Last Monday (5th March 2018) one of the founding fathers of modern backgammon, Paul Magriel, passed away at his home in Las Vegas at the age 71. I had known Paul for thirty-five years and this article is written in tribute to him and all that he did for the game of backgammon.
Paul was the son of Paul Magriel Sr. (1906–1990), an art collector and author, and Christine Fairchild Magriel. He leaves a son, Louis Fairchild Magriel whom he had with his third wife, French poker player, Martine Oulés.
Paul was a mathematics professor at the Newark College of Engineering (now New Jersey Institute of Technology) between 1969 and 1973 but his passion was always games. He became New York State Junior Chess Champion at the age of 19 but he abandoned chess when he became fascinated with backgammon in the 1970s as the game began a surge of popularity. This was nearly certainly initiated by Russian émigré, Prince Alexis Obolensky, who is credited with creating the international backgammon tournament circuit. While still in Russia, Obolensky had been taught the game by his gardener, so you could say the true father of modern backgammon is an unknown Russian gardener!
Unlike chess, backgammon theory was relatively undeveloped in the 1970s and so it was fruitful ground for Magriel and his peers (Bill Robertie, Kent Goulding, Roger Lowe, Mike Senkiewicz, Eric Seidel, Jason Lester to name but a few) to explore. Magriel was the leader of the pack.
“The Backgammon Book” (1970) by Oswald Jacoby and John Crawford was the first quality backgammon book to be published for nearly forty years and to the best of my knowledge it was the first place anybody wrote down the basic 25% rule for accepting doubles. It is also the first book to contain a definition of the term “beaver”.
I don’t know when or why Paul decided to produce his magnum opus, “Backgammon” in 1976 but I suspect that a significant driving force was his first wife, Renée. As I learnt in later life, Paul was not the most organised of individuals and I think that without Renée the book would never have seen the light of day.
All backgammon books until “Backgammon” had explained how to play the game but Magriel went much deeper and explored the ‘why’ rather than just the ‘how’. Nowadays we take for granted concepts such as bold versus safe play, but Paul was the first to set down the reasoning in print. It is remarkable that the book has stood the test of time and it remains the bible of the game. Is it perfect? Of course not, because it was written before the advent of computers and serious students of the game will also have to hand a copy of Jeremy Bagai’s “Classic Backgammon Revisited” so they can understand the errors that Magriel made
At some point Paul decided to learn more about the game by creating a fictitious 64 player tournament where he played the part of all 64 players. In the final X-22 defeated X-34 and so he took X-22 as his soubriquet. That stuck with him for the rest of his life and in fact, it was quite often abbreviated simply to “X”.
His tournament victories were many and in 1978 he won the Backgammon World Championship in the Bahamas. In a field of 242 players (quite possibly the largest ever entry for the World Championship) he narrowly defeated Kent Goulding in the semi-finals and then crushed Kal Robinson 25-4 in the final.
Paul was undoubtedly a great player and also a great theorist but more than anything else he was a great teacher. He had a huge passion for teaching which stayed with him throughout his life. In the early 1990s he lived in London for a few months. I was lucky enough, along with Barry ‘Bigplay” McAdam, to have a series of lessons with him. He charged only nominal rates, for which we were very grateful, and our games became much stronger because of those lessons.
We spent hours studying his 1991 Monte-Carlo quarter-final match against Michael Meyburg (who went on to become World Champion that year) and the depth of his analysis was truly amazing. However, that match was played just before the advent of neural net backgammon programs (bots) with TD-Gammon being the forerunner. Because of that it was one of the last matches to be played when much of the analysis was subjective and rollouts were still being done by hand. It was also played before the bots started to change our understanding of modern backgammon theory.
How well did Magriel and Meyburg play in 1991 by modern standards? I have run the match through Extreme Gammon and the Performance Ratings are Magriel: 6.26, Meyburg: 7.74. However, Meyburg’s Luck Rating is 8.6 which is incredibly high for a 21-point match, so it is no surprise that he won. Those PR ratings are very reasonable given that the two players were applying backgammon theory that was about to be radically updated by the bots, and that match play doubling theory was really still in its infancy if you look at where we are today.
After the bots arrived Paul was never quite the same force in tournaments as he was at the height of his powers. This was due to a number of reasons: the average player was now much stronger because of the bots; Paul was slow to adopt the teachings of the bots and change his playing style; his personal lifestyle became a significant influence as he abused his body with substances that he should have stayed well away from, but which he was unable to resist.
As well as his superb teaching he was also a brilliant commentator. He usually covered the World Championship final, bringing both technical insights and humour to the occasion. In 2005 he was the lead commentator at Monte Carlo, ably assisted by the UK’s John Clark, and the whole event was recorded and televised by Andy Bell in his brilliant documentary “High Stakes Backgammon”. I highly recommend watching it if you have not done so and you will get some idea of just how good a commentator Paul was.
Despite trying he never managed to publish another book, although he was the backgammon columnist for the New York Times for many years. He started many different books and even managed to leave the only copy of one book on an aeroplane at a time when everything was still being done by hand. In 2014 he very kindly asked me to collaborate with him on writing “Backgammon 2” as he wanted to explain some of his newer concepts to the backgammon community. He knew then that his health was not great, and he wanted to publish something before he died. Unfortunately, I then learnt first-hand how difficult it was to work with Paul on a practical basis. The eight-hour time difference was a problem but ultimately it was his inability to stick to any sort of schedule that killed the project. I still have all the notes and a few hundred XG positions that he sent me and given time I will see if it is practical to produce something from them, even without Paul there to guide me.
I originally met Paul in the USA in 1982 and we remained friends for over 35 years. I only ever played him competitively twice. At Monte Carlo in 2000 I beat him 17-14 in the first round of the World Championship. I was very lucky, and my cause was helped by winning three gammons with the cube on 2. At Double Match Point (the cube is on 4) we reached the position at the head of this article.
From there play continued as follows. CB (Blue) 44: 5/1(3), 4/off, X-22 (Black) 64: bar/21*/15; CB 54: fans, X-22 42: 16/12, 8/6, CB: 21: fans, X-22 53: 15/7, CB 64: bar/19*/15 (phew!), X-22 61: bar/19, 12/11, CB 31: 15/14*/11, X-22 53: bar/20, 7/4, CB 65: 11/5*/off and it was all over.
Both my play of the initial 44 and Paul’s 61 are errors, but those mistakes were not picked up in post-match analysis as we didn’t have a computer with us. It was only years later that I realised we had both made mistakes, mine being the much more obvious one. My 44 should have been played, 5/1(2), 4/off(2). No modern expert would make my error.
Paul got his revenge in the semi-final of the second consolation where he crushed me. Despite being a huge favourite, he still did a 200 euro saver with me – he was forever generous to weaker players.
In conclusion, I am deeply grateful to have known and occasionally worked with Paul during my backgammon career. The term genius is overused but I would say that the term correctly describes Paul. Like many people with his sort of mind, he occasionally had trouble coping with the real world but without him the modern game of backgammon would not be what it is today. He enriched the lives of not only those of us who were privileged to know him but also thousands of others who merely knew him through his seminal work, “Backgammon”. I will miss him and if I can make anything of the material he has left behind then I will do so.