. "I'm an absolute treasure to them. And, I suppose, they to me."

Simon is handsome in an unthreatening kind of way; he doesn't smolder, he comforts. His manners are impeccable. And though he is careful not to make a spectacle of himself, he is often considered the life of the party, a well-bred Dionysus who happens to be quite splendid at an ancient board game.

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