Chuck Bower is presently a self-employed computer analyst living in Bloomington, IN with wife Terri. Until recently he was an experimental research scientist in astrophysics and neutrino physics, employed by Indiana University. Chuck was first introduced to backgammon in 1975 by his bridge partners (who recognized that his expertise MUST lie elsewhere). He has been learning the game ever since. Chuck has authored of over 100 newsletter articles and is a regular poster on Stick Rice's http://www.bgonline.org/forums/ site. Competitively his only Open singles victory was the 2002 Michigan Summer Championships but he has a knack for finding strong partners as he has won five Doubles titles at ABT events with four different teammates.
Not only is the annual Monte Carlo World Championship the most famous and prestigious active backgammon tournament in the world, it is also the most discussed and debated. As such, even though I took my first ever step in France on this trip, I felt like the event was already familiar. My personal 9 day experience is reviewed here.
With four weeks notice I had some time to prepare for the tournament play, but of course never as much as needed. My initial preparation goals were threefold: 1) work on my cube handling – the weakest part of my game recently, 2) review replies to opening rolls, and 3) sharpen up my Match Equity Calculations, including deepening my memory of match equities, anticipating longer matches. As it turned out I spent 95% of my time on #1 and 5% on #3. For cube handling I concentrated on Woolsey’s Cube Reference Positions, both by reading it cover-to-cover (except the racing section) and quizzing with flashcards I’ve created by Xeroxing all the positions in the book. Since there is no club within 1 ½ hours of my home I practiced by playing $-games against XG, which gives much faster response with error analysis than my previous sparring partner (Jellyfish, analyzed by GNU-bg). I believe the study time paid dividends.
I flew alone from Cincinnati to Nice by way of Paris, but that and the return flight were gratefully about the only solitary time I spent on this trip. At the Nice airport I met up with Frank and Stephanie Frigo and a 30 minute cab ride later I immediately ran into New Mexicans Ed Bennett and Jan Brennan in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel – the tournament venue. After a few pleasantries, including feeling out who was the most jet-lagged, I wandered into the tournament lobby and playing room to find very few people besides the staff, who were desperately hawking registrants. (This was Sunday afternoon and the main events weren’t scheduled to start until Tuesday afternoon, so the paucity of players was no surprise.) Howard Markowitz and Lynn Erlich were familiar faces, trying to sign up players for side events such as doubles, seniors, and various jackpots.
I decided it was time to wander into the unfamiliar Riviera and find my hotel. You see, although supporting the tournament by staying in the host residence is certainly a strong consideration, there’s also a difference between $350/night for one room which accommodates two people and $250/night for a suite which (tightly) fits four But to put things in perspective, at the Chicago Open in May I stayed by myself in a suite at the O’Hare Holiday Inn which was larger AND nicer than the Hotel Josephine, and paid $90/night (although, to be fair, I received a free upgrade since they were out of single rooms). I embarked on my uphill journey to Beausoleil, France. Fret not, because even though I was changing countries, my walk was less than 15 minutes, and without a border checkpoint.
Presumably you can’t wait to hear who my roommates were. Do the names Matt Cohn-Geier, Carter Mattig, and Stick Rice sound familiar? I would never be so trite as to nickname them “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (and besides, I’d have to figure out which is which) but “The Introvert, the Extrovert, and the Pervert” seem appropriate.
So at 4:00 in the afternoon (or 1600 local lingo) I find Matt sleeping, Stick surfing, and Carter apparently still at Heathrow. Quickly we converge upon the plan of having dinner with the Frigos and watching the World Cup final. Unfortunately Sunday night in Beausoleil is not the big night out, and we end up at a nearby English pub, but with surprisingly good food and cold beer. (Cold is rare in this area at this time of year, as you’ll find out.) Most of the fans in the pub are cheering for the heavily favored Spanish team. I guess sports fans in Europe enjoy jumping on the favorite’s bandwagon just as much as we do in the U.S. Scoreless regulation and overtime ensues (what do you expect from a sport where scoring is as rare as hens’ teeth), then the second (scheduled) overtime before the chalk dusts its way to victory.
Back to the hotel we find an overheating Carter. You see Stick had been attempting all afternoon to figure out how the air conditioner works – turns out it didn’t. Matt tried to take a shower only to find the shower lever broken. And Carter’s last ditch effort to get the AC to work led to the discovery of a (living) bedbug. (A quick search of the internet by Stick confirmed its identity.) Carter then steamed off to the front desk and returned with fresh keys and a new address (OK, room address – we’re in the same hotel).
