I can’t remember when I first met George Sulimirski. He was certainly on the London backgammon scene before I started playing (from the late 1970s) at several London venues, including the Water Rat pub, the Grosvenor Backgammon and Bridge Club, and later at Stocks Club in the Kings Road, Chelsea. Back then he was probably the player I feared the most, and I got the impression that he understood the game better than most players of that era….certainly far better than I did. Even in those days George came across as the ‘elder statesman’ of backgammon, and that impression of him stayed with me though the years. Sadly this elder statesman left us on Wednesday 28th April, aged 83. Several players who knew George better than I did have submitted tributes and anecdotes….
Chris Bray writes:
George first played poker, but then he learnt to play backgammon and that became his first love.
He honed his skills, initially at The Clermont Club and Crockfords, and subsequently at Victor Lownes’ Stocks Club in the Kings Road and Aspinalls in Curzon Street.
Always smartly dressed, George played the European Circuit for many years, famously winning Venice in 1978 by beating such luminaries as Lewis Deyong and the then world champion, Paul Magriel. For many years he could be found at the World Championships in Monte Carlo in July and then he would drive to Marbella and spend two months playing backgammon round the pool in the Marbella Club.
George met his wife Diana at a backgammon tournament in the Water Rat pub in the King’s Road in 1978. He beat her in the first round, bought her a large drink, asked for her phone number and the rest is history.
His large contribution to the game was to found and run, along with Diana, the Double Five Backgammon Club. It started life in the Polish Club at 55 Exhibition Road (hence the name) and moved to three other locations in its twenty-year life span. All were welcome unless they failed to meet George’s dress standards. An itinerant American once tried to gain access while wearing a pair of shorts. Needless to say, George gave him short shrift!
Many a world champion passed through the Club’s portals and when Paul Magriel lived in London for a short spell he made the Double Five his second home. Terence Reese of bridge fame was also a frequent player. Regular chouettes, the version of the game played by more than two people, would be played by many lovable, and some not so lovable characters often until 4 a.m.
George was a strong player, but his greatest asset was his calm temperament over the board. In all the many years I played with George I never saw him lose his temper. In my regular backgammon column, previously in The Independent and now in The Times every Friday, George often featured as either “The Doyen” or “The Prophylactic Pole”. Whilst playing in a Chouette, George would keep a watchful eye on the game but would also keep an eye on world events by perusing The Times.
After the Double Five closed its doors, George was a regular member of a chouette in Battersea and could also be found at the RAC in Pall Mall. Sadly, Covid lockdown meant he couldn’t play in his regular games before he died, but he spent many hours playing online at home which he really enjoyed.
Like many of his generation he found computers initially unnerving because they changed the theory of the game so much. While he never quite believed what they were telling him he did manage to adjust his game to the modern era, and he learnt from the machines.
George and Diana travelled around the world playing in backgammon tournaments and made many friends. Mostly in Europe they would hop into their car, drive to Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich, Geneva, St. Tropez and many other places. Once, in Italy, George won so many lire that he bought Diana a pair of long boots so that she could stuff the money between the boots and her legs and smuggle it into the UK. Another time in Paris they went to play in a tournament in Omar Sharif’s Backgammon Club. The entrants were mostly Frenchmen who became more and more horrified as Diana managed to win all her matches. Not only was she not French, but a woman! What they said in French is unrepeatable.
George will be sorely missed. Upon his death I posted a tribute on Facebook and the comments there make it obvious how much he was admired and respected by all who knew him.
He has been called “the Gentleman of Backgammon”.
John Clark illustrates George’s ascerbic wit:
I remember George passionately arguing for what was actually the right play in the chouette…faced with obstinacy he said, “Why don’t you just write him a cheque instead?”
John Broomfield adds a little background:
Jerzy (George) was one of five children. His father was Tadeusz, born in Poland in 1898. His father escaped to the UK via France following the invasion of Poland by the Germans and the Russians. He became a renowned archaeologist and was also a noted historian.
George and I have been at a great many overseas tournaments. In June of 1983, whilst on a flight to the Isle of Man, I read of the passing away of his father in the obituary column of The Times. At the tournament venue I sought out George to offer condolences. He had not seen the report and thanked me for giving him the paper for his retention.
Finally Will Cockerell pays tribute to the game’s benevolent Uncle…
All gammoners like to see ourselves as more Alex Higgins than John Higgins, or more Botham than Tavare, but the truth is, the latter can often be the more effective. Witness John winning four World titles to Alex’s two, or Wisden’s notes on Chris Tavare’s career:
Everything about Chris Tavaré annoyed the Australians in the early 1980s: he was the antithesis of their idea of a cricketer. An Oxford graduate, rather silent, effete-seeming, he simply refused to get out of their way and batted for hours, even days.
Our dearly departed George was quite happy with his super-tight style of play, as it indeed allowed him to play for hours, days, years and decades without getting into too many of the dreadful scrapes that afflict so many chouetters. He freely admitted to passing the odd beaver, which is of course a non-sequitur, and as Chris points out above, he was able to enjoy The Times whilst playing.
However, that said, it was George, and not some of the more marquee names in the Battersea chouette, who inflicted on me my longest ever stay at BG hospital – some four years in length. I had to ship over 140 points to him that night, and it had only taken him 90 minutes. The tale is still told of me crossing the road into the park and hurling my beautiful, personalised doubling cube into the trees, where it struck and killed a squirrel (I hope – pay back for all those furry animals, the cube had known only too well).
In one of my first ever sessions with George, I was in the box, and looked up sharply at the team and said, “I want you to know, I’ve seen this position before, and know how to play it.” Upon observing said play, George replied: “and we want you to know that you will always be warmly welcomed in this chouette, with open and loving arms.” What nurturing, pastoral care! For the next decade he was as good as his word, albeit there may’ve been a hint of that great Craig Parkinson line from Black Books: “You know the boys had a nickname for you the moment you walked in. Usually it takes years. They call you, ‘the Goldmine…’ ”
But George was never a shark, preferring instead to anaesthetize his opponents; and perhaps the reason for his longevity in the game [from battling Lucky Lucan to the likes of myself], and for the fact that he was well-known to many casual players in London, is that he was never too ruthless with inflicting maximum punishment. George realized that if we all try to destroy each other, that the turnover rate in the game is that much swifter (goodness, how many come and go!), and that the approach of seeing off the opposition via “death by a thousand cuts” is more civilized in the long run, certainly for growing the game. He might have been a throwback to the past, but backgammon could probably do with a few more Tavares, and a few less Bothams.