As I wandered through the playing hall at the World Championships at the Fairmont Hotel in Monaco I calculated that there must have been close to 40 backgammon matches going on, but one clearly stood out from the rest: there was a big swarm of people around the table. It was clearly a big match and one of the competitors was clearly larger-than-life. It was Falafel Natanzon (known simply as Falafel) is one of the most famous backgammon players in the world.
Falafel’s opponent looked nervous; I watched him spill a pint of orange juice all over the table. Falafel has that effect on people; he is disarmingly brilliant. He’s an intuitive player who came from nowhere to dominate the world of backgammon in only a few short years. After a game, Falafel’s demeanor always changes; he is friendly and ready to talk to anyone about the game he’s just played (and won). Falafel is globally recognized as a fearsome competitor and consistently ranks in the top three in the world. He explains his passion, saying, ‘I used to play chess until I discovered backgammon. I instantly fell in love with the game, and have been totally consumed and obsessed with it ever since. I play, practice, review and analyze, and I’m always looking to learn something new.’
Many backgammon players love to gamble and not exclusively on the game. Falafel and another modern great Matt Cohn-Geier reportedly had a $1 million bet with a well-known international gambler that the two backgammon players could become the same weight through Falafel dieting and Matt increasing his calorie intake (Matt weighed about half as much as Falafel at the time of the bet). It’s rumored that the players won the bet… but shortly after, resumed their original shapes!
Most people think of backgammon, if they think of it at all, as a game for high-rollers that’s cooler than chess or bridge. In the film Octopussy, James Bond did not take on the suave baddie Kamal Khan at chess or challenge him to a race to finish the Telegraph jumbo crossword… they played backgammon. But is the glamorous label justified? Well, yes and no. Backgammon is definitely more exciting than chess because of the element of luck. In a short match, anyone is in with a chance if they know the basic moves. However, at its highest level, the game demands just as much from your intellect as chess. Backgammon tournaments don’t look so different from chess tournaments, they are just much louder.