by Jake Jacobs
14 March 2018
Back in 1975 my brother, Munchkin, decided to enter a backgammon tournament. The members of my family were always doing strange things, so it didn't engender much discussion. But when he came home he brought back interesting stories. The tournament was held at the Ambassador East, an ancient and elegant hotel; there were parties at Faces, Chicago's fanciest disco, and at the Playboy Mansion; there were woman who might have been Playmates who wore see-through tops unbuttoned all the way down to where Granny was turning over in her grave. But the most exotic sight was a guy they called "The Human Computer." Lots of people have been called that. I've been called that. But this one wore mirrored sunglasses so that no one could see his eyes, and he moved in a herky-jerky manner as he shook the dice and moved the checkers as though he might really be an automaton disguised as a man. His name was Paul Magriel, though they also called him X-22, a fit name for a "human computer." I thought it would be interesting to meet him, little dreaming that not only would I meet him, I'd spend time with him in places as far flung as an all-night diner in Texas, a posh Copenhagen casino, or a Mexican whorehouse.
And now Paul is dead.
Many people knew Paul, and many knew him far better than me. Many writers have written about Paul, and many are better writers than me. Stories about him during his colorful life appeared in prestigious journals including Sports Illustrated and Esquire. In death tributes have poured in from all corners of the Earth. I have one from Australia in my archives. A long obituary ran in the New York Times, for whom Paul used to write a weekly backgammon column. Online Bob Wachtel has posted the gold standard of personal eulogies. I don't have much to offer by comparison, but will share a few memories all the same.
Paul David Magriel, Jr. was born July 1st, 1946. That made him a couple of weeks younger than Donald Trump, a few days older than George W. Bush, and a month or so older than Bill Clinton. The summer of 1946, the first summer of the baby boom, was a busy one. What's that? You didn't know he was a "junior?"
I learned that he was named after his dad when I asked him: "Are you secretly a fan of bare-knuckle boxing?" I had been looking up something or other, Bill "The Butcher" Poole, maybe, and found references to Paul Magriel as editor of the memoirs of Daniel Mendoza. "That's my dad," he told me. Was his dad a pugilist? No, he was an expert on dance, especially ballet. He was also an art collector of note. There is an interview with him from 1970, in the Smithsonian archives. He discusses his own perfect pitch, then mentions two sons, one wandering around India studying music (Paul's brother, Dr. Nicolas Magriel, now teaches Indian music in London), and the other "is tone deaf." So Paul is archived in the Smithsonian, under "unnamed other son, tone deaf."
Paul's grandfather Louis must have made some money, enabling the son to collect art and books on dance. Paul Jr. grew up in a household where people like Norman Mailer dropped by for drinks. By the time he was old enough to sneak sips from Norm's cocktail before delivering it to the sitting room Paul was packed off to Phillips Exeter. Later, while at NYU, he won the New York State Junior Chess Championship. He did graduate work in probability theory at Princeton, and taught at the Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology).
In the meanwhile, chess was his gateway drug to backgammon, and his addiction would subtract him from a career in math. He started playing in the mid-sixties, about the time Prince Alexis Obolensky was ushering in the modern backgammon era by directing tournaments he called "world championships." Then as now some of the best players of the day played in New York, and Paul had a chance to play with them, while observing their technique. Then he did something extraordinary.
Today players think in terms of match play. But back then tournaments were really just an excuse for players to congregate, with gambling in mind. That tournament play called for a different approach was at best given lip service. Judging by the available literature, if they thought about the matter at all, they got it wrong more often than they got it right. At a time when an advanced, technical article on the doubling cube might devote itself to explaining why it was correct to take a double when you had less than a fifty percent chance of winning (in a money game) match equities were far beyond the authors of the day. This made what he did even more singular than it sounds. He set up his own tournament, with sixty-four players on the draw sheet, and played every match. At the end it was down to two, and in a close match Paul nearly became X-34. Instead X-22 prevailed. That became his full name. His friends just called him X.
The hard worked paid off, and he began winning tournaments, lots of tournaments. By 1975 he had a world championship title of his own, and was regarded as the world's best player. It is a measure of how great he was that he earned that level of respect despite being a terrible money player.
