Kent Goulding
Backgammon’s Champion of Champions

Les B. Levi, 1983

From Backgammon Times, Volume 3, Number 2, Summer 1983.

The caller, who was phoning from out of state, explained that they had met once at a backgammon tournament in Chicago. He now had a problem: Why, he asked, was it correct for Motakhasses to double in a game against Pasko recorded in Backgammon with the Champions? And why was Pasko correct in accepting?

An hour later the man from out of state knew the answer to both questions, and Kent Goulding—author, lecturer, and expert player—was razzed by his wife, Joanne, for spending too much time on the phone.

The People’s Expert

In the coterie of inaccessible men and women of genius who reign as the world’s top backgammon players, Kent Goulding (KG), at 31, is one of the few outstanding exceptions—the populist pro. At tournaments, hawking issues of his self-published and widely acclaimed series, he is ubiquitous and easy to approach. And if the little guy from Topeka wants an answer, Goulding will give it to him—and he’ll even play him for trivial stakes because backgammon is what Goulding loves most.

“I am always astonished by how some of backgammon’s better players treat the public,” Goulding explained recently in Louisville at—naturally—a backgammon tournament. “Not long ago a friend of mine went to the Mayfair Club while visiting New York, approached one of the better players and said, ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so. We met once before at a tournament in Chicago.’ The Mayfair player said, ‘So what?’ and walked away. That kind of attitude and behavior has hurt backgammon, and I’m doing my best to be the opposite.”

That Goulding is a championship player of the highest caliber few would dispute. If he is not as good as Magriel (“I would have to admit that Paul is a better player.”), he is at least on anyone’s list of the top twenty active players in the world. “Right now the best player in the world is one of the New York crowd—Magriel, Lester, Low, Senkiewicz,” he says. “It’s impossible to say who’s the best. But if I’m not in that group I’m certainly close.”

A Game Fanatic

The road to championship backgammon for Goulding was neither bumpy nor winding. It started in a place called chess, back when Kent was in grade school (his older brother taught him) and passed through some colorful terrain—bridge, Monopoly, shoji (complex Japanese chess) and, about a decade ago, backgammon.

“I am and always have been a fanatic game player. Game playing for me was always an escape, my way of dealing with my problems coping,” he reflects. “While other people did drugs and liquor, my escape was games.”

Before backgammon came along, Goulding was most of all a chess player—obsessed, committed, relentless—and ranked in the top twenty postal chess players in the country. When his bridge-playing friends introduced him to backgammon, it immediately hit a nerve. “In chess you tell the pieces where to move—in backgammon the dice tell you where to move. It’s both frustrating and exciting. I know I’m in control but I also know that a joker is in there that could strike you—something bizarre can and will always happen.”

Coming of Age

When Goulding started playing backgammon, it was when the game was played between rounds at bridge tournaments. “Ten years ago backgammon was in its infancy,” he says, “and our understanding of the game was 1,000 years behind today’s. Most of what I learned was from watching good players play—in fact, I still do that today.”

But the real turning point in KG’s backgammon came through his friendship with an aging backgammon star Goulding refuses to name. That episode in his life resembles the set piece in every heroic epic, from the legend of King Arthur to Star Wars: the mystical education of the hero by the wise and mysterious elder. “He was a New York financial wizard who was in hiding in Washington, D.C. for reasons that I can’t explain. He was light years ahead of his time—ten years ago he played like a competent open player today, and that was unheard of. We would sit down and he’d say, ‘Kent, let’s talk backgammon,’ and we would spend hours discussing positions. Eventually he disappeared. I have no idea what part of the world he lives in today. He made me a real backgammon player.”

The Backgammon Author

Later, of course, came KG’s books, the first full-blown effort to record and annotate matches between the world’s greatest players. “When I first started playing backgammon I looked for literature on the game,” he recalls. “As a chess player I looked for games of the masters—but they didn’t exist. I waited year after year, but no one came out with anything. I decided then to do it myself.”

With the second volume of six issues completed (which brings the total to twelve) Backgammon with the Champions stands as one of the finest sources of information on the game. The project, as he conceived it several years ago, is now complete: “I will continue to annotate matches, but there will be no more issues of Backgammon with the Champions.”

Backgammon’s Stand-Up Comic

Perhaps Goulding’s most remarkable talent outside of playing and writing about backgammon is working Calcutta auctions before tournaments. With the timing and precision of a professional comic, KG holds an audience’s attention for upwards of an hour and a half, firing off a succession of one-liners that turns a room of adults into giggling children. Like Rickles and Rivers, he roasts his comic targets—the players on the block—and usually gets a standing ovation.

“I love doing auctions,” he exclaims. “I’ve always wanted to do stand-up comedy but never had the courage. Backgammon auctions are the closest I come. I provide entertainment for the players—that comes first in a tournament—and pick on people I don’t even know. It’s all totally spontaneous—I just work from the list of names. As far as I can tell, I’ve offended nobody and I’ve given a lot of people pleasure.”

Tournament directors such as Louisville’s Larry Strasberg insist that Goulding’s dazzling comic routines generate more money in their auctions. “Kent managed to bully the players into putting up nearly twice as much money than what we raised before,” said Strasberg of his last Labor Day tournament. “The crowd just loves him.”

Not Exactly His Father’s Son

Although there is no typical background of a backgammon pro, Goulding’s is certainly different. The name Goulding should ring a bell if you read the newspapers in the 60s. Phil Goulding, Kent’s father, was Assistant Secretary of Defense in LBJ’s administration, and his job as the War Department’s spokesman under McNamara kept him very much in the public’s eye during the Vietnam War. Goulding Senior still sits tight in the belly of the establishment, now as the Vice President of the American Petroleum Institute. Is this the sort of man that rears professional backgammon players?

“Whatever my father is, I’m not. I guess I’ve always been rebelling against him,” Goulding admits. “And until I gained recognition and money, he saw me as a no-good gambling bum. Afterwards I became his pride and joy.”

The Road Ahead

What’s in the stars for this prodigal son made good? At the moment, like several other world-class backgammon players, KG is an options trader, successfully employing his game-playing skills on the Big Board. He was brought into the business five years ago by one of his tournament backers, an MIT economist, who trained the whiz kid. “We invest our own money and make a percentage. We’re doing very well,” he modestly admits. “I’ll be doing a lot more of that along with writing and publishing backgammon literature and attending tournaments.”

They say Kent Goulding is one of a kind. Well, in the middle of May his wife, Joanne, had a baby girl. “Fran, Lee, watch out,” says Goulding with a snicker. “It’s about time for a good female backgammon player.”

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