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Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

As recorded elsewhere, I began playing backgammon in June of 1979. The late start is misleading; my backgammon "background" goes back much further. My brother Munchkin played well enough by 1973 that he reached the semifinals of that year's Chicago Open - the winner of that tournament, Timmy Wisecarver, would later room with us in Las Vegas. Long before I knew how to set up the board I knew the proper odds to get if giving up "double aces, the first three rolls, and the cube on 2."

One fine day, about thirty years ago, Munchkin mentioned that there was much excitement in the backgammon world - the talk was that there was going to be a "million dollar tournament."

Promoting the event was a real estate man from Phoenix named Jules Sklar. His idea was that directors around the country would hold satellite tournaments, send in the prize money as entry fees, and he would organize the big event. The trouble was that no one seemed to know who Jules Sklar was, and the directors wanted him to put up a million dollars in escrow before they would send him money. He apparently did not have a loose million to tie up for a year, so the project died.

Phoenix-like it was reborn when a New York City businessman named Henry Watson picked up the pieces and created an event that had a great impact on backgammon. Watson had a couple of interesting ideas. One involved buy-backs: the players, who paid $400 to enter, could if they lost reenter for $100. The event stretched over a week, so it was possible if you played early enough to enter and reenter at least four times (possibly more). His other idea was to restrict the entries to players who had never won a thousand dollars or more in a single event, or were not otherwise deemed professional players (there were quite a few people scratching out a living hustling in those days who hardly ever played in tournaments).

There was an author named George Plimpton who had made a career out of competing as an amateur in various professional sports. He went through Spring Training with the Detroit Tigers baseball team and wrote a book called Paper Tiger. That lead to training with the Detroit Lions football team, and his actually playing a few downs as a quarterback during preseason. I think he averaged minus nine yards per play over four downs! But the book Paper Lion was made into a movie starring Alan Alda, and introduced the world to the thespic talents of the Lion's Defensive Lineman Alex Karras, who played himself. Plimpton knew Henry, and leant his name to the World's Amateur Championship, aka The Plimpton Cup.

There was a beginner's tournament with a ten thousand dollar first prize, and an even more restrictive set of entry requirements, and an open event known as the World's Professional Championship, which was probably lived up to its name - certainly the level of play was much higher in that era than the level at the concurrent World Championships.

But it was the Plimpton that drew the most attention. The first year's top prize was in the hundred and twenty-five to hundred and fifty thousand dollar range - well short of a million but still more than any other tournament. After that it became a fixed prize of one hundred thousand for first, fifty thousand for second, etc. The first winner was a Canadian named Chico Felberbaum, who seems to have vanished in the mists of backgammon lore. But some of the other winners included David Leibowitz, Joe Sylvester, author Bill Kennedy, and in the last event of its eight-year run Dean Muench.

In the years since there has been talk now and again of a million dollar tournament, but the goal has proven elusive. Ten years ago I won the first qualifier for the "World Series of Backgammon." Or was it the "Super Bowl?" Whatever, in the end it was the "cancelled and here's your prize money refunded" bowl. A few years later promoter Abraham Eitan tried to put one together, but somehow it failed to happen.

In January of 2007, it is happening!

This time around the organizer is PartyGammon, a subsidiary of PartyGaming, sister site of the enormously successful PartyPoker. They certainly have a loose million to put up, and have guaranteed the prize money. The first prize is still shy of the million mark, but the total prize will be at least a million, and the first prize will be a minimum of five hundred thousand dollars.

The tournament will allow a maximum of one hundred and twenty-eight entries, half allocated to those wishing to pay the full ten thousand dollars needed, and half winning their way in through qualifying tournaments on the PartyGammon web site. What happens if the tournament doesn't fill up? There will be that much better equity for those who do play, since the minimum guaranteed prize money once again is: one million dollars! Should all one hundred and twenty-eight slots fill then the organizers will rake five percent, leaving one million two hundred and sixteen thousand in the kitty, with half - six hundred and eight thousand - going to the winner, and the other prizes meted out in their proper portions.

I spoke with Director Howard Markowitz and learned he has some interesting ideas.

The tournament is providing dice, and it is providing clocks. The clocks used will be Bronstein clocks. For those unfamiliar with them, the Bronstein clocks give the player a certain amount of time each move, and also a certain amount of time in reserve. I believe (Howard and I discussed this at the Indiana Open over lunch, and I am going by memory) that each player gets two minutes per point, and twelve seconds per move. In a seventeen-point match each player would start with thirty-four minutes on the clock. As long as they make their moves within twelve seconds no time is removed from their reserve (but no time is added if they move in less than twelve seconds). This may not sound like much time, but in practice it works out to a lot. In a seventeen-point match let's suppose there are twenty-five games, and each side averages twenty moves. That would be a thousand moves, and if half of them are completed in under twelve seconds - let's say six seconds - and the rest go over dipping into the reserve, the match could still (if that reserve is used up by both sides) take three and a half hours. A player could get into time trouble, but unlike standard clocks, with the Bronstein clocks it is possible to never run out of time as long as one plays every move in fewer than twelve seconds.

The seats will be assigned, and the clocks will all be on one side of the board, eliminating arguments. Why no arguments? Because there will be a redraw every round, and so the clock may or may not be on the side you prefer, but it will happen randomly.

There will be only two matches per day, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. The only "side events" will be some jackpots the last two days.

So there will be plenty of time, for the losers, to enjoy a world class resort. The Million will take place on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Hosting the event is the legendary Atlantis Resort and Casino. Backgammon history will be made there this January. I will be there. I hope to see you!

Tournament and hotel information can be found at this web site:

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