In late 1985, my first week in Cambridge, I played my first game of backgammon over a physical board, and started spending evenings playing long sessions fuelled by Southern Comfort and lemonade. Even though I ended up organising the university club and running termly tournaments – and eventually winning the Michaelmas Tankard – I never imagined that many years later, I’d be inviting the UK’s top players back to where it all began for me. This weekend, 62 players descended on the University Centre to fight it out for the first Cambridge Open title.
Cambridge’s city centre is a wonderful place to be, but at times its transport system seems as mediaeval as the colleges around it. So I was very relieved to see no repeat of Winchester in 2017, with everyone ready bright and early for five rounds of Swiss on the Saturday. Fate had thrown a different spanner in the works, though, with England playing a World Cup quarter-final on the Saturday afternoon (who could have predicted that when I booked the room!?) and sizeable contingents split between wanting to watch it, and wanting to play their backgammon and have an evening off. So with some trepidation we set off with an experimental format – play three rounds, then split the Swiss into two smaller Swisses, one to continue with the final two rounds, and the other to resume several hours later after the football, before re-assembling them for the main playoffs.
But first, a presentation by Cambridge club organiser Peter Booth, of engraved glass cubes to this season’s league winners (div. 1: Neil Foston, div 2: Phillip Cohen, and div 3: Jon Ayling – remember those names!). Sadly we’ve apparently exhausted the national supply of them so Open winners would receive engraved diamonds instead.
We were delighted to have a strong local showing from the local club, all first-timers at a big tournament, as well as people travelling in from the US and Ireland. Neil continued his fine run from the end of the division 1 season to reach the dividing point unbeaten, alongside another local, Michael Skinner. At 3pm the mass exodus started – roughly half the players heading off (fortuitously a roughly even spread across the score range, and unexpectedly an even spread between tournament regulars and newcomers). 26 played on in relative peace and quiet – punctuated by the occasional raucous cheer from the floor above – Michael Skinner adding two more impressive wins to be the only one to reach 5/5. At 5pm, having not had to endure penalties, the rest returned and played catch-up.
Some of the bigger names, meanwhile, were languishing low down thanks to the capricious random number generator doing the draw as well as the dice – Cat Bucur finishing with 1/5 and Richard Furborough 0…
We had an unusually large uptake for doubles, a mixture of established pairs and spur-of-the-moment sign-ups. 11 pairs kicked off, meaning four rounds. We only got two rounds played in the evening, though, and this was to create an intense Sunday…
Fate was certainly trying hard to disrupt things as on Sunday morning, some of the streets around the centre were closed for a fun run. However, everyone was in on time and we kicked off with the 1-point playoffs for the Last 16, alongside the doubles semi-finals. The draw then paired up our likely favourites in the first round of the main – Jon Barnes/Steve Bibby, and Yan Kit Chan/Sebastian Wilkinson – giving everyone a good shot at a place in the final.
We also had a beginners’ session planned. In the event it was rather small, and assistant TD Peter Booth stepped in to play against them all in addition to the intended games. We had a clear winner – student Jemma Laver, who had only joined the UKBGF and found out about the Open three days before, and who beat everyone including Peter…
With everything pretty well on schedule, the Last Chance matches were a nice beefy 5 points. For those knocked out of that, we tried out a Really Last Chance, 1-pointers with re-entry allowed, a bit of fun with a nice bottle of Brut as a prize. After a manic rush of re-entries towards the 3.30pm cut-off, the line was drawn at 64 – not that Sean Clennell needed any re-entries as he picked up the prize on his first attempt…
It then became obvious that we had some severe fixture congestion approaching – with the doubles final outstanding between Yan and Su, and Sebastian Wilkinson / Chris Palmer – but with Yan going all the way in the Main and Seb likewise in the Last Chance, we couldn’t have people playing two games at once!
So the Main final kicked off first, Yan Kit Chan vs. local hero Neil Foston. With kibitzers gathering, the first game featured a big cube very quickly – Neil (red) having to decide on this 8-cube, not a decision you want to have to make with the pressure of everyone watching:
Neil took and the dice weren’t kind – 8-0 to Yan. However, Neil clawed his way back slowly to to 8-4, then a double-gammon for 8-8, and another single, and the match was alive again. Another tricky cube decision for Neil, another take, and it was 10-9 Crawford. Neil later said he wished he’d dropped and played a DMP game to finish – but it was very close. The Crawford game was all one way, though, with Neil pinned back on the 2 point and not getting a shot at all. Yan shook hands, had 5 minutes for the presentation and photo-call, and was then straight back to the board…
… barely a pause before the doubles final. However, a second title wasn’t to be – some powerful rolling gave Chris and Seb a double-gammon to start and they never looked back, winning the match 5-0.
A huge thankyou to everyone who took part, the tournament went really smoothly and it was a pleasure to direct you all! Many thanks also to Peter who ably assisted, and to the University Centre for looking after us really well. We certainly intend to hold another one next year. The weekend was also really good for making new friends, especially with so many coming who aren’t (yet!) regulars on the tournament circuit, and it appears a Cambs v Norfolk meetup could be on the cards very soon, as well as a new offshoot of the club out in Newmarket…
Roll of honour:
Championship: Winner: Yan Kit Chan, Runner-up Neil Foston, Semi-finalists Mike Betts and Allan Dye
Consolation: Winner Richard Furborough, runner-up Sandy Gilchrist
Last Chance: Winner Sebastian Wilkinson, runner-up Cat Bucur
Really Last Chance: Winner Sean Clennell, runner-up Jon Ayling
Doubles: Winners Sebastian Wilkinson/Chris Palmer, runners-up Yan Kit Chan/Su Shin Lim
Beginners: Winner Jemma Laver, runner-up Terence Cant