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Backgammon’s Secret Celebrity Society

July 09, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

art: Nick Hensley

Places

Backgammon’s Secret Celebrity Society

July 09, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

art: Nick Hensley

Mick Jagger. Diana Ross. Cher. In certain circles, 1970s nightlife was as synonymous with a once-dowdy parlor game as it was with disco and drugs. This is how it all went down after hours.

Backgammon might very well be the world’s oldest board game. Archaeologists discovered a backgammon board in Shahr-e Sukhteh, Iran, that dates to 3000 B.C., as well as in King Tut’s tomb. Homer mentions the game in The Odyssey, as do Shakespeare and Chaucer in their works. Roman emperor Claudius had a built-in set on his chariot and Thomas Jefferson played while drafting the Declaration of Independence.

By 1930, however, American humorist Robert Benchley was referring to backgammon as the “spinach” of games, noting that it was “something you played only when you had tonsillitis, and didn’t think it was so hot even then.” And yet, for a few years at the end of the 1970s, this ancient game became the hottest thing going in New York and Los Angeles nightclubs, every bit as popular as the hustle or the Harvey Wallbanger.

How did this happen?

The game’s change of fortune began with a descendant of the Rurik Dynasty and Tsarist high society, Russian Prince Alexis Obolensky. After his family fled to Istanbul during the Russian Revolution of 1917, a young “Oby,” as he was known, learned to play backgammon from his Turkish gardener. Eventually his family settled in Manhattan and, by the 1940s, Obolensky had become infamous on the high-society scene (an “aristocrat‐socialite‐huckster,” The New York Times labeled him) for his playboy peccadilloes and penchant for gambling. Above all, it seemed, he was obsessed with returning backgammon into the public consciousness.

He saw his chance when, in 1964, the recently opened Lucayan Beach Hotel on Grand Bahama Island asked Obolensky to entice his coterie of socialites to come down to the multimillion-dollar resort. He agreed—on the condition that the hotel host a high-stakes backgammon tournament. The first International Backgammon Tournament would include 48 whales, including stockbrokers such as Bindy Banker, New York publishers like Porter Ijams, racehorse breeders including Charles Wacker III, scenesters such as Jelly Wehby and Woolworth Donahue, and nobility aplenty, all vying for the $8,000 prize (around $70,000 in today’s money). From the get-go, sponsors included “vice” brands such as Seagram’s, Philip Morris cigarettes, and Black & White Scotch, and the event was even covered by Sports Illustrated.

“The tournament proved to be great fun, a sun-kissed party lubricated by drinks on the house and sound-tracked by the constant rattle of dice shakers,” writes Tristan Donovan in his book It’s All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan. That initial tournament put backgammon on the high-society map; soon, scenes had developed in other popular jet-set locations like St. Moritz, Monaco, Monte Carlo, Palm Beach and Acapulco, as depicted in a famous Slim Aarons print. In London, a scene emerged featuring players like Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, James Bond producer Albert Broccoli and Lord Lucan (a British earl who murdered his kids’ nanny and then vanished, never to be found, in 1974), with competitions held at exclusive gaming spots like Crockford’s and the Clermont Club. By 1967 Las Vegas was holding the World Backgammon Tournament, which would go on to spawn a circuit of clubs, tournaments and championships across the globe. According to Donovan, “wherever the so-called beautiful people gather there was backgammon.”

A-list backgammon fans included Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Cher, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Michael Caine, Paul Newman, O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Jimmy Connors, Linda Lovelace and especially Hugh Hefner, who threw backgammon parties at his Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles that would go well into the wee hours of the morning, fueled by Pepsi and Dexedrine.

During the height of its popularity, Tuesday night was the “chic” night for backgammon in New York City.

“I think Playboy gave backgammon that mainstream credibility,” Donovan told me recently. “If Prince Obolensky had put it on the map, Playboy was the final thing that pushed it over the top.”

The magazine, which had about five times the circulation of Esquire in the 1970s, published its first big package on the game in March 1973 with articles titled “...Lore and Lure” and “...Secrets and Subtleties.” Later issues featured photos of nude Bunnies playing backgammon in its pages.

Later that year, Hefner and real estate mogul Stan Herman opened PIPS, a restaurant, discotheque and backgammon club on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. It was a sensation, and backgammon was now firmly cemented as an elemental feature of big-city nightlife.

“PIPS has become, in the few short months since it opened, the most popular celebrity hangout in town, just as backgammon has become the most popular game,” Hefner claimed in the January 1974 issue of Playboy.