The first time I can remember talking to him was in 1981. He called Gammons of Chicago, the club Howard Markowitz and Ida Weil ran on Peterson Avenue. He was looking for a famous fish, Stanley "Steamer" Steele. This seemed improbable, that Paul was really driving in to play Stanley. I'd seen him play Stanley at a recent tournament, but a special trip? I had to go out to the suburbs that evening, but when I called Gammons around one in the morning, sure enough, Howard said Paul was there playing Stanley.
I grabbed a friend, a backgammon beginner, and said: "C'mon, we're going to see the world's greatest player in action!"
Forty minutes later we were in a side room at Gammons, asking the players if they minded us kibitzing. Paul said it was fine, "just don't say anything." Not much of a conversation, but you have to start somewhere.
Stanley was getting lucky, and after an hour was up a dozen points, when the critical game began. A position arose that had Paul pondering. Finally, he made his move, and Stanley jumped.
"I know that move! I've seen that move in your book. Here's what I think of your book!" He slammed the cube down.
"I … I … I …" Paul was apoplectic, his face purple. "I … beaver!" He did. And then got … got … got … gammoned.
That put him minus twenty. Forty-five minutes later he was stuck seventy-three. The next day I called my brother, and told him what I saw. "Yeah, Paul is a hopeless gambler."
You must understand that, as I remarked earlier, gambling was the lens through which backgammon and its players were viewed. Today people look at tournament records and error rates, and pay little or no attention to side games. Back then the only ones who got respect were the ones who got the cash. Even into the Giant 32 era there were any number of famous players who were tournament stars but poor money players. Some steamed, some froze; they were worthless in a cash game. And if you looked at the voting there was a clear difference in the way the top players viewed certain of their peers, when contrasted with the average players' ballots.
But not Paul. In Paul's case it didn't matter. He was manifestly special, regarded with awe even by those who knew of this particular hole in his game.
When he was thirty, he wrote Backgammon, the book that changed everything. Even I knew it was the best book on the game, and I didn't play. When I finally started, I went to my friend, John Elliott. John had a copy on his book shelf. (I check out people's book shelves.) I said: "May I borrow that book by Mah-gree-ell?" I knew his name; I didn't know how to pronounce it. Like everyone who has read it, before and since, I knew immediately that I was reading something very special. It was lucid, and it was comprehensive. It taught me, it taught the backgammon community, how to think and talk about the game. Afterward, it was no longer possible to discuss backgammon without recourse to his terminology. All by itself the book made me a big fish in a small pond. There'd be bigger ponds, and other books. It took me a long time to grow into those ponds, and no other book (though Vision Laughs at Counting came closest) would help as much.
After I wrote my first book (Paul was one of the first to buy a copy), I went to a Las Vegas tournament, and was looking for a copy of Backgammon. A friend in Thailand needed one, and was willing to pay one hundred dollars for it. The book was long out of print, and that's what used copies were fetching. I was in the middle of a match when a player interrupted us. He had heard I was looking for the book, and had a badly chewed up copy he wanted to trade for a copy of my book.
Coincidentally, Paul was playing his match on the next board. "This is a really interesting copy," he said, snatching it from the owner. He turned to the page just inside the cover, which was filled with script by a deft hand:
"To Dr…" (a name no one recognized) "… The most promising student it has ever been my privilege …" on for the rest of the page in similar vein, ending with "Yours Sincerely, Paul Magriel." Then Paul flipped to the next page: "This book's signed twice!" The entire next page was filled with a scrawl reading only: "X-22."
Paul's first wife, whom I never met, claimed to have coauthored Backgammon and another book for beginners. I wouldn't be surprised if she at least kept him focused enough to see the project through. Back then he had a vision for a set of books, nine in all, that would cover all aspects of the game. They were never written. The most promising development towards a sequel came in the late nineties. X had a student known as "the Russian." The Russian was a billionaire with an abiding interest in backgammon, and vodka, possibly not in that order. He hired Paul, placing him on 24/7 and 365 call, providing housing, a nice salary, and luxury transportation (private helicopters, anyone?). I am not sure if he provided Paul's assistant, or if she volunteered for the job. She was young, gorgeous, enthusiastic, energetic, smart as a whip, and perhaps most important: organized. After remembering all of that, you'll pardon me if I've forgotten where she came from. Norway, possibly. She showed me a laptop filled with thousands of positions, categorized in ways that leant themselves to filling a book or two. Then the Russian sobered up, and Paul was again rootless, the book project forever postponed.