A little over 24 hours from home and I’d already experienced more excitement than any BG tournament I’ve attended in several years, and I hadn’t shaken a dicecup!
Now, you may be wondering how we got four beds in the suburbs of Monaco for less than $65/person/night during peak vacation season. The answer is: “we didn’t.” We got one double bed in a room barely larger than the bed, a trundle bed (couch with a pull-out bed underneath) in the not-so-great great room, and… Fortunately (I guess), the Boy Scout in me came prepared with an inflatable air mattress. (My roomies were disappointed it was just a mattress.) Showing their compassion, my roommates said I didn’t need to sleep on the floor, but as in BG, sometimes the theoretical solution is easier to identify than the practical. When I asked which two of us were going to share the double bed, the room went silent. (How often does a room with an awake Carter go silent?) This ritual was repeated multiple times during the week with the identical outcome.
The sun rose Monday with high hopes, but we didn’t open the shades to observe it until noon. Then Stick and Carter embarked to catch some rays at the rooftop pool, only to return with a report of sightings of topless sun-bathers. There apparently are some advantages to high heat and higher humidity in Southern France. Mid afternoon we trucked our way down the hill to register for the tournament. An early evening cocktail party for the tournament attendees was followed by pizza at the Tip Top restaurant with Ed, Jan, Frank, Stephanie, and the Four Amigos. Two dinners in France and so far I hadn’t had a bite of French food. Of course I did have some French wine, red hot French wine. As it turns out beer and white wine are served chilled, but red wine is served at room temperature, even when the room is 30 C (86 F), and most of the small restaurants are not air conditioned. I’ve never been a fan of sake. After dinner the three verts and I adjourned to a hillside bar to argue music, sports, and whatever trivia tickled our fancy. To no one’s surprise, Carter claims the best teams in the history of each of the four major US sports just coincidentally resided in Chicago.
Tuesday dawns, and it’s the big day – the start of the tournament. Unfortunately I had forgotten that I had made arrangements to meet some friends for lunch at noon at the Fairmont, and it was already 11:40. Shower and shave, who needs ‘em? I’m on vacation! To make matters worse, I made just one teeny weenie wrong turn on my way down the hill. Real hills have multiple sides, so even though I followed Carter’s instructions of always going downhill, I went East downhill instead of South downhill and when I heard people predominately speaking Italian I realized my mistake. At least I had my cellphone – whoops, what does that blinking red battery icon mean? 45 minutes late, I arrive at lunch. Good thing (I’m told) this tournament never starts on time. (I showed up at the playing room fashionably 12 minutes late, which included the time it took to buy registered dice from a low-tech outfitted – meaning paper recordkeeping with multiple documents to be filled, signed, etc. in case I wanted to return the dice -- but otherwise reasonably outfitted backgammon shop.)
158 entrants in the Open division means 98 byes to the second round, and I’m lucky enough to get one, so only one match on Tuesday for me. 30 minutes past the starting time the staff summons to the front all those who still have tardy opponents, and two or three of us arrive there. My opponent’s name is announced over the loudspeaker and he quickly appears. As it so happens, he figured a bye meant he wouldn’t start until much later in the day. Fortunately I’ve been warned by multiple people to expect slow matches, start delays, and less than by-the-book rules followers, so I brush it off and sit down for the long (17-point) contest. Five hours and 20 games later we reach DMP, where I squeak out the victory. That’s enough BG for one day, and Frank, Steph, and I head out for… Italian food. J Frank encourages me: “that was the best start you could have gotten. You won a tight match and got the cobwebs out. Tomorrow you want a blowout win.”
So I’m in the final 64, and looking at the sheet, find many big names didn’t make it that far: Falafel, Stick, MCG, Mochy, and Trabby are among the vanquished. 2:00 PM Wednesday brings my second match, this time taking only 4 ½ hours and 20 games to reach 18-18/19 -- another DMP game and another victory. Only two other Yanks (Ron Rubin and Steve Hammond) are also still alive for the big prize, although neither is a regular on the ABT circuit. No more matches today as this evening brings the much anticipated (by me, anyway) “black tie optional” Gala Dinner and Auction.
