Barclay Cooke: A Personal Memoir
|From Backgammon Times, Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 1982.|
If Barclay Cooke had decided on a career as a stock broker rather than a backgammon expert, it’s my guess he would have made Wall Street forget what E.F. Hutton says. He had a way with figures and percentages that made the nearest computer feel guilty of featherbedding.
As his only brother (we had no sisters) I am still at a loss as to where Barclay acquired his genius, because that’s what it was. Our father was a wild catter in the oil fields of East Texas. Never did he show any aptitude for higher mathematics. As for myself, most of my working life has been as a sports writer. As my colleague Red Smith used to say, this was the “Toy Department”; one didn’t apply for the job because of a gift for arithmetic, let alone long division.
So how did Barclay come by his rare talent, the ability to see through a maze of figures and make them add up a little more smoothly than the next fellow? Perhaps it was simply inspired by his delight in forever trying to make a plus out of a minus. This quality, added to an encyclopedic memory, put him on top of the backgammon world, where his name became synonymous with excellence.
I don’t think Barclay realized his prominence until one afternoon when he was a spectator at the tennis championships at Wimbledon. An admirer of Jimmy Connors, Barclay found someone to introduce him.
The conversation was one-sided, but not the way one would expect.
“Nice to shake hands with you Jimmy,” said Barclay.
Connors, who was about to step to the center court for an important match, gave Barclay a double-take.
“What did you say your name was?”
When Barclay repeated it, Connors seemed to forget all about tennis.
I’ve been trying to meet you for two years. There’s a couple of backgammon questions I have, and you’re the only person I think I can trust with the answers.”
As respected as Barclay was, with his skills, there would always be a moment when someone would challenge his memory. He once attended a private dinner party with his wife Madora in a posh New York apartment. The hostess, after greeting Barclay, somehow managed to switch the conversation to football, specifically football at Harvard. Casually she mentioned that her favorite Harvard football player was the immortal Barry Wood, who, she said, wore jersey No. 7.
Barclay, listening intently, interrupted and said:
“I don’t want to alarm you, but Wood wore No. 5.”
Within seconds, a wager of $500 was made, to Madora’s horror, and it was decided to telephone Endicott Peabody, another Harvard football great, in Boston. Surely he would know whether Barry Wood wore No. 5 or No. 7.
While the phone call was being made, someone asked Barclay what he would do if Peabody ruled in favor of No. 7 rather than No. 5.
“That’s easy,” said Barclay. “I’ll bet Peabody $500 too!”
He didn’t have to. Peabody ruled in favor of No. 5.
When I was Sports Editor of the New York Herald Tribune in the late forties and the fifties, I’ll never forget the last week in virtually every September. This was when World Series tickets were alloted to the various newspapers. Barclay, an ardent fan, would arrive, with almost a sixth sense, at the precise moment I received the tickets. As he put it, he wanted to be sure to get “his” tickets, even before the managing editor.
This went on for some time, but the well ran dry for Barclay when I left the Tribune and joined CBS in New York as a radio sports broadcaster.
Just for the fun of it, I asked Barclay what he was going to do for World Series tickets now that I was no longer the man in command.
Barclay, with just the trace of a smile, said: “Who needs you?”
Barclay, in all truth, made a study of baseball in similar depth to his analysis of backgammon. He so impressed a member of New York’s Racquet and Tennis Club, Andre de Coppet, that the latter, an extremely wealthy man, very nearly bought the Philadelphia Athletic franchise with the sole purpose in mind of making Barclay the manager. Andre, unfortunately, died before he could swing the deal.
On baseball, Barclay was a devout disbeliever in the sacrifice bunt. He considered it as wasting an out, and laughed when the so-called experts would refer to the bunt as the percentage play.
Barclay’s belief in a non-bunting approach so impressed me that during a road trip with the Brooklyn Dodgers, with whom I used to travel, I outlined Barclay’s theories to manager Leo Durocher.
Sure enough, on the following day, with Dodger runners on first and second, against the Chicago Cubs, Durocher eschewed the obvious play, the sacrifice. He signaled the batter to “hit away.” Alas! The batter hit away, but into a double play. That night, back at the hotel, Durocher grabbed me by both lapels and yelled:
“What the heck do you know about baseball?”
When I reported back to Barclay, he simply suggested I try his strategy on a more accommodating manager.
In backgammon, I was so inferior to Barclay I rarely played in a game in which he was involved. An exception occurred during the annual tournament at the Racquet and Tennis Club. There were 124 entries this particular year, 1956. I don’t think even Barclay could have figured the odds on the eventual finalists, namely the Cooke brothers.