Paul was already teaching when his book came out, but the book made him even more famous, and had would be students clamoring for instruction. Some of his young students may have learned more than they bargained for. An ex-girlfriend of Paul's said she ran to the kitchen in the middle of one night, wearing no more than a smile, and bumped into sixteen-year old Howard Ring, who was staying in the guest room while he took lessons with Paul.
Some of his students then, all of them going on to fame themselves, included: Eric Seidel, Billy Horan, Mika Lidov, Jason Lester, Roger Low, and Kent Goulding. He had his share of jet setters as well. One was an Arab sheik. Not just any old sheik. This one was near the top of the Saud family tree, head of a Ministry, one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom. They would caravan in a fleet of Mercedes 600Ls, pitch a tent that would make Tywin Lannister blush at the excess, have a feast and play backgammon under the desert stars. Until Paul was interviewed on 60 Minutes, and said something along the line of "the sheik has his minions arrange …" and the arrangers did not like being called "minions." Then again, he reflected, his real mistake was probably providing an introduction or two of the wrong sort of people. Believe it or not, some of the New York gamblers are a bit shady. I know you are shocked. And like wolves they hoped Paul would lead them to some tasty Arab sheep. Paul was naïve, but the sheik and his people were not.
On top of all that, the book made him famous, and like many young people before him, he found fame not so easy to handle. For instance he was a slow player, and when Louis DeYong warned him he was holding up a bracket, he said: "Louie, of course I take a long time. I have more to think about than other people." To which DeYong responded: "You have one penalty point: think about that!"
On the other hand, his fame led to his being the go to man for color commentary. I am not a sports buff, but I used to watch football games (the American kind, the one where people score points) just for the pleasure of listening to John Madden. Madden combined the insights of one of the great coaches with the enthusiasm of a rabid fan who accidentally swallowed a handful of Dexedrine. Paul was better than that. His commentary (and remember, this was back when "match equity" was a mystery to most players) sounded something like this:
Unless he rolls a six-two, I don't think he can take the cube. Most people don't realize it, but leading three-away, four-away, if this were a race or holding game, he could make some loosy-goosy takes. But with his high gammon price, and recubes killing his gamm … Oh here it is! He's shaking, shaking … Yes, give it a good shake. Very important. Now … No, he's thinking 'Six-two, six-two,' he shakes some more. He throws! It's … SIX-TWO!!! OH MY GAWD! HE GAWT IT! HE GAWT THE SIX-TWO!!
(Pause while the audience's heart rate slows back to under one-forty.)
There was another downside to fame. The era when Paul achieved ascendancy was a hard partying era. I remember being out to dinner (years later) with one of Paul's peers from the Classic Era of Backgammon, Chuck Papazian. We were at a Moroccan restaurant in Las Vegas. Chuck got up and started dancing with the belly dancer. If you never met him: Chuck was about six inches shorter than the dancer, but twice her weight. He had loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar, but dancing, had worked up a sweat. He had an open bottle of wine in one hand, and a lit cigarette in the other. Mike Senkiewicz turned to me and said: "Chuck looks pretty good for a guy who just had a heart transplant."
Paul, legendary Paul, partied as hard as any of them. And there were plenty of people around to encourage it, wittingly or unwittingly.
One night during a World Cup I was in a Texas diner at 3 a.m. with Paul, Kyle Larson, Martha Ghio, and a promising young player named James Colen. Kyle and Paul were restless. My guess was Peruvian Pick-me-up Powder. Kyle was twitching like a man whose pocket had a hole, and his pet tarantulas had found their way to his underwear. Paul, meanwhile, was outside banging on the window next to our booth, then pressing his face against the glass like a jack-o-lantern come to haunt us a couple of months early. When he returned to his seat he (with Kyle nodding assent, or maybe just twitching vertically) began selling James on the merits of playing matches while tripping.