I don my sportcoat and backgammon themed tie and sweat my way down the hill for the celebratory event. With the exception of the nearly always impeccably dressed Japanese contingent, very few men have on more than golf shirts and shorts. Of course the ladies still like to dress up. Finally I taste French cuisine! Could have been served a bit more wine (says I), but a nice dinner, IMO. After some preliminaries by tournament Chair Patti Rubin with three translations by the multilingual James Ballie’ followed by the casino staff’s announcement of the $7500 entry poker tournament, Carter hands out Giants of Backgammon certificates to the honored non-US citizen (+MCG) recipients of the biannual award. Possibly the most surprising and certainly the most disgusting part of the evening festivities is the rudeness of many in the room, who couldn’t be bothered to cease their petty personal conversations and give some respect and attention to the speakers. I’ve been to outdoor rock concerts where the redneck biker crowd showed more class.
Next Patti reminisces about a past auction where Lewis Deyong was successful in getting bids totaling $360,000. Then Howard begins the auction by asking for blind bids (winner gets choice of fields) starting at (drumroll)… 200 Euros. After about 40 minutes of unspirited bidding, the nine lots of the remaining 32 undefeated players (two 2-player fields and seven 4-player fields) garner 11,200 Euros, only down a factor of 25 from the good old days. I buy back 15% of my four player team. Before splitting up for the evening, Frank tells me “tomorrow you are due for a blowout win.” Hmmm, is ‘déjà vu’ a French term?
Sleep is getting harder to come by, even though I’ve supplemented my (leaking) camping air mattress with two foam cushions off the couch. Regardless of win or lose, no more one-a-day match scheduling. Thursday, the third day of the competition -- expect a LONG one. Another 4 ½ hour match, this time 23 games, but for the first time I don’t go to DMP – 19-14 win and into the final sixteen (or “octal finals” as I like to call them). Dinner break goes from 8:00 to 10:30. Frank, Stephanie, and I walk along to waterfront and find a very nice (you guessed it) Italian restaurant. Seriously, I really like Italian food. No wine for me. I may never again get here (to this location or this depth in such a big tournament) and I need every ounce of gray matter firing, and then some.
My opponent is Russian Sergey Erokhin. The way the tournament playing room is mapped, match winners are either playing next to each other or one table apart. In my case, Erokhin had been sitting diagonally across the table from me during the round of 32, and I had noticed that he was hand recording (and not playing on a clock). Given that our match wasn’t starting until 10:30 at night and the winner would have to play at 2:00 the next afternoon, I was somewhat concerned so I asked around. The consensus opinion was that I likely could get the directors to stop my opponent from recording his own match or require that the match be clocked (if he was going to hand record), but was that in my best interest? First off I had not played a single match on a clock this tournament, and further, many of my (noticed) mistakes occurred because I didn’t take sufficient time to consider alternatives. For the most part, whatever I was doing seemed to be working, so why change horses midstream? Secondly, almost all players who record matches by whatever means are agreeable to sharing the recording. I was entering the most important match of my life, both in terms of $-value and prestige equity. Having a record of this match would be a nice bonus, win or lose. I did ask Sergey about his self-recording and he said he did it quickly (which turned out to be the case). It hadn’t hurt to subtly call to his attention that we needed to avoid a very slow match.
In the end I lost. XGammon analysis had Sergey outplaying me 3.9 to 5.2 in its Performance Rating. To make matters worse we had both agreed, per director Steen Gronbeck’s request, that the loser would play his 1st-Consolation match at 1 PM on Friday, so at 3:15 AM, mentally exhausted, I trudged up the hill to my humble bedroll to try and get some sleep. Of course two of my roommates were wide awake. (Carter had an early match to play as well—he was still alive in the 1st Consolation, which couldn’t be said for the two youngsters.)
One thing about the MC WC: as long as you’re still alive you are playing for serious money. 1st-Consolation and 2nd-Consolation paid four places each, with each winner receiving 14k Euros. That’s larger than any current US BG tournament prize I’m aware of (except possibly the Masters JP’s in LV). The Last Chance also paid two places with winner receiving more than 12k Euros. Allowing oneself to suffer a letdown after losing a match in the Championship event would be a costly concession. I tried my best to remain upbeat (not usually a problem for me) and focused (sometimes a problem…).
