The prestigious EBGT/WBGT: 6th European Doubles Championship and 8th French Backgammon Open was held from October 26th to October 31st, 2010 followed by WBGT Grand Finale (November 1st and 2nd) in the Parisian suburb of Enghien-les-Bains, France .

This is the same Doubles Championship where the team of Ray Fogerlund  & Sasan Taherzadeh the year before overcame a hazardous backgammon journey and tough competitors on the way to the 1st place.

In 2010, as in previous years, there were perks given to all the participants. One of them was a card worth 30 Euros of drinks per day at the Barrière Casino. This perk produced a steady stream of interesting events in the Casino and in the Hotel Du Lac afterwards, where most of the players stayed.

I am not going into details about the Main tournament, the European doubles, or the events just mentioned, but I invite you to be a participant and witness in the following events that took the place in The Grand Finale on November 1st and 2nd, 2010, titled:

The room is large, and the day before you could hardly find an empty seat, but today only sixteen qualifiers and about dozen onlookers remain. The Grand Finale of the Tour has begun; Danes, Japanese, a couple of US players, and an assortment of players from other countries. The globe well represented.

The draw of sixteen is deep in talent, I find out after speaking with a couple of Danes named Martin and Fred, who know more about European players than I do; so I knew that the sledding from here on out was not going to be easy. Martin, you know, but who is Fred you might ask. If you asked I would say the guy who at the gala dinner the night before was putting fake sideburns on anybody who did not object and taking picture of the same in compromising positions. I, myself fell for the stunt. Well, if you want to know more I will tell you. Not long after picture taking, in order to protect myself from future embarrassments I introduced him to John.

“John, this is Fred Bentler.” I pointed to Fred.

“General O’Hagan.” I motioned to my left.

“Who?” asked Fred.

“One of the US best, John O’Hagan,” I replied.

“Oh, I have heard of you,” Fred said looking at John.

John, the General, kept smiling. I felt protected. Those pictures will not see the light of day.

Most of the entries to The Grand Finale qualified by winning one of the six prestigious tournaments of the Tour, others accumulated points from the said tournaments, Martin being one of them,  and others like me won one of the satellites. The main tournament that just finished was won by Stepan Nuniyants beating Matt Cohn-Geier in a nail biter match, with Stepan having only two seconds to spare on his clock. Ninety nine players from all over the world participated but Falafel expressed his opinion of me:

“You are easily the worst player of all the rest that dared to put a foot in this room . . .”

Well, that was the opinion of one big teddy bear upset of the ignominy of losing to me; but more about that later.

We were the last ones to start our match, Falafel and I, primarily due to the fact that Falafel likes to linger about the room what seemed to me to be procrastination of the inevitable; playing the match. Eventually the inevitable drags him to the table and he throws himself into a seat.

On my left General O’Hagan, observing the commencement of the first of our three nine point matches. We move on and exchange a few pleasantries, and then Falafel promptly starts to build stacks. He hunches slightly over the backgammon board and with sheepish smile on his face proclaims:

“I am going to keep my game simple, and I know you will try to complicate as much as you can.”

“Astute observation.” I am thinking.

I also realize that he has done some research, his homework so to speak or he just remembers the games we used to play what seems to me, ages ago. I am tongue tied and responded with a weak:

“Stack’em up!”

He sort of laughs and keeps making his six and eight points longer and longer.

“What is this stack’em up?” he protests.

He continues to demonstrate his masonry skills. I, on the other hand, keep building my board, splitting back checkers and waiting for the inevitable, I think: a shot. It never happens. He makes the two point also known as the Bulgarian point.

“Making a Bulgarian?” I say.

 He nods his head and on the next roll promptly makes his ace point and exclaims:

“Another Bulgarian!”

I never heard the ace point being called Bulgarian before, but what the heck; I know what he is talking about. With some fancy pas-de-deux he demonstrates his other skill I did not expect him to possess. In a couple of swell swoops he is getting rid of the stacks, gets passed my prime and leaves me behind holding a cube.

“Well” I say to myself, “Carpenter for sure!”

On my left I observe General O’Hagan leaning back comfortably in a chair, tapping the table with his left hand fingers, intently observing the maneuvers without saying a word.

Falafel takes a break and strolls towards the bar at the other end of the playing room, occasionally, in a slow motion, twisting his head back, looking at me and to my amazement seems shocked to find me sitting in the same position he left me when he strolled away.

As the match progresses he keeps building stacks, then miraculously getting rid of them, and what seems like every game, he keeps taking breaks. After a few games I find myself in a 4 to nothing hole. I decide to do something different for the present strategy does not seem to work; stack method perhaps.

“Oh, the stack job,” Falafel exclaims.

“Why not? It works like a dream for you. I have to try it,” I continue.

