Las Vegas Backgammon
Silk suits. For me that is the first image that comes to mind when I think of Las Vegas backgammon in the good old days. Backgammon, for you kiddies, was a disco game, played in Pips, Faces, Maxims, Studio 54. Slick hustlers, the Gabby Horowitzes and Joe Dweks and Billy Eisenbergs, preyed upon Lucy and Hef and, yes, O.J. Tina Turner turned a cube or two. The man himself, Jim Brown, rushed a few thousand yards to get in the chouette. Vegas was the capital, epitomizing the glittery slippery “what’s that white cake around your nostril?” time. Frank and the Rat Pack? Your parent’s thrills. This era was neon and hip and in-the-know and what we knew your daddy (and Frank and Sammy and Dean “ring-a-ding-ding”) were too old to learn.
Vegas was wads of hundred dollar bills – “choke a horse” they used to say. If you didn’t have five or ten grand in your pocket, why leave the house? Vegas was Jubilation, which was Paul Anka’s joint. (Wasn’t that where Tupac was heading, the night he got offed? But that was already a different Vegas.) Vegas was also Dirty Sally’s, which became Rumors, right on the corner of the Strip and Sands Boulevard, with rotating globes over the dance floor, and table lamps in the shape of doubling cubes in the private backgammon room. Then it bought a mechanical bull and went country, and the seventies were over.
This was the fantasy that played like a movie in everyone’s mind when they sat down at the board: they looked at the pigeon across from them, and imagined that the $2-$5-$10 a point they were hustling was $200-$500-$1000, and they were wearing the silk suit, and sitting down for the finals in Monte Carlo, staring down a Kumar or an Ezra, while X-22 himself wrote down their moves for the next edition of the New York Times. Then they would take those fat, fat winnings to Vegas, and party like it would never end.
I missed it!
Well, I caught the tail end, enough to tune into the fantasy, and also see what the reality looked like. It looked a lot like Max.
I was living in Chicago, playing in my first big tournament. Magriel, Senk – big names then, big names still; they were all there. But the most interesting game in town was Max.
Max playing Vlad Dobrich, dropping thirty-one points at hundreds: “I’d like to collect,” says Vlad. Max pulls out a roll big enough to choke the whole Kentucky Derby, peels off thirty-one hundred dollars bills, and it’s like shaving toothpicks off a redwood – the wad doesn’t get any smaller. “If you have to collect, maybe the game’s too big for you.”
Max playing Dave Cramer, backgammon’s answer to Chinese Water Torture. Max unfurls his secret weapon: the Sunday Trib. He starts reading, and Dave freaks out. The great wall of newsprint makes him nervous: What’s going on back there? What if he doesn’t know I’ve finished my move!? But Max knows. The paper comes down, he rolls, he plays, and it’s right back to Dick Tracy. Dave’s so rattled he can’t concentrate on playing slowly, and the match finishes early!
Especially Max playing Freddie Chamanara, silk on silk, with Joel the stake horse in his silk suit – a lot of worms worked to dress that trio! Max is up 101 points, but he’s holding an 8-cube, and things aren’t looking good. “Maybe I BG you!” says Freddie. “Eight to one you don’t” says Joel. On a thousand. Freddie does. Max is stuck three points. “I had him on the hook!,” he tells Joel. “Why’d you let him off the hook?”
I move to Vegas, and it isn’t just tournaments, Max is like that every day. He’s driving around in a Citroen. Remember them? Looks like a trick played by one of those balloon tiers. He’s got the first personalized license plate I’ve seen: “Gammon.” Swaggers around in his silk jackets, with a metal cigar case tucked in his boots. Where’d he come from?
Milwaukee. Yep, beer and brats and … Max? Ran a hotel for his dad. It went under. Not yet thirty, and a failure. His best buddy is a guy named Ned Day who moved to Vegas and became very famous very young. Hell of a writer, covering the crime beat. Died too young, only forty-one, swimming in Hawaii when the heart attack hit. The conspiracy buffs claim it was Syndicate frogmen who pulled him under, ‘cause he knew where too many bodies were buried. But that was later, and this was then.
So Max is out in Vegas, moping around, still depressed, when his girlfriend Linda, used to be Miss Milwaukee, brings home a backgammon board. “Play with me,” she says. “Maybe it will cheer you up.”