Now matches reverted to 9-pointers, which probably isn’t a disadvantage for me, since I’m used to playing that length match, shorter matches mean less grueling competitions, and for all I know I’ll be sparring with players who are better than I. Regardless of my best attempt to keep grinding, I went L-W-L on Friday to qualify for the last chance. I was definitely in both lost matches, particularly the 2nd one where I painfully watched a 2-away, 5-away lead slip through my grasp. I felt like I played well that day, just not well enough. Another Italian dinner, this time alone, but a decent night’s sleep.
An additional nicity about MC WC: Last Chance is played all in one day on Saturday, the next-to-last day of the tournament. So at 2PM I was again ready to play, 5-point matches this time. Saturday felt like Friday as I went W-L (with my victorious opponent – Norwegian Tore Fredricksen – being one and the same person who eliminated me on Friday) to finally be completely out the Open Championship. But my early exit did leave me time to watch some pretty good matches, including parts of both Open Main semifinals and parts of the semifinals and finals of the Open Consolations. The Frigos and I returned to the same Italian restaurant we had enjoyed on Thursday evening, but this time I got to partake of the excellent Italian red wine!
Before leaving the playing area I had a talk with London director Mike Main regarding various versions of the rules throughout the world. (I am on the USBGF Rules Committee and USBGF Chairman Perry Gartner had asked me to see if I could pick some brains on the subject.) Mike asked me if I would be playing in the Fortis Team Championship on Sunday, a free entry event with three member teams playing five point matches, with the finalists receiving new Swiss watches courtesy of watchmaker Fortis. I said I hadn’t really thought much about it and he said it would be a mistake not to play – lots of fun and comraderie, and the price was right!. When I arrived back at the room Stick was working on his day-5 report for GammonVillage.com and said because of a conflict between Sunday’s Open Main final (which he would be recording) and the Fortis event, he had withdrawn from Carter’s team and said as far as he was concerned I could take his place.
Sunday morning I queried Carter regarding teams needing players, and he said his team (Waka-Waka, more on that title later) was one short, with France’s Michel Serrero being the second member. He said they would be glad to have me and who could turn down that compliment, particularly to be able to join a strong team? We drew a trio representing a Russian club (although at least one of its members is a resident of Germany), all wearing matching black shirts and hats. It was a strong team of Open level players and Carter started out by losing, putting the pressure on Michel and me to pull out the victory. To make matters worse, right off the 1st tee I shanked a doubled gammon (with my opponent owning the cube) to go down 5-away Crawford. But I didn’t give up; sometimes I think I play my best with my back to the wall, and both Michel and I won our matches to advance.
Next up, three women in their early 20’s who had just defeated a strong team from Milano, Italy. I don’t know them, but it turns out Michel does – one of the three is his daughter! The fact that I’m not familiar with them means little, and I make it a habit never to underestimate the strength/skill of an opponent. It doesn’t take much experience playing BG to realize that overconfidence is a death sentence. After playing a game of musical chairs (Michel was toying with one of our opponents, who eventually turned out to be my fellow combatant) I soon found myself in the not so unusual position of being well behind: 5-away, 2-away to a girl (which I call every female younger than I) named Julie. (Later internet research reveals her last name is Thabault, and she twice has won the Women’s event at the prestigious fall Paris tournament – glad I didn’t underestimate her skill level.) And again I look to my left to discover Carter circling the drain, this time against the formidable Scarlett Serrero. (BTW, Carter had an excellent week, including showing a plus on the balance sheet after a significant hedge late in the 2nd-Consolation, but apparently he had used it all up before Sunday.) Just like our first match I realize I need to claw my way back from a deficit or my Monte Carlo Experience is over, and again the dice cooperate. Unfortunately this time Michel was unable to match my feat and I see his score go from a -3 Crawford lead to a -2 post-Crawford lead to DMP to… L. Mike was right; this team event is both fun and challenging, too challenging for our team as it turned out.
So what’s with this “Waka waka” thing? It was the theme song for the 2010 World Cup, and Columbian pop star Shakira was not only the vocalist, but also (with help from a shapely backup crew) the headline dancer. Early in the week we four (in my case under much pressure from my roommates) had agreed that if any of us made the podium we would all go on stage and dance to the music. I’m pretty sure Carter’s loss in the money round was more painful for his failure to bring us into the dancing limelight than any shortcoming in the financial department.