If, until then, backgammon in America was still mostly being played in elite private clubs, like Doubles in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel on the southeast corner of Central Park, and private gaming clubs, like Mayfair Bridge and Game Club on East 57th Street in Manhattan, economic stagflation might have allowed the game to finally transition away from the jet set and to the casual-playing, low-stakes hoi polloi soon seen in urban nightclubs.

“Backgammon is not only a game, it’s sociability,” Alvin Roth, owner of Mayfair, told The New York Times in 1977. Between 1969 and 1977, the number of backgammon players in America went from 200,000 to 20 million. “All those people—single women, divorcees, retired people sitting in an apartment—they don’t know anybody. They walk in and say, ‘I want to be part of this action.’”

Both the structure and strategy of backgammon made it ideal for nightlife entertainment. As a two-player game, it encouraged late-night flirtations. (Though more people could also play, in what is called a “chouette.”) The gameplay is easy to pick up and relies in large part on chance, meaning inebriation rarely impacts the outcome and newcomers can even beat seasoned players on occasion.

At discotheques like Leviticus in Midtown Manhattan, couples doing the hustle on the sunken black-and-white dance floor retired to the sides to play backgammon in the dimly lit room.

During the height of its popularity, Tuesday night was the “chic” night for backgammon in New York City. At discotheques like Leviticus in Midtown Manhattan, couples doing the hustle on the sunken black-and-white dance floor retired to the sides to play backgammon in the dimly lit room. The same was true at Ipanema, a salsa club where college coeds would play the game on low-slung, plush banquettes, surrounded by tropical plants. When the world-famous Copacabana was refurbished and reopened in 1976, a line of seats along the back wall once known as “Burma Road” had been partitioned off to create a white‐and-pink backgammon room.

Backgammon, of course, was played at Studio 54, Maxims and the other premiere Manhattan nightclubs of the era as well. In the ’70s, The World Backgammon Club tournament was held at the Hippopotamus discotheque on East 62nd Street. By 1979, even Plato’s Retreat, the infamous swingers’ club on the Upper West Side, had an “all-new” backgammon room, which they proudly promoted in SCREW Magazine—right above their blunt invitation to “Come to an orgy.”

Backgammon was likewise becoming popular in Miami, where by 1975 Obolensky had opened OBY’s, a plush disco/backgammon club in the former location of Dino’s, a restaurant owned by Dean Martin. Backgammon was also popular on the West Coast: in San Diego, San Francisco and especially Los Angeles where, besides PIPS, there was Dirty Sally’s, a floating discotheque and backgammon club on the top deck of the Lady Alexandra, a 1924 British steamship docked in Redondo Beach. And a sleazy West Hollywood dive called Destiny II would host backgammon nights before shifting gears and becoming the notorious Chippendales male revue in 1979.

Backgammon was even hot in the suburbs, like at Montauk’s Au Soleil disco, which offered gaming areas with pillows to recline on, and Chaz discotheque in Huntington, on Long Island, where the game facilitated a pickup scene. (Although backgammon wasn’t strictly the purview of heterosexual partying either, as the game was a said to be a popular midday libido reviver on the all-gay Renaissance cruise ship.)

As the end of the decade neared, backgammon was spreading to nightclubs in second-tier cities like Austin, where Billy Shakespeare, a double-tiered disco, boasted a basement backgammon room. Buster’s in Cincinnati offered a new sound system and remodeled dance floor with backgammon tables you could sit at “without having to play the game.” While in Cleveland there was Nite Moves, a Studio 54 knockoff, where clubbers in sunken booths were said to snort cocaine off the glass backgammon tables.

“Backgammon, for you kiddies, was a disco game,” explains Jake Jacobs, a longtime pro player. And, just like disco, it almost instantaneously flatlined at the arrival of the 1980s.

With so much money floating around, more analytical players (many of them from the bridge and poker worlds) began to invade the game, sober schlubs who took the glitz and glamour right out of backgammon. Texas Hold’Em would eventually sub in as the preferred game of the jet set.

As for the hoi polloi, Donovan thinks a more modern nightlife pursuit eventually captured their attention. By the end of the 1970s, arcade games had arrived and, while later on they would be strictly for children, in the early days they were popular in bars. Donovan believes that this was the death knell for backgammon at the discotheque.

“It was quite faddish, it had been going by for about 10 years, and it had probably run its course,” he says. “People probably started saying, ‘Well, we could go play backgammon, or we could try some Pac-Man.’”