Pretty soon Max is beating her; he’s better than his teacher. He sets out to conquer the world, or at least the local club. He can’t find a local club. “This is Vegas! How can there not be a backgammon club!?” So he starts one at Dirty Sally’s. Then he gets the call: “I’m in town, and I’d like a backgammon lesson between shows. Have you got a professional there who gives lessons?” Max looks around, doesn’t see any other volunteers: “Yeah, me!” Then heads over to the Hilton and gets paid a hundred bucks an hour to give Bill Cosby lessons.
Meanwhile Max starts a newsletter, a typical one-sheet mimeographed. Then he expands it into the Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine. Next thing there are ten thousand subscribers and he’s got Tina Turner on the cover, bending way over the board in a low-cut top, about to put a couple of extra pips on the layout. And there’s the famous desert shot. If you saw it you know immediately which desert shot. There’s a showgirl from the Lido squatting in front of a board out in the desert. She’s wearing cowboy boots. That’s it. Well, boots and honey: she has honey smeared all over her. “What was with the honey?” I ask Max. He shrugs, who knows? “Linda took the picture; I don’t know whose idea was the honey.”
The club is in full swing now, and people drop by every day, champs and chumps.
There are the Steamers …
There’s Harold, who throws my dice across the room. And there is Simeon, the Bulgarian cab driver, who warns me: “Roll one more double, and I bite your dice!” So I roll one more double, and he bites my dice, and then throws them across the room, across the hall, and into the ladies’ room. “Linda, could you get those for me?”
There are the Numbers Boys …
Craig Chellstorp is the greatest player no one ever heard of. Craig is playing Tony, a shift boss at a small strip casino. More like a strip-mall casino, and he is only bossing there until he takes the fall for his bosses, when the Gaming Commission catches them with too few aces in their blackjack shoes. Craig is ahead 2-0 to 7, and Tony’s is holding a 2-cube. Craig’s got a man on the six, man on the three, versus Tony’s man on the four, man on the three. I could supply a diagram, but you’ve got the picture. Craig rolls 41 -- which you may think is not his best roll -- but it is, for this story. Now Tony recubes. This is fifteen years before I write Fish, and Tony wouldn’t read it anyway, but for Tony this is the right double.
Craig takes, of course, but first he pauses to “doom-doom.” That’s what we called it, like the sound of the shark in Jaws, only you know this one’s coming for you! There’s two ways of doom-dooming. One is to make the sound, let the other guy know he is dead in the water. The other, the one Craig is doing, is playing it to himself, in his mind, while he asks himself: why do terrible things like this only happen to me?
But what happens isn’t so terrible: Tony rolls a 21, which you may think is not his best roll, but it is, for this story!
So now Craig redoubles, pausing for one more doom-doom. Because Craig isn’t just a great player, he’s a great doom-doomer, and he knows a 21 is about to tumble from his cup.
Tony takes, which is right for Tony playing Craig. And if he didn’t, Craig would have no chance to roll his 21, and we wouldn’t have much of a story. But then Tony rolls the only roll he can roll to finish off the story, a final 21.
The Kibitzer’s Credo, as expressed by the late Charlie Peres: “I wish for maximum pain for both players!”
More Numbers Guys …
Fast Eddie used to be Little Eddie: pedaling his bicycle to the yacht clubs around Miami, parking between a couple of Rolls-Royces, going in to hustle the members for dimes. They thought he was cute. Used to try to put money pressure on him by beavering drops. Eddie loves pressure, maybe too much. Hell of a backgammon player. Unfortunately, Eddie is convinced that he is a hell of a poker player. Every year he shows up to live out the Las Vegas Success Story: “Came here in a five hundred dollar beater, left here two months later in a shiny, hundred thousand dollar … Trailways bus.”
And still more …
Doctor Cube, and The Amazing Captain Cube. The writers are David Eig and Timmy Wisecarver, but I can never keep straight which sobriquet Max hung on whom. Timmy’s got a five-hundred page computer printout of bearoff equities, courtesy of Dean Muench. He keeps it in our kitchen cabinet, otherwise empty until he imports his bridge books from San Francisco. Here is our larder: in the fridge are six three-quarter empty Heineken bottles, a half a box of Junior Mints, a gallon bottle of distilled water, and one expensive ballpoint pen. The nearly empty beer bottles and the candy are Timmy’s diet. The bottle of water is shared by me and Munchkin. The pen? Timmy keeps losing it when he is depositing three-quarter empty Heineken bottles, or nibbling on Junior Mints. Then we get the bridge books, and at last have a well-stocked kitchen.