That’s a summary of my trip, in chronological order. Now I’m going to shift the subject slightly and write specifically about my impressions of the tournament, leading into a general reply to some of the discussions on Stick’s site (http://www.bgonline.org/forums/) which have addressed perceived shortfalls in this event. Although I have no intent to be overly critical of the event, venue, location, and particularly those running it, at the same time I feel it would be a disservice to the backgammon community as a whole to go out of my way to sugar-coat my experience. “Fair and balanced…J”, only contrary to the cable channel who abuses this catchphrase, hopefully you’ll find my report both.
The tournament venue is very nice – modern, well lit, comfortable (as in Air Conditioned) with chairs very similar to the kind I’m used to on the US circuit, except I didn’t find a single one which was bent or which wobbled due to abuse and/or attrition. The staff was absolutely top notch, and there were plenty on hand to cover all the events without apparent stress.
Different from US tournaments, boards, checkers, and dicecups are supplied (these are property of the Fairmont hotel). In particular that is gratifying as I wouldn’t have wanted to travel 4500 miles (each way) with any of my boards. Although the frames of the boards are plastic (hard vinyl?), surprisingly the sets themselves are not particularly noisy. The main negative I experienced was with dicerolls, and that malady has a multifaceted cause. Although the checkers are tournament size (~4 cm diameter = 1.6 in), the playing surface, particularly the distance between the tips of opposing pips, is smaller than usual. Secondly, the checkers are moderately thin and this combination (smaller area playing surface and thin checkers) led to a large number of cocked dice where a die ends up on top of a checker. Even when I and my opponents went out of our way not to cock the dice in this manner, I still had problems carrying out my intention.
The dicecups themselves are also a negative. They are plastic with a racetrack cross section. Each has a low-grade felt-like liner, but in some cases the covering of the bottom inside of the cup was missing. This defect did lead to unnecessary racket when one of these deficient cups was shaken. Although there was a bit of a lip around the edge of the liners, it was minimal. Fortunately most of my opponents were very adamant in shaking the dice, and most used the small (1/2 in. US dimension) dice so the substandard cup was compensated for, presumably leading to random rolls. Still, the frequent cocking was a time waster, regardless of cup condition, and localized racket from the cups with missing bottom liner was an occasional distraction.
The dice themselves were also a deviation from US practice. You could buy registered dice (basically ½ inch precision dice with engraved serial numbers) from the gift shop for 35 Euros, refundable even after you used them for the week. However, not everyone used these dice. Some brought their own (and in some cases these were larger, even registered ones which had been sold at previous World Championships). I don’t believe it was a requirement that registered dice be used; it certainly wasn’t enforced. Presumably if a disagreement occurred and a director was summoned, at least the registered dice would be given preference. The intended procedure (from what I was told by players) was that each player would provide two dice for the match but then they would be mixed and used without regard to ownership. If each player’s dice matched in color but were of different color than those provided by opponent, then, the common practice of each player having different color dice for his roll would then mean that each player would have one die that he owned and one that his opponent owned.
Enough about equipment, now let’s talk about the players. Not surprisingly, this event attracts a truly international field. I don’t know the number of countries represented, but I’d be surprised if it was less than 15 and could easily have been 25 or more. Along with the difference in national origin and language, style of actions (as in dice shaking, checker moving, and guttural emanation) were noticeably varied. Personally I found this refreshing – backgammon has convention where necessary but individualism should also be respected as long as it doesn’t interfere with the integrity and enjoyment of the game.
One of things I had prepared for was variation in rule following. To be clear from the start of this report, I did not see a single action or incident (either within my own match or others that I watched) which I considered even close to cheating. The only negative incident I heard of all week was when a player lifted his dice a small distance and then replaced them in an attempt to change his (obviously erroneous) play. Fortunately for his opponent, a well-respected, neutral kibitzer had seen the action and sternly stated “the play was over”.
