To start, we must go back to the 1960s when Prince Alexis Obolensky, known as “The Father of Modern Backgammon”, established the World Backgammon Club in New York City and began to organize the first international backgammon tournaments. Prince Obolensky’s parents and ancestors were of a noble family from the Rurik Dynasty that escaped from Russia to Turkey after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Born in 1914, Prince Alexis would have been between five and 10 years old when he was taught to play backgammon by his family’s gardener in Istanbul, this measured by the fact that his family also lived in France in the 1920s before they emigrated to the USA where Prince Alexis later graduated from the University of Virginia.
Being very charismatic, Prince Alexis Obolensky became well-acquainted with many socialites and celebrities in the USA and Europe, and shared his passion of the game with them. He devised a tournament system in 1963 and then organized the first major international backgammon tournament at the Lucayan Beach Hotel in Freeport, Bahamas in 1964. This ignited what is known as “the heyday of Backgammon” – people, young and old, began to play the game everywhere and backgammon tournaments grew in popularity.
Tabacco, liquor and automobile companies began sponsoring backgammon tournaments and the game was enjoyed by Playboy’s Hugh Hefner who organized backgammon parties at his famous Los Angeles mansion. Lucille Ball, Ari and Christina Onassis, Polly Bergen and Jill St. John are just a few of many socialites and celebrities that got involved in the game.
Photo copyright © by Joseph Pasternack.
Eventually, Prince Alexis Obolensky, invented a standardized set of tournaments’ backgammon rules and came up with the idea that there should be a tournament that would decide who is the best player or “champion of the world” and so the first backgammon tournament called a “World Championship” was held in Las Vegas in 1967. It was won that year, and again in 1968 and 1971, by Tim Holland who later wrote three books on the strategy of the game.
The Las Vegas World Championships continued until 1975 but as you will see from the results below, there were a couple of years when the event was apparently not held, specifically in 1969 and 1970:
1967 Tim Holland – USA
1968 Tim Holland – USA
1971 Tim Holland – USA
1972 Oswald Jacoby – USA
1973 Carol Crawford – USA
1974 Claude Beer – USA
1975 Billy Eisenberg – USA
However, information on the backgammon events of that era, as well as the entire history of events called World Championships thereafter, is being researched by Dale Kerr of Australia. Kerr’s research tends to indicated that indeed a World Championship was held in Las Vegas in 1969 and was supposedly won by Alice Topping and that it seems to be true that, for reasons yet unknown, no event was held in 1970.
Hopefully, with the help of others, Kerr’s research may eventually give us an indication of how many players attended those early World Championships in Las Vegas and how many players from other countries participated.
Then in 1976, Lewis Deyong, a UK businessman and promoter announces a World Championship to be held on Paradise Island in The Bahamas. Deyong, an expert player himself, won the Paris Championship and the Phillip Morris Munich Championship in 1974 and who was the runner-up at the 1973 Las Vegas World Championship. He was also a regular player at the Playboy Mansion, and in fact, some years later (in 1977) wrote Playboy’s Book of Backgammon followed by a book called Backgammon: Learning to Win (in 1979).
The Bahamas World Backgammon Championships were won by
1976 Baron Vernon Ball – USA
1977 Ken Goodman – USA
1978 Paul Magriel – USA
Again, from the results, it would appear as if attendance was dominated by U.S. players and while The Bahamas attendance records for 1976 and 1977 are readily available, in 1978 the event apparently had a bracket of 256 players.
Meanwhile, Prince Alexis Obolensky began organizing major European Backgammon tournaments and his first was held in Monte Carlo in 1973.
Monaco at “The Coupe de Monaco” in Monte Carlo.
This was the first major European tournamentObolensky organized back in July of 1973.
Photo copyright © by Joseph Pasternack.
Between 1976 and 1978, an event called the European Open Championships was held annually in Monte Carlo, and in 1979, Lewis Deyong proposed the combination of that event and The Bahamas World Championship into a single event to be name the World Backgammon Championship.This event became recognized as the true competition for the world title and has been played in Monte Carlo ever since. Holding it in Monaco also increased the attendance since many players from other backgammon-playing countries, especially those in Europe, could now participate in an event closer and cheaper to travel to from their home country than The Bahamas or the USA. And while it became more expensive for Americans to travel across the pond to compete, the attendance in those early years was still dominated by players from the USA.Here are the winners of the Monte Carlo World Championship in reverse chronological order:
2009 Masayuki Mochizuki – Japan
2008 Lars Trabolt – Denmark
2007 Jorge Alberto Pan – Argentina
2006 Philip Vischjager – The Netherlands
2005 Dennis Carlston – USA
2004 Peter Hallberg – Denmark
2003 Jon Kristian Røyset – Norway
2002 Mads Andersen – Denmark
2001 Jörgen Granstedt – Sweden
2000 Katie Scalamandre – USA
1999 Jörgen Granstedt – Sweden
1998 Michael Meyburg – Germany
1997 Jerry Grandell – Sweden
1996 David Nahmad – Italy
1995 David Ben-Zion – Israel
1994 Frank Frigo – USA
1993 Peter Jes Thomsen – Denmark
1992 Ion Ressu – Romania
1991 Michael Meyburg – Germany
1990 Hal Heinrich – Canada
1989 Joseph Russell – USA
1988 Phillip Marmorstein – Germany
1987 William Robertie – USA
1986 Clement Palacci – Italy
1985 Charles-Henri Sabet – Italy
1984 Mike Svobodny – USA
1983 William Robertie – USA
1982 Jacques Michel – Switzerland
1981 Lee Genud – USA
1980 Walter Coratella – Mexico
1979 Luigi Villa – Italy
To date, three players have won the World Championship twice – William (Bill) Robertie of the USA, Michael Meyburg of Germany and Jörgen Granstedt of Sweden.
The record attendance of the World Championships is still under research but if those that compete in all divisions were to be counted, it could likely surpass the 500 mark. In the last decade, one of the best attendances was that of 2002, when 470 players attended the event to compete in the three main flights – 281 played in the Championship division, 114 in the Intermediates and 75 in the Beginners.
However, this year (2008), attendance was down at the Monte Carlo Championship where only a total of 298 players competed in the three main flights – 199 in the Championship, 58 in the Intermediates and 41 in the Beginners.
Over the years, other tournament organizers have used different variations of names to call their events “World” titles, such as the ABC World Championships held in the USA, the World Cup in Texas, the World Cup Challenge held in Turkey and Romania, and the World Grand Championship in Morocco. And since there is no international body or federation that governs backgammon (such as those that exist in games like Chess and Bridge) virtually any respected organizer may organize one type of a World Championship or another, and probably do it quite successfully. However, unless it fades away, the Monte Carlo title will continue to be recognized as the lone “official” and most respected competition for the illustrious title of “World Backgammon Champion”.
Side note: Prince Alexis Obolensky passed away on February, 1986 in his Manhattan home at the age of 71. Lewis Deyong lives in the United Kingdom and even today is often contacted about things related backgammon tournaments.
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