The experiment turns quickly into a disaster; five to zero. Falafel takes another break and gets involved in some chatter on the other side of the room. On my left General O’Hagan is still tapping the table, observing the maneuvers. Falafel moves to Eli’s table, takes a glance back towards me and engages into some sort of animated chat. After a prolonged break he drags himself toward our table and slumps into his chair, the visor of his baseball hat facing the bar. He keeps repeating this maneuver, sometimes even in the middle of the game. I, myself, am genuinely amazed by the spectacle; slow moving bear aimlessly meandering through the room. General O’Hagan, on my left, still observing the maneuvers.

“I am not stacking ’em up any more,” I opine.

Falafel makes a soundless giggle, nodding his head.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” I mumble in sotto voce.

As we are setting up the board, I see her in the middle of it, for the first time, flirting with both of us at the same time.

“She has to be turned on to be of any use?” I ponder.

Well, as soon as I got some measure of parity, I turned her on, this sexy thing. Falafel caught of guard, puts her in his lap, doesn’t know what to do with a beauty, shakes his head and puts her by his side. Gammon comes quickly. He is stunned.

“That was a light one.” he objects.

“No, a heavy one.” I respond.

General O’Hagan on my left stirs in his chair, Falafel wanders off away desperately looking for a pair of sympathetic eyes to commiserate in his troubles. Eli gets to be his first stop, then other tables.

When he comes back after a prolonged absence, the end comes quickly and I win the first match. I am all smiles while Falafel keeps throwing some large numbers around. I don’t really pay much attentions but I still keep hearing something like:

“60%, 40%, you play me . . .” etc.

“Let him vent.” I said to myself.

The second match picks up where the first one left off. Falafel keeps building stacks, straightening them out and sending her to me. After falling back again to 4–zip, I realized she was a plant and not on my side. Falafel keeps taking breaks; I keep trying to catch up but to no avail. The match is now tied to one apiece as the final match looms large in front of us. Having realized that she was his plant when sitting on my side, I start shipping her to him, the giant, early and often, “The best.” in his own words.

She looked cute sitting next to him as he shifted his balance away from her, infuriated by her presence and my nerve.

“You give a cube like that . . .” he keeps on grumbling. “I will show you…” he continues.

I am one step ahead of him and continue to stay for the duration of the match. Then, we get to what turns out to be the last game; I am in the lead 7 to 5 in a nine point match. With a solid position and probably a money game pass; I am weighing my options, should I ship her out. I know, he knows, General O’Hagan on my left knows as the rest of the universe does; if I ship her out, she is coming back to me, doubled, no doubt.

At one point, a long time ago, before I even new anything about backgammon, I used to be a foreman in one of the shipyards dotting the New York harbor. Some days I would take a launch to an incoming ship, climb the ropes on her side and up on the deck, meet a chief engineer, assess the ships needs, draw up the sketches, build the jigs and start working on repairs even before the ship would moor at one of the piers. And, almost always, one thing in particular would catch my attention and to this day stays in my head; a huge valve behind a bulkhead, painted red, and an imposing sign that reads “When in doubt shut it down” painted red as well. Immediately I understood the importance, necessity of the words, all red, hovering over the valve and me, like a coiled rattler ready to strike if you chose to ignore the warning. I digress, but it needed to be said, for it formed to some extent, my cube philosophy.

I look at her, sitting between two interested parties, lonesome all by herself, but then a miracle happens; she appears to give us one of those Sarah Pailin winks. That in turn triggers the yellow neon lights, pulsing “When in doubt ship it out . . . ship it out . . . ship it out.” As a result I ship her out to a stunned Falafel, who in turn stands up then sits down fondling her nervously between his fingers, and delicately puts her by his side, gets up, takes a break and walks away. I am taken aback; he is not supposed to do this, but I let it go thinking: he will give her back no matter what consult he does at the deep end of the room; maybe he will get back even more infuriated.

As I am getting up to take a break myself, Chiva comes along and says:

“How many breaks are you guys taking? You have to keep moving along.”

“Nature calls, and besides this might be the first, maybe second break I am taking.”

“How many did Falafel take?”

I lost count and not wanting to be a Grinch I utter:

“Maybe five.”

“This has to be the last one.” Chiva walks away laughing as General O’Hagan looks on.

When he comes back I blurt out:

“Chiva said this is the last break we are taking.”

“We are entitled to six” he insists “and you yourself said that I only took five.”

“I don’t really care,” I continue.

He sits down and stares at the board. Now, I am playing for the match and he is not; I never leave a shot, he never sends her back. I am amazed; he is even more discombobulated than I thought. General O’Hagan gets up as Falafel mutters:

“You give me a cube like that I . . .”

“But you never sent her back to me,” I interrupt.

“That’s right. I never did.” he acknowledges the obvious, cube in his hand he stands up tapping the table with his right hand in disgust, looking into nothingness.