Once, he said, he was wrapped up in the most fascinating hallucination, while fifty or sixty kibitzers surrounded the table. Suddenly, he realized: "They are waiting for me!" And then, he added: "And they probably thought I was thinking deep thoughts." He was, just not the kind they were imagining.
X also enjoyed adult libations. One night in Copenhagen I persuaded a lady I met in the disco to follow me into the casino for some sophisticated high life. (In the hopes of later persuading her to follow me upstairs for some unsophisticated low life.) There we encountered Paul, who made a beeline when he spotted us, and bought a round of drinks. In short order I bought a round back.
"Paul, your drink cost 100 krone! What on earth are you drinking?"
"Double Sex-On-The Beach." It was his seventh.
He led us over to a blackjack table. I forget what he wanted to show us. (I had also had "a few.") He pulled out one of those laser pointers that is disguised as a pen, and started shining it on points of interest on the table. Lecture concluded we went back to our table near the bar. Moments later security converged, and informed us in a polite but firm Danish way that we should take our drinks and move to the disco. I don't know what they thought we were doing with the laser pointer, but they did not like it.
This brings up something many people don't know about X. Besides being a chess, backgammon, and poker champion, he was what is known in the trade as an advantage player, someone who finds unexpected advantages in casinos, and exploits them. The exploit I know of involved a European variant of baccarat. Paul noticed that the casino used decks with different colored backs, blue and yellow. After shuffling them together, but before cutting, they flipped the cards over and back for inspection. What X realized was that the different colors created a bar code. If you knew that there would be a pattern like YBBYBYBYYBBB and knew what value cards were on the other side, you could watch for that pattern, and you would know what cards were coming.
Taking advantage of that requires organization, recruiting and training players to learn a memory system, to communicate using signals, etc. That was never Paul's forte, and I don't think he made any money from his discovery, but no matter. The point is that the trick was under the noses of thousands of players, but Paul had the sort of mind that noticed it, and figured out how it could be exploited.
I played a lot of matches with him over the years. A few are memorable, including the first, and what may have been the last.
In June, 1982 the Plimpton Cup and the related events were held in Las Vegas. One morning I got a call from my roommate, Timmy Wisecarver, waking me from a sound sleep. I had a doubles match starting that very moment. "You're playing Magriel."
I think I was still pulling on my pants while I hopped in the car. It was seven miles to the Strip, and I made it in ten minutes. Even so I was half an hour late. Timmy had offered to play in my stead, at least until I arrived, but Paul and his partner graciously insisted on waiting for me.
Remember the night at Gammon's, the one where X steamed away seventy-three points? He had a girlfriend kibitzing that night. He married her. Aileen became his second wife (and would later marry my good friend Craig Chellstorp, also a chess and backgammon player of note). This was their honeymoon, and their first match together as a married couple. And if I am not imagining more than really happened, I think it was also my twenty-ninth birthday! I too was playing a first match with my partner. He (none too happy for the wait) was my first student.
He rolled for us, and rolled like a man possessed. While doing so, he crowed and gloated. I tried to tell him it was rude, but he was a grizzled old Mafia capo, and tended to ignore instruction. At the end of the match I was happy to be 1-0 lifetime against Paul Magriel, but ashamed that after the Magriels had been so nice, my partner was such a jerk.
I've written elsewhere about the notable match we played in 1996 in the finals of the Indiana Open Consolation, and analyzed that match recently here on Gammon Village. I won't explore it again. Besides, I would have to translate arma virumque cano, something Paul said to me right before the match, and Latin is mostly Greek to me. A few years later we played what may have been our last match, in a Super Jackpot in Las Vegas. You may have heard about the "Man With the $100,000 Breasts?" If not, read Michael Konik's book with that title for the story. From the title you can guess that a man got breast implants, and collected one hundred grand. The man was named Brian, he plays backgammon, and he still has them.
While we were playing our match Brian turned up, and came over to talk to Svobo, who was kibitzing us. Brian had very recently become the father of a baby girl, and had brought her to the tournament. Some women came over to see the baby.
"May I hold her?" The woman was very well endowed, her endowment displayed to advantage by a very low cut sweater. The baby reached up with intent, grabbed the vee of her neckline, and began tugging. All eyes except Magriel's (this drama was playing out behind his back) were riveted: would there be a wardrobe malfunction?