Quite a respectable crowd gathered in the main lounge as we played the final round. The game was close, too, 22 to 20. No need to tell you who won. I never did like statistics.
In one of Barclay’s books, it says in a short note about the author that he has three favorite pastimes, the three B’s: backgammon, baseball, and bridge. As to the latter, he gained the respect of experts like Charlie Goren, Al Sheinwold, and others of their stature. As in the world of backgammon, he was a welcome sight at the famous bridge clubs, and, as Peter Leventritt, a tournament veteran, said:
“I think I know one reason why. Barclay, unlike some of the inmates, always paid up when he lost.”
One of Barclay’s proudest moments, which never did receive much publicity, occurred when he received a phone call from Charlie Kandel, an old friend from Las Vegas. Kandel was the “money man” at the Sands Hotel. He was calling to ask Barclay if he would accept the job of liaison executive to resolve disputes between the various gambling operations and the state of Nevada. Flattered though he was, Barclay turned it down because, as he said with a chuckle, it would “cut into my backgammon and bridge time.” Madora was relieved.
Randall Williams, a lifelong friend of Barclay’s, wasn’t at all surprised by Barclay’s refusal to take the Nevada job.
“I know why he didn’t take it,” said Randall. “Barclay always has been frightened by security.”
In later years, Barclay would receive an odd assortment of job offers. One came from a backgammon set manufacturer. It called for Barclay to make a nationwide tour, to visit several major cities, and to play a match or two against the local high fliers. The prize, if anyone beat Barclay, was a brand new backgammon set. There was only one flaw in the assignment. Barclay was given his expenses at the outset, but never was paid the $2,000 fee agreed upon. Instead of suing, Barclay said, “probably the company is in trouble.”
Not too many fans of Barclay are aware that he also did a stint at Madison Square Garden, a stint which had nothing to do with his famous pursuits. He was the public address announcer at the Garden for a number of years for both basketball and hockey. His work was professional in every way but he never questioned his salary. It was the princely sum of $25 per game. I often wondered how the Garden could afford it.
To give you an idea of my closeness to Barclay, and, mind you, I was his younger brother, he never ceased to spearhead my cause, at St. Paul’s, Yale, and down through the broadening years. When, at the age of 33, I became the youngest sports editor of a major newspaper in the country, the New York Herald Tribune, the job brought with it a certain amount of notoriety. Fact is, Barclay became aware of it when he’d meet people and they’d say:
“Oh, you’re Bob Cooke’s brother.”
Well, in case some of you are unfamiliar with journalism, sports editors come and go. As soon as I left the Tribune, I became as anonymous as pebbles on a beach. Barclay, meanwhile, was becoming a celebrity, with his books on backgammon, his many championships, and his willingness to discuss the complexity of the game with strangers as well as friends.
I became aware of this when I would meet people, during recent years, and they’d say:
“Oh, you’re Barclay Cooke’s brother.”
For the record, I wish to state I was proud the little game went full cycle. I always will be.
Another of Barclay’s favorite chores was to answer or try to solve a young backgammon player’s problem. A neophyte who had just taken up the game once asked Barclay the following question:
“I’m involved in a steady game with a good player and he lets me have a roll of six and one at the beginning of each game as a handicap. How big an edge does that give me?”
“Ask him to give you an opening roll of four and two, instead,” said Barclay. “He won’t know the difference, more than likely, and you’ll get a bigger edge.”
Most backgammon players would take a six and one over a four and two every time on the opening roll. Barclay, of course, was right.
Don’t ask me why.
Some of Barclay’s friends, like George Whipple, a long time member of the Racquet and Tennis Club, always used to tell him he should have been born fifty years earlier. He was, as Whipple put it, the personification of a “Gentleman Gambler,” with the accent on “Gentleman.”
So, what is there to say that hasn’t been said? Barclay left a legacy that, I think, would have amazed him. He also left a rare quality, rare in any human being. As Dick Mortimer, another close friend of Barclay, used to say:
“I don’t think Barclay ever knocked anybody, except maybe George Steinbrenner. And, remember, Barclay never met Steinbrenner.”
If you should ever happen to visit the Racquet and Tennis Club, the Regency Club, the Cavendish, or the Claremont Club in London, all playing fields for Barclay, I have a feeling you’ll still hear his name, now and then, during a moot point in a game. “Wonder how Barclay would have played it!”
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