However, sometimes rules are broken without intent of larceny. In one of my matches my opponent, in his rush to see his roll, failed to shake the cup even a single bit. (It was not every roll that this occurred, maybe ¼ of the time, but once is too many.) When I politely mentioned it to him he immediately apologized and said that he was 100% in the wrong. Fast rolling was somewhat of an issue, although in every case but one it occurred while I was collecting my dice after having concluded my play. Still that can be unsettling. The lone exception was clearly unacceptable. Against one opponent, late in a match and moderately late in the bearoff, I rolled and reached for the checkers when his dice came shooting out of his cup (in this case onto the half of the board from which we were both bearing off). I stopped and said something like “what is this?” He then rationalized by saying “you have little chance of winning this game”!!! And I retorted “so that means it’s OK for you to roll before I’ve even made my play?” He continued his irrational argument “it’s the first time I’ve done this and I wouldn’t do it if you had a chance”. Obviously this is a person who needs a lesson in patience. I then stated “it doesn’t matter what my chances are, you can’t do that”. I still am unsure if I even bore off my two checkers in that sequence, but of course his were already off so with his confirmation I proceeded to take my turn… and roll double 6’s. “Oh” was his response and I guess his way of apologizing, as he quickly realized I did have a chance in this game! Unfortunately the dicegods didn’t allow him to finish his punishment and I lost the game. (I did win the match.)
The biggest rules incident I experienced all week was a new one to me. Recall this is the Open level of the World Championship, so people should know the rules, for sure the obvious ones. This match started with my fidgety opponent consistently moving my dice and various checkers (his and mine) while it was my turn! I diplomatically pointed out to him that this was in violation of the rules, and he seemed perlexed but stopped doing it, at least for a while…. But the biggest surprise occurred when I had a large enough race lead that I decided I didn’t need a full pipcount and just sent the cube. He picked up his (scoring) pencil and (scoring) notepad and started jotting numbers down. I asked what he was doing and his wife (kibitzing) answered for him since he seemed to not understand what I was saying (which I believe – English was neither his first nor second language). She said “he’s counting.” !!!! Of course I then told him that pencil and paper were not allowed for such an exercise and once again he looked confused and nearly incredulous. As before I remained calm and diplomatic but suggested we could call a director to get an official ruling. He backed down, then tried to count in his head, and failing that took a hopeless cube. Unfortunately later in the match, while losing, he again lost his inhibitions and started moving my dice while it was my turn…. Ugh. (Another match win for me, though.)
In the US I know most of the Open players, and my name tends to be recognized even by non-regulars as I’ve written a lot of articles for newsletters and online sites. But in MC I got a feeling I hadn’t felt in about 16 years – most of the players in the room, regardless of level, were unrecognizable. (Even several names I knew were attached to unfamiliar faces.) Interestingly, that analogy went deeper. One of my opponents (who DID know of me from online postings) felt it was proper to call attention to my “misplays” when he disagreed (strongly, it seemed), particularly when said misplays weren’t punished by his uncooperative dice. Another opponent pulled me aside a few days after our match (which I had won) to tell me that I needed to hit loose in my homeboard. “You only get hit back about 30% of the time. Magriel pointed this out to me….” Why didn’t Paul ever tell me??
Another oft-debated topic on Stick’s site is the skill level of the MC WC players. Surprisingly given that one player was so inexperienced he thought he could use aides to help him count pips, I didn’t notice that my opponents were weaker or stronger than those who play in the Open divisions at US tournaments. I can believe that there are a few in the field who are very weak, but this happens in the US, too, and when you think about it, there are going to be people who show up to something titled “World Championship” who don’t play regularly. I don’t find this a bad thing at all. Think about what “Open” means! It would be different if backgammon had so many players (like golf and tennis) that opening the field to everyone would make it unmanageable. Oh, if we only had that problem. Similar things can be said about the other end of the spectrum in MC. There were some very strong players, but not disproportionately so compared to US tournaments.
Before I finish I’m going to chime in on the “Monte Carlo has lost its luster” topic and “let’s move the World Championship somewhere else” sentiment. From my understanding, until recently (specifically from 1978 until 2007) the MC WC was conducted by the Socie’te’ des Bains de Mer and the Hotel (Lowesà MC Grand à Fairmont renaming). Three years ago these organizations decided they didn’t want to have that as part of their business plan and that is when it was taken over by others, specifically New York’s Patti Rubin and partners. It’s obviously not the same situation anymore. Previously the hotel was using (mostly, but obviously not completely) its own staff to provide much of the labor and amenities, particularly the hotel rooms (where they did and still do profit), the food, etc. Of course they did hire staff to conduct the tournament. But their bottom line is different than someone from the outside trying to conduct the tournament who isn’t a local resident and who stands to make no revenue from patrons of the hotel, restaurant, and casino.