“But surely he would have sent it right back, as soon as he got a shot?” General O’Hagan interjects trying to minimize his pain. Falafel would have none of it:

“No, I wouldn’t have.”

“We have a second winner, Al Hodis,” Chiva announces. I didn’t even look at the time, for it never came into play.

As for Falafel, he dejectedly keeps looking past the walls of the room; then suddenly he wakes up from the trance and out of the blue, without any provocation on my part, looking at a wall past me says:

“Put your money where your mouth is.”

I find it humorous for he seems to be repeating the phrases throughout the encounter as if he were reading them from the teleprompter ordered in an unordered list, each one starting with a bullet, on one page; one page total.

“I did,” I say.

The response did not faze him a bit, so he continues:

“Yes you did but we have to play more; and besides, we are supposed to play that proposition, do you remember the position?”

“No, I don’t.”
“I have to find it from . . . what’s his name. I will play you anytime…”

I think he pulled that item off of the teleprompter from the forth bullet from the top. Not to be outdone, I went cliché myself, bullet number 7 in ascending order from the bottom of the page, I think?

“If you want to play me, get in line, the line extends from here all a way to …”

I stumbled for there was a blank space there. Then I remembered, on top of the page, h1 heading that read: “Fill in the blanks.”

“Barrière” I said “The line extends from here aaall the way to the Casino Barrière,”

my original contribution to this piece of wisdom, for the only thing that ever changes in this cliché is the location, the starting point if you will, beginning of the queue.

“If you want a dinner break, go now, the next round, quarterfinals, starts promptly at 10PM.” Chiva stops the ridiculous and everybody is leaving the room for the dinner break.

“Next match, I will root for you anyway” the big bad teddy bear has the last word.

At 10PM, quarterfinals start promptly; my opponent is Suzuki, the winner of the Japanese Open. I quickly take a lead and soon enough I win the first match. Second match is a struggle and I lose it with a realization that I am missing obvious plays. At least on one occasion, when I roll 5-2 from the bar I fail to make a five point in his board, realizing only after hitting the clock that I could do so. He rolls 5-3 and can make the same five-point, but he misses it too, and I am relieved. Well, I have been playing for seven days straight, staying in the casino until wee hours of the morning, in fact, every day they kicked us out at the closing time, 4AM, only to have a crowd reassemble itself in the lobby of a hotel where the merriment would continue. A weak excuse perhaps, but in the end, I believe, this deep into the tournament everybody’s game is suffering for the want of sleep, except one, Falafel’s.

In a third match I fall quickly behind, 7-1; the opponent is good; my chances are slim but I try. I lose rather quickly; the match is over.

Right after the match Falafel moves in to tell me of the missed plays I made but leaves it to General O’Hagan to demonstrate the gory details of the position. With a military precision he, the General, explains:

“The last game or the one before that, you could have made a bar point but you missed the play.”

I am thinking about it and protest:

“Not possible.” for I remembered the last two games vividly. They go and chase down Suzuki, but he is of no help; he remembers nothing. Then the General tries the logic, cuts though the unnecessary and demonstrates why he is a general and I am not. He convinces me beyond reasonable doubt I made a boo-boo:

“Forget when, concentrate on the position in front of you, wouldn’t you agree that making the bar, with 5-1 is the right thing to do?”

Having removed distraction of when, the play is a no brainer. A squirrel from the highest tree would have seen it.

“No point in crying over spilled milk. Let it be my contribution to the land of the rising sun.” I think, and move on towards the bar, sizing up the room. On the left, somewhat in the middle of the room I see Stick recording one of the matches; his contribution to all of us and especially to the internet crowd who all over the globe were anxiously awaiting the word of: who, how and what; at the same time conversing with an unseen audience in a small window on a computer screen.

Straight ahead, at the end of the room by the bar, five or six players, some standing some sitting, gathered around a backgammon board, silent, with Falafel standing a little bit towards the left, towering over them, not looking at them or the board; seems lost in his thoughts. Even further left from the crowd, past Falafel at the end of long table I see Matt engrossed in doing something as his eyes are glued to the laptop. Other people are standing in small groups, sipping wine or beer, dotting the room, waiting in anticipation for the results. I make my way slowly toward the silent crowd contemplating the backgammon position in front of them, and I see Falafel still standing, gazing at the heavens in the direction of Venus, and would have seen her but for the square tiles of the ceiling. As I am about to pass him, I hear him utter in an imposing voice:

“You are easily the worst player of all the ones who have walked this room.” Then he pauses a little. Taking advantage of the pause I turn towards him and see him still inspecting the heavens, so I am not sure he is talking to me but on the further reflection I realize; I am the only one close to him, standing in his proximity.

“How does it feel to lose to the worst?” I reply, but I don’t think he hears me but then he continues:

“I am at least three to one against you.”