So Timmy is sitting up late one night, sipping a Heineken, clipping and unclipping the pen to the vee of his sweater, while reading his five-hundred page printout of numbers strung out to eight decimal places. Suddenly, he spots a pair where the numbers zig instead of zag. And he writes a letter to Danny Kleinman who is so impressed he names this the Wisecarver Paradox. Years later Timmy is head of the math department at an exclusive prep school back East, when a student approaches him: “Sir, are you connected with the Wisecarver Paradox?” There is immortality in backgammon!
Besides the Numbers Guys there are the Wise Guys.
“You think the bartender here,” here being the Jockey Club, as by now the mechanical bull has bucked us out of Rumors, “is so nice to Vartan because he tips five dollars for a cup of coffee?” Vartan is a student of mine, courtesy of Max. The Poker Players – Puggy, Chip, Stuey and Nicky – give each other money-line spots. For instance Chip, who is the best, supposedly gives Puggy $1.40 on every point. They all love to play with Vartan. The proper odds with Vartan would probably be about $2.40. Maybe $12.40! Max thinks that if we can whip Vartan into shape we can make a killing. He has doled out the tasks this way: he will do the thinking and killing, and I will do the whipping.
Vartan is not a fast learner. The first week I tell him something, the second week I tell him the same thing, the third week: “Vartan! We talked about it two weeks ago, we talked about it last week! Why are you still doing it!?”
“I’m sorry!” He hangs his head. “I forgot.”
I am thinking about getting a ruler, like the one the nuns at St. Mary’s used on my friends. “Hold out your hand!” Whack! Right across the knuckles. “Next time, make the anchor!”
But I want to know about the five-dollar tip for a cup of coffee. Max waves me off. He is mid-rant about the ingratitude of certain young players. Master of the rhetorical flourish he won’t be distracted by supplying details. “No, it’s not because he tips five dollars for a cup of coffee. You know what they used to call him back in Buffalo, before he stopped drinking? ‘Tom the Bomb!’”
It occurs to me that I know very little about Vartan’s résumé. It also occurs to me I should rethink the ruler.
“Or what about Frankie the Fist?” What about Frankie? The Nevada Gaming Commission has a black book. The Black Book, that’s what it’s called. They keep it to show they are serious about keeping organized crime out. It is only for the worst of the worst: Mafia Chieftains and people that cheat at slots. Tony “The Ant” Spilotro is in The Black Book. If you saw Casino you remember that the Outfit boys back in Chicago used Tony and his brother for batting practice, then buried them on a farm in Northwest Indiana. Tony was still alive when they buried him, but he was convincingly dead when the cops dug him up a month later. But the Gaming Commission kept him in the book, on emeritus status. Didn’t want anyone thinking there were loopholes, no sirree! When you are out, you are out. Once you go into The Black Book you are out of everywhere else, every single casino in the state, from Boulder City and Laughlin, all the way to Tahoe, Elko, and Winnemucca. No more neck rubs from the wine goddesses in the Bacchanal Room, no checking the line at the Stardust Sportsbook, not even the $4.99 dinner buffet at Circus Circus: “Drop that plate mister; don’t try to reach for the salad fork!” Your permanent keno number is “86!”
So Frankie gets put in The Black Book. There are not many people in The Black Book; a couple dozen tops. The commission holds a hearing, and they invite Frankie so he can come and hear doom pronounced. He shows up in a tux! “No one’s ever done something like this for me before.”
“What do you think Frankie’s going to do?” More rhetoric from Max. “These kids beat him for twenty points, and then tell him how lucky he is because they should have beaten him for forty. You think if it wasn’t for me Frankie wouldn’t be waiting out in the parking lot, to do a little beating of his own?”
Besides the Numbers Guys, the Poker Players, and the Wise Guys, there are the Australian Card Counters …
John, David, Malcolm, and Woody. David and Malcolm drop acid one night and announce to the amazed staff at Sam’s Town that they are visiting royalty: “Lord Bolingbroke, and the Earl of Goodwood.” They get the bosses to push a blackjack table into the middle of the pit, and deal them a private game. David is swilling complimentary Chateau Neuf du Pape faster than you can say “sommelier.” Malcolm is sneering down his nose at dealers and bosses alike. They love it! They’ve never been abused by real British aristocracy before. This must be what it’s like working at Caesar’s!
John buys a boat with his winnings, and gets busted smuggling parrots. David, a former race car driver, is walking down the street and gets run over by a truck. Malcolm .. Well, when you burn the candle at both ends you reach the middle too quickly. Woody turns out okay. He becomes one of the most successful gamblers in the history of the universe, and lives a life of sybaritic splendor in the Far East.
