I cannot remember where or when I first met Wayne Felton. It would have been at a backgammon tournament in the UK; possibly over the board, more likely at a table of friends sharing a meal.
Some people are like that. They don’t make a huge first impression but you just feel good when they are around. I don’t know how it happened but very soon Wayne would become the first face I would look for at every tournament I attended.
We made each other laugh. A lot. Wayne had a wicked sense of humour and I could always be relied upon to push the envelope in that respect, but when I would see Wayne laughing while simultaneously covering his eyes with one hand and slowly shaking his head like he couldn’t believe what he had just heard, I knew I had gone far enough. Any more and I would have stepped over the line from funny to crass.
Wayne’s own humour was largely self-deprecating. He was never the hero of the stories he used to tell. Sometimes he was the butt, and sometimes just a naïve observer. One such tale from the latter category was when travelling on an internal flight in a far-eastern country in a less than airworthy-appearing plane he remarked to the flight attendant that he had never been on a flight before where there were no safety instructions read out before take off. The stewardess looked at him as if he was mentally challenged and curtly explained “We crash; you die!”
On another occasion my wife Jo asked him what his online poker handle was? He replied matter-of-factly “I’m an accountant. It’s Wayne Felton.”
Most people’s abiding memories of Wayne will be of him making them laugh. His wit could be sharp when pricking the egos of those who were pompous, bombastic or arrogant, but he never punched down or picked on the easy target in any group. Indeed with those who were socially awkward, shy, or just plain uninteresting, Wayne would go out of his way to defend and patiently look for the good in them. I never asked but I feel that he knew what it was like to have been the underdog in life and despised those who would bully those less fortunate than themselves.
Shortly after meeting Wayne he asked me to help teach him backgammon. Every week or two I would put on one of my less offensive T-shirts and meet him at his club in Portman Square for a two hour backgammon lesson. He wasn’t a natural but he worked hard. I’m not sure that Wayne was a natural at anything but he compensated for that by sheer determination and effort.
As in backgammon so in life, his achievements were earned not given. I know he had many hurdles to overcome in his work and personal life. He was badly ripped off by a business partner who he had trusted, and lost the rewards of many years of work. I do not know the details because Wayne was not one to bemoan his misfortunes. Nobody is interested in your bad beat story. Life had rolled him an anti-joker and Wayne just quietly started again. In the words of Kipling:
“If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools”
Wayne’s generosity was legendary. Many was the time when a group of backgammon players would be waiting for the bill after a meal only to find that Wayne had already picked up the tab and paid for the whole table.
Indeed sometimes when Jo and I dined out with Wayne I would have to resort to instructing the waiting staff before the meal that on no account were they to let Wayne pay. Nonetheless he paid far more often than he should have. On one occasion he casually asked me if I would like to go to a football match with him as he had a “spare” ticket. I said “Sure” but it was only when he told me to bring a passport and clothes for the weekend that I discovered the spare ticket was for the World Cup Final in Berlin and Wayne had got us the most expensive seats and already paid for all the flights and accommodation. Of course Wayne wouldn’t take any money towards this and insisted that I was doing him a favour because otherwise the ticket would have gone to waste. Yeah right …
On another occasion I travelled to Venice for a tournament and Wayne turned up with a friend who had just sold his company for €100M. We went out on a pre-tournament bar crawl and even in this company Wayne kept on grabbing the bill. At the last call of the night – an Irish pub – I pushed myself to the bar, handed over the largest banknote in my possession and ordered nine shots of their best tequila. Without hesitation Wayne reached into his pocket and handed another note to the barman saying “Yeah, that sounds good, nine tequilas for me too and keep the change.”
Jo and I met Wayne at tournaments around the world. On two of our trips to Las Vegas Wayne enrolled us in the Las Vegas Pro-Am with me as the supposed professional. The entry fee alone was $10k and of course Wayne paid for all of it while insisting that I share 50:50 in any winnings. Fortunately we did make a profit and I of course insisted that he remove the entry fee before splitting the winnings but to get my way I literally had to leave the money on the table and run out of the tournament room.
