Backgammon Articles

A History of Backgammon's Popularity
by Bill Robertie
Posted on the Two Plus Two Backgammon Forum, July 20, 2010.

Here is a rough history of the backgammon's popularity since 1920.

1920-1940:  first big upswing in popularity, fueled by the invention of the doubling cube and the chouette after WWI. Centered in private New York clubs, but spread out from there to become a nationwide craze. About 20 books published in this period. Ended with WWII.

1940-1964:  Backgammon pretty much disappears except in private clubs in NY, Miami, and London.

1964:  Prince Alex Obolensky decides backgammon would be a very popular game with the right promotion and publicity. He contacts his friends from the private club circuit and runs the first major tournament in the Bahamas in February, 1964. A total of 32 players show up and Charles Wacker of Chicago defeats Porter Ijams of NY in the finals. In May, Sports Illustrated runs a long piece about the tournament, probably due to Obolensky's influence.

1965-1970:  The Bahamas tournament is held again in 1965 and attendance doubles to 64. Obolensky adds other tournaments and creates a little circuit through the 1960s. He interests a lot of Hollywood celebrities (Lucille Ball, John Wayne, Polly Bergen, Jim Brown, and others) whose presence at tournaments generates more publicity. Tournaments are now attracting fields of 64 to 128 players.

1970:  Obolensky hits the jackpot when he gets Hugh Hefner to take up the game. Hefner promotes the game in Playboy, showing celebrities and pros chouetting at the Playboy Mansion with naked beauties gazing on adoringly. Young men everywhere take notice. In New York, a lot of math types start to play in public card clubs, and the Mayfair Club becomes the center of the action. Paul Magriel is recognized as the up and coming superstar of the new generation.

1970-1976:  Tournaments spread to Europe. Lots of new clubs open up in the US and Europe and a professional class of young touring pros starts to develop. A big tournament can now attract 200+ players, a mix of celebrities, wealthy amateurs, and pros. More articles start to appear in national magazines.

1977-1981:  The peak of the boom. Tournaments everywhere. Local one-night events might attract 150-200 players. The attendance record for a major event is set by the World Amateur Championships in Las Vegas in January, 1978, with 652 players (no pros allowed) and a $380,000 first prize. The first World Championship in Monte Carlo in 1979 (earlier events were held in Las Vegas and the Bahamas) had 309 players in the Championship Division, still a record. Articles on Magriel appeared in Sports Illustrated and the Atlantic.

1982-2002:  Interest slowly decreases from the peak but remains well above the pre-1976 period. Still lots of tournaments, with attendance 60% to 70% of the peak years. Local clubs and high-stakes chouettes are the real casualties of the slump in interest.

2003-2009:  Everyone goes off to play poker. Backgammon players adapt well to this lush new environment. Backgammon tournaments hang on, but attendance drops 30% to 40% from the 1990s period.

2010 and beyond:  I'm sensing a change in the weather. Book sales are up, tournament attendance seems to be rising, and I'm getting more requests for coaching than I have in a while. A lot of the new people seem to be poker players who want to try something a little different. Too early to be sure, but something may be happening. Backgammon is a truly great game, after all.


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