The attendance (including all 3 divisions) for the past 13 years is shown in the figure 1 below:
Figure 1: Attendance at the Monte Carlo World Championships for the most recent 13 years.
Attempting to mentally account for statistical fluctuations, it appears that the attendance grew at the end of the millennium and was stable for four years (2001-04) before suffering a significant drop in 2005, an apparent three year plateau (2005-07), and then a steady decline since the new arrangement was made. Although it is conventional (and convenient) to blame outside factors such as the increased popularity of poker and the worldwide recession, is there such a clear correlation between the landscape of these events and the plot above? For example, consider the influence (or lack thereof) from the 2001 World Trade Center attack. I would expect that to be at least as large of an outside influence as poker, yet where is the evidence of the effect of that event on this plot?
To at least try to help understand the attendance figures, figures 2 and 3 show attendance at other tournaments for the same time period.
Figure 2: Attendance at the annual Nordic Open Backgammon Tournament held on Easter weekend each year.
Figure 3: Summed attendance at seven US backgammon tournaments over a 12 year period (see text for details).
Similar to Monte Carlo, the Nordic Open attendance was steady from 2001-04 and also suffered a dropoff starting in 2005. Unlike MC, the Nordic has made a rebound and in two of the last three years the attendance has returned to 2000-04 levels. Unlike MC I am unfamiliar with the history of the promotion & direction of this event and so cannot comment as to whether this has or has not had an effect.
For the US I summed seven regular annual tournaments: Pittsburgh, Midwest, Michigan, Las Vegas (Spring and Fall) and Los Angeles (Spring and Fall). Because 2010 is still in progress I did not include data for this year. For the most part these seven tournaments have been consistent in both their dates and directorship, with Pittsburgh being the one event straying from this consistency (trading dates one year with the Midwest Champs but more significantly changing directors from Steve Hast to Rob Maier after the 2008 tournament). In common with its European counterparts, the US tournaments saw a plateau in attendance from 2001 to 2004 with a modest decline the remainder of the decade.
To put this in a more quantitative light, (based upon linear fitting) from 2004 to 2009 the sum of the US tournament total attendance dropped by a bit under 3% per year compared to just over 10% per year loss for MC. Looking at the effect since the MC management change (i.e. 2007-2009 time period) the US has lost just under 5% of its attendees each year compared to a bit over 11% annual loss for MC. (Note that the fractional annual loss in MC has been reasonably steady since 2004, counting 3 years before the management change and two years since.)
Finally, the breakdown between Open and lower divisions is rather consistent across the three tallies and quite telling: the percentage loss in attendance in the lower divisions is considerably worse, and with the exception of MC, accounts for NEARLY ALL of the degradation! At the Nordic Open, in fact, the Open division attendance has been increasing. In the US the annual decrease in Open attendance has averaged 0.9% per year from 2001 to 2009. The blinking red light is clear: backgammon is losing from the bottom up and if the game is to survive we must promote the game at the entry levels.
It has been proposed that the “World Championship” title be spread to tournaments around the world on a cyclical basis, with a (natural) cycle period of 4 years. Continental divisions (Europe, North America, South America, and Asia+Africa+Australia), given the current demographics of backgammon players, appears natural. However, it also seems clear that the Monte Carlo event would suffer from such a change, even in (for its sake) the optimistic scenario that it were locked in as the European location for this cycle and if in off years it hosted the European Championships. In fact, given the current trend and the reality of politics, ‘suffer’ could potentially be replaced by ‘disappear’. The global rotation of the World Championship may or may not be in the best interests of backgammon as a whole, but it definitely would be a brutal blow for the MC tournament, if this (speculative) scenario is anywhere close to realistic.
Acknowledgements: I gathered the attendance data from Bill Davis’s ChicagoPoint website and from Carol Joy Cole’s Flint Area Backgammon News hardcopy periodical. The brackets and tournament flyer were posted on Mike Main’s backgammoninlondon website, which I used to help refresh my exhausted memory. Carol Joy Cole also provided me with some historical details. Thanks to Sergey Erokhin for sending me the transcript of our match, which I plan on using to create two future articles. Lastly, to those who delivered encouraging words (either in person, on the websites, or via e-mail) during my run, “thank you!”, it was inspiring and greatly appreciated.