Paul has been written about in many magazines:
The New York Times:
Paul Magriel, Who Was Called the Best in Backgammon, Dies at 71
By SAM ROBERTS, MARCH 8, 20
Paul Magriel playing in a backgammon tournament in Boston in 1981. CreditBlake Fleetwood
Paul Magriel, a former youth chess champion who traded game boards to become known as the world’s best backgammon player, then turned to poker as his passion for gambling grew, died on Monday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 71.
His death was confirmed by a former wife, Martine Oules. No cause was specified.
After winning the New York State Junior Chess Championship at 19, Mr. Magriel (pronounced ma-GRILL) became fixated by backgammon, the 5,000-year-old dice-and-disk board game that combines luck, skill and speed.
Before the 1970s ended, Mr. Magriel had won the world backgammon championship and published what was acclaimed as the bible of backgammon. He was also writing a weekly column about the game for The New York Times.
In 1977, The Boston Globe described Mr. Magriel, who by then had given up teaching math at a New Jersey college to play professionally, as “probably the best backgammon player in the world.”
His quirkiness and cunning gave backgammon currency.
“He was a big part of the reason for the backgammon boom that happened in the late ′70s and ′80s,” Erik Seidel, a stock trader who became a professional backgammon and poker player, said in an email.
Mr. Magriel could be philosophical on the subject of games. “Games are controlled violence,” he told Gambling Times magazine in 1978. “You can take out your frustrations and hostilities over a backgammon set, where the rules are clearly defined — in contrast to life, where the rules are not so well