And there are the unclassifiables …
Sal, for instance. Sal likes to hang around, but he never plays. The fact is, no one in their right mind would play with him (and for their own protection, the players not in their right mind are kept away from him by Max) because Sal is a professional dice cheat. I don’t think he has a business card saying “Professional Dice Cheat,” but he might, because Sal is very proud of his skills. The members of his crew call him “Sal-vation!!”
One Christmas Sal is found in his bathrobe. Someone has stabbed him once for each day of the month. The killing is never officially solved, but a couple of years later one of Sal’s crew turns out to be a serial killer. Not a media-hyped “killed the clerks at two of the 7-11s he robbed” serial killer. This guy is a “the little girls were still alive, thank God, but we found their mothers’ bodies in the storage area under the Winnebago” serial killer. It is remembered that he came into money about the time that Sal was killed. And David, the Australian Card Counter, who used to bunk with the guy, goes on heavy doses of Valium when he hears the news, which may be why he walks in front of that truck.
Max takes me out to his hose in Green Valley. We drink espresso at four in the morning while he gives me his view of things. Of how The Wanderers is the greatest movie ever made. Of why he collects midget movies; he has not only seen The Terror Of Tiny Town,”1938’s All-Singing, All-Dancing, All Cowboy, Midget Musical,” he owns a copy. Of why he dislikes Hawaiians: “In a thousand years all they ever invented was ... the nose flute!” And: “You can tell a lot about a culture by their food. Hawaiians are the only ones who have managed to fuck up pork!” Then he starts talking about how certain poker players used to drug other poker players to gain an advantage: “They use that stuff … Oh, what’s the name? They use it for truth serum, but it’s not sodium pentothal.”
“Scopalamine! Right, scop … How did you know that!? I can’t believe you knew that! You’re a genius! You have to edit my magazine!”
There, verbatim, is how my career as a backgammon writer is launched.
Max knows that as a genius I’m not smart enough to ask for money. He does, however, get Linda to feed me sandwiches.
“What kind of sandwich would you like?”
“Linda, it’s three in the morning! You had to get out of bed to let me in. I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”
“Okay, I’ll make you ham and cheese.”
Their house is the first place I see remote controls for the TV’s.
“What would you like to watch?” Both of them ask this all the time. It makes them nervous to see a room occupied and no TV on.
“Nothing, thanks. I’m editing this, so I won’t be watching.”
“Okay, Johnny Carson it is!”
It is also the first place I see HBO, the first place I see a projection unit and big-screen TV, and the first place with a Betamax. I’ve never heard of video rental, so I don’t know where people get these tapes. And because Max is the first, other people who haven’t paid a grand or two for a tape machine bring him their movies.
I am working in the living room, with papers spread all over the couch. The doorbell rings, people enter the house: “Look what we found!” A crowd joins me in the living room, and soon the movie they rented fills the screen. I am proofreading an article that is fifty pages of complex equations, and there are strangers in my workspace watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There is something ineffably weird about this, but this is Las Vegas.
Max is riding high. Always a money player, he cashes in a string of tournaments. They hold a thousand dollar invitational at the Desert Inn. They don’t invite Max.
“You think you can come into my town, not invite me, and still hold your tournament?”
They reconsider, and Max gets his invitation. Then he wins the tournament.
“Psychology – that’s how I won it!” He starts the blow-by-blow with the quarter-finals. “David Leibowitz: what’s he famous for?”
“Winning the Plimpton!”
“No! He’s into that Silva Mind Control Vernon Ball stuff.”
“Right, Alpha Backgammon – the Vernon Ball stuff.”
Max says this like everyone knows this. I do know that David is a very intense roller, who looks like he is trying to make his dice spin so hard they will drill a hole in the board.
“His sister shows up on a layover at McCarren. He hasn’t seen her in years. She has just enough time to watch his match, and then she has to catch her next flight. I bar her as a kibitzer.” David naturally begs and pleads, and Max relents, with a stipulation: that she sits next to him. “Just as we start I say: ‘You’re on my side, right?’ She has no idea what the fuss is about, so she says: ‘Right!’ David looks up: his own sister is on my side!?”
Psychology triumphs over psycho kinesis; will it also vanquish physiology?
“Lee Genud has this who lady travels with her. She gives something called the ‘Mongolian Fear Massage.’ The woman freelances, so I book her for the two hours before the match. Lee is looking for a massage; the woman is nowhere around. Then I show up: ‘Lee, why didn’t you tell me? That masseuse of yours! I feel so relaxed, like I could lick the world!”