Then Brian spoke up: "Ooh, you like those, don't you? Yeah! They're just like Daddy's!"
The game we haven't discussed, as yet, is poker. We could skip it; I hate poker. But X may have spent more hours at a poker table than at a backgammon board, so I will deal us in.
Paul invented the M-Ratio, which in simple terms is ratio between your chip stack, and the sum of the compulsory bets you must make during one round. For instance if the ante is five dollars, the small blind is twenty dollars, the big blind is forty dollars, and there are ten players (no idea if there is such a game) to stay in one round without betting you would spend $20 + $40 + 10($5) = $110. If you have $2200 you could sit there for twenty rounds before your funds would be eaten away. Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie refined that, and discuss strategies for different M-ratios, if you are interested in learning more.
Paul also married an accomplished poker player. His third (and final) wife, Martine Oules, mother of his only child, Louis, is a professional player. She was also a fine backgammon player.
Not being poker player myself, I don't have many poker stories for X, but I do have two, and they are good ones.
This first was told to me by Ed Bauder. Back in the eighties Amarillo Slim tried to create a rival event to the World Series of Poker. It was held in Reno, and was called the Super Bowl of Poker. It failed to score a touchdown; else today we'd be seeing the Stanley Cup of Poker, the March Madness of Poker, etc. Paul made it to the final two. He and the other finalist had roughly equal stacks. The blinds were sizeable, well worth stealing. Paul had deuce-seven off suit. That means he had a two, and a seven, and they were not of the same suit. In other words, he had the two lowest unpaired cards which cannot be combined in a straight or a flush. That's bad. If you followed the discussion about M-Ratios, you are ahead of me. If you are not sure how poker is played: you're welcome.
I don't know if Paul did any M-Ratiocinating, but he did think he had a read on his opponent. If the tell told the tale, his opponent also had bad hand. So Paul shoved all his chips into the pot: "All in."
His opponent studied the matter, shrugged, and shoved all his chips in: "I call."
And since they were now both all in, he exposed his cards: Ace-Queen suited.
Paul sheepishly turned up his cards.
Triple Gasps from the audience!!!
And then the flop came deuce-deuce-seven.
"Deuce-seven off suit is now known as a 'Magriel,'" said Ed.
Next time I saw Paul I asked him if it really happened. His cryptic reply was that deuce-seven off suit won more often than most people think.
Whether or not anyone calls deuce-seven off suit a 'Magriel' these days is doubtful. The hand he is more closely associated with is a pair of deuces, which are known as 'ducks.' X-22 and a pair of deuces? Do try to keep up. Paul developed the habit of quacking at the table, an aural signature reminding everyone that he was in the game.
This leads to our final story, which came to me courtesy of Kent Goulding, who saw the following. It was Paul's turn to bet. "Quack! Quack!" He said, and threw two thousand dollars into the pot.
"You owe the pot two hundred, Paul," said the dealer.
"You quacked twice. We all heard you. That's 'two-two.' Make it good."
Paul smiled and threw in the extra two hundred.
Now comes the hard part, the summing up. This is where I am obliged to do the impossible, to capture in a few words a man's life, paint a pithy verbal picture from which you will know and remember him. I cannot. I could remind you of his achievements. There is a Backgammon Hall of Fame. He is in it. I know everyone in the Hall, and only Paul deserves a wing all his own. I could rely on cliché: everyone loved him. It's true. He had thousands of friends, but I know of no enemies. In the end, he was a games player. He was an eternal boy, who only wanted his friends to come over and play with him. As much as he loved to win – and he loved to win, fiercely – he unstintingly shared his every secret, so that his friends would never be discouraged, so that they would keep on playing with him.
I don't know if he was a fan of Game of Thrones. In it there is a brotherhood called The Night's Watch. The members serve for life. When one dies a brother who knew him delivers a eulogy, and then says the following words, which the rest repeat.
"Now his watch is ended. We shall not see his like again."
Coming next month, the Magriel Genius Quiz.
Article text Copyright © 1999-2019 Jake Jacobs and GammonVillage Inc.