None of this generosity however was in any way designed to flaunt his wealth or buy favour. Indeed I don’t believe Wayne was ever even particularly wealthy. ‘Generous’ probably isn’t even the right descriptive word. ‘Benevolent’ would be more accurate. In his own little way he would try to make the world more as he thought it should be, rather than how it was. He gave when no one was looking and was as generous with his time as he was with his money.
Due to certain health issues I have been away from the backgammon scene for over a decade now and consequently saw much less of Wayne who continued to be a much loved fixture at tournaments all around the world where he recorded many successes including:
2010 Bristol Open Masters winner
2015 UK Open Speedgammon finalist
2017 Mediterranean Open Championship winner (Turkey)
In 2016 I made a brief reappearance at the London Open, partly because it was taking place virtually on my doorstep, but mainly because I expected many of my old backgammon friends – and especially Wayne – to be there. As it transpired he was not able to attend and although I was lucky enough to finish runner-up it just didn’t feel the same without him there to watch.
The very next year Wayne won that tournament. Nobody could have been prouder than me that the student had surpassed his teacher.
Wayne was always somewhat reticent to talk about his life outside of backgammon. In part I think that was because he was quite a private person but also because he felt the work he did was intrinsically boring to anyone outside of his profession, and Wayne would have been mortified to think that he had ever bored someone. One personal subject he was not reluctant to speak about however was his daughter Annabel, of whom he was immensely proud, and for whom he had the deepest love.
Jo and I shared a running joke with Wayne when he was employed by a company that ran care homes for the elderly. We would pretend that he was in charge of a horrendously exploitative granny farming corporation called ironically ‘Wayne Cares.’ This was funny to us not because of the silly, slightly prurient pun, but because it was the complete antithesis of the reality.
Wayne, of course, would never have exploited anyone. Fairness, decency, and empathy were at the very core of his being. If I was asked to sum up my friend’s life in just two words it would be this – ‘Wayne cared.’
I know I’ll be far from alone in feeling a deep sense of loss that Wayne has gone from our lives. In the end Wayne’s big heart failed him literally, but it never failed figuratively. My fear is that Wayne died without ever really knowing how respected and loved he really was; of how much he had touched and improved the lives of so many who knew him.
I don’t mind admitting that I have shed many a tear since hearing the sad news. I am not normally given to lachrymosity. I didn’t cry when my father died, nor my mother.
In writing this however, I realise that these tears are not for Wayne. These are selfish tears that I will never again see my wonderful friend cover his eyes, shake his head, and rock with laughter at one of my stupid jokes. They are tears of empathy for Annabel that she has lost someone who loved and cared about her more than she can ever know, and for all Wayne’s many friends who will be feeling the same sadness that he will no longer be in their lives. Lastly they are tears of gratitude that I, Jo, and many people around the world were lucky enough to have had Wayne in their lives even if it was for too short a time. In that respect at least we all rolled a super-joker.
Addendum (i) 21st December:
As mentioned in a comment below, Wayne’s funeral will take place at 4pm on 2nd January, at Sandwell Valley Crematorium, West Bromwich B71 3SX. All Wayne’s friends are welcome to attend. There will be an on-site wake after the funeral, and probably also a separate informal gathering at a local pub thereafter.
Addendum (ii) 28th December:
Further announcement on Wayne’s Facebook page:
“We are sorry to announce for those who haven’t heard, that Wayne Felton passed away unexpectedly on the 9th December 2019, at the age of 58. Thank you for all the kind messages and support during this difficult time. The funeral service will take place on 2nd January 2020 at Sandwell Valley Crematorium at 4pm. Family flowers only please, any charitable donations if desired made payable to The British Heart foundation. For further details contact A J Timmins & Son on 0121 550 1345.
Amanda McCulloch Felton and Annabel Felton.”