His opponent in the finals is an unknown … “But he looks like he comes from one of those countries where they are used to getting ordered around by the police or the army. So I look in my closet; I have a Sgt. Pepper jacket. I wear that to play the finals. Right away I start ordering him around: ‘Move the board here! Setup the checkers this way!’ It gets him used to obeying. Then just before the opening roll I tell him,” Max jabs a finger for emphasis, “ ‘don’t play too tough!’ ”
He has to be making these stories up! Then I see pictures from the tournament. There, accepting the first place trophy, is Max. He is wearing a Sgt. Pepper jacket.
We launch a second magazine called: The Backgammon Scholar. In those days the magazines were long on social news and short on analysis. Now the balance has shifted, but The Scholar, which is all analysis, was ahead of its time. Shortly after the first issue appears, I get a new roommate.
Peter goes for a drive exploring his new home. He takes David Eig and they drive up Red Rock. Halfway up his car bursts into flames. All his belongings are in the back, and while he makes a valiant stab at smothering the fire with a dirty gym sock, David pulls him away, and the fire consumes all.
Fate seems to have dealt him the worst possible hand. But Peter is a mathematician. Quickly he calculates the exact loss: One used-car/60% ownership + six individual socks clean, plus seven individual socks dirty [subtract using variable for estimated local Laundromat price of All-Temperature Cheer] … three long-sleeve shirts, ½ Filet-O-Fish without fries … computer program to beat Pai Gow*340 hours labor …) and in less than a minute he has the answer: Two thousand nine hundred and twenty-three dollars and fourteen cents! In actual dollars that is not the worst single session he has had as a gambler. Pleased at having on this occasion outwitted Fate, Peter starts laughing.
The firemen are among the first people in Vegas to realize Peter is weird.
The next day Peter calls me. He is not laughing. “They want a credit card. Do you have a credit card?”
The lady at the car rental place says she cannot rent a car without a credit card. “Or a pay stub, rent receipt, utility bill: something that shows you have a job here …”
Is she nuts? This is Vegas! No one has that stuff. I have friends without Social Security cards. “How about this: I am the Editor-In-Chief of a locally published magazine; the address is in the front, and so is my picture; would you like to see that?”
Only, I cannot find a copy anywhere in the house. I call Max’s house. Linda is home, and there are copies there. It is already ten after four, and the rent-a-car closes at five. I am starting from Trop and Pecos. Max has moved from Green Valley to somewhere out past Rainbow Road. I fly to Max’s, grab the magazine (refusing a sandwich), and then fly to the rent-a-car, which is near Nellis. Years of cab driving pay off and I roll in with ten minutes to spare. Just like the cavalry!
I fan the magazine on the counter. I have recently gotten my hair cut, but in the picture it still flows down my back. In it I have a beard that hasn’t been trimmed since the late seventies. The camera seems to have been aimed up my nose at the time of the snap. There is a lot of hair in there, too. I look like a cross between Lawrence Talbot on Walpurgis Nacht, and a well-watered Chia Pet.
“So, you’ll rent him the car?”
“I need to see a credit card, pay stub, rent receipt …”
“You said you wanted to see this picture.”
“Yeah, I wanted to see it. But you still need a credit card, pay stub, rent receipt …”
What about a deposit?
“You’d have to put up the entire price of the car.”
The name of this place is “RentAWreck.” “How much is that?”
“Six hundred dollars.”
As mentioned, in Vegas if you don’t have five or ten grand in your pocket, why leave the house? “Peter, pay the nice lady and stop wasting our time!”
Now, in the words of Alex Delarge, we “come to the real sad and weepy part of the story, my droogies.”
Max goes to Ireland with the Poker Players. While he is there Linda runs off. With Vartan. Worse, she sells his midget movies. Max stops publishing the magazines. He stops running the club. Things get very bad for him for a few years.
The town changes. Dirty Sally’s cum Rumors is no more. The place is torn town. Heck, the Sands is torn down. The only good discos are in Asia. They find out cocaine is bad for you. Who knew!? Dealers start getting taxed, the culinary union continues striking, and Wayne Newton stops buying the Aladdin. The economy of Vegas slides. The town tries to reinvent itself. Soon there are casinos pretending to be Disneyland at one end of the Strip, and at the other, instead of Frankie and Dino and thousand-dollar a night escorts, there are guys with prison tattoos and crack whores. From Ermine and pearls to vermin and squirrels.
But Vegas has bounced back. So has Max. The club is going again, and Max is running it. Any day now the movie stars will begin dropping in again and the showgirls will be stripping to their boots, so start stockpiling the honey! It was like that once, and there are pictures to prove it. In backgammon there is immortality!