Then he stops contemplating the follow up, perhaps realizing that he was entering the zone of the ridiculous.

“Of course.” I insert my two cents.

“Maybe, two to one.” he nods, agreeing with himself.

“I will take those odds.” I jump in.

“What, you think I am crazy? I will not give you those odds.” he looks at me as if I were crazed.

“Then what is this all about?” I muse.

He stops inspecting the square tiles of the ceiling, turns abruptly towards me and in accusatory tone, out of the blue says:

“You are saying you are better than me?”

For the first time I realize he is actually making eye contact with me. Whoa, it must hurt real bad.

“You got that right.” I interject, just to see what button will light up now:

“In five matches at a… length of…” he contemplates the next talking point.

I escape the ridiculous and sit little bit to the left of the crowd, still in silence, giving the position undivided attention. Falafel follows me and sits down two chairs past me, to my left. I turn to the right, look at a position and realize; they are looking at the last cube of my match with Falafel, the one he could not handle very well. I am surprised, for half a day has already passed and the merit of the cube should have been already in.

“Matt, . . . have you put this thing in?” he thunders.

I turn a bit to my left and see Falafel now holding his head between his hands, slightly bent down, looking past the carpeted floor, scanning the depths of hell. I also take a glimpse of Matt at the end of the table. He is happy as a clam, in his element, whispering, I thought; zero-point-zero-zero-three. He doesn’t even make an effort to turn around; he does not hear Falafel and continues to tap the keyboard in front of him.

The silence that permeates the immediate surroundings of the set position on the backgammon board is broken by the arrival of Eli. I hear, I think:

“You give, I take.” Then he repeats “You give, I take.” in determined voice.

“I guess . . . I heard him right the first time.” I observe.

I tilt my head slightly upwards, for he was standing, and I see him looking at me.

“You give, I take.” he insists.

“I give and you take?” I inquire.

“Yes . . . you give, I take.” he pursues the line.

I do not quite understand, for this position comes from my game and so, just to make sure we are on the same page I inquire some more:

“I give you the cube and you are taking it, I gather?” I whisper inquisitively.

“Yes, you give me one point, I take.”

“I gave this cube to Falafel and he took it for nothing.” I insist.

He does not hear me and just keeps a refrain going:

“I give, you take.”

“Where is Carter?” I am thinking. He could have given him some pointers about musical composition, even a little hint would help.

“I give, you take.”

“This conversation is absurd,” says Falafel and then yells “Matt . . . have you entered this position in?”

Matt turns around, his eyes wide open, looking at nothing in particular, in a trance. Were he not preoccupied, he would have seen Falafel; now, looking straight ahead towards the Eiffel tower and he would have seen it, had it not been for the wall panels blocking the view. Matt then turns back to the task at hand, keeping those pesky numbers, the ones that are trying to break in, out of the zero-point-zero-zero-three box; having gotten rid of  an annoying mosquito buzz he mumbles something, what appears to me to be zero, point, zero, zero, three. He does not hear Falafel, nether does Eli.

“I give, you take.”

“Well, Falafel took it for . . .” I am trying to say.

“This is absuuurd . . .” Falafel raises his hand and makes a cutting motion towards the wall.

 “Maybe he really wants to see that tower.” I think and then I add,” I agree . . . it is absurd.”

Eli still does not hear him for he keeps on going:

“You give, I take.”

Falafel then slams his hands on his knees and says something to Eli in Hebrew, and Eli darts out of room not to be seen again.

It is now almost midnight, so John and I head toward the casino, armed with a couple of 15-euro-cards-for-downstars, 15-euro-cards-for-upstairs knowing that soon, the rest of ubiquitous crew that for days milled about the drinking establishment, their hands full of booze will join us later. Two o’clock came, they keep coming in ones, or twos but the boisterous voice of Carter was not to be heard. He left for the States the day before. Even Martin was unusually quiet, subdued I would say; the party has sort of petered out.

The next day, Falafel long gone, the last day of The Great Finale, I come back and meet John just before the finals. We are chatting about nothing in particular when Bob Wachtel, one knee on a chair, his right arm resting on the back of the same, palm of his hand pointing at me (I think he is giving me high-five), blurts:

“I hear you beat Falafel.”

“Sure I did.”

“But . . .” he continues in an accusatory manner, “Didn’t you win because you gave Falafel some bad cubes?”

“Boy, the news travels fast.” I am amused, and then I say in explanatory manner:

“I gave him a couple of sexy ones, too hot for him to handle.”

Chiva announces the start of the finals and we all rush towards the reserved table where Mochi (Masayuki Mochizuki, Japan) is taking on Soren Larsen (Denmark). In the end Soren prevails; and this being the last tournament to be held in Paris, ends the casino sponsored backgammon era in Europe.

I thank you, the reader, for participating in and bearing witness to The Last Bango in Paris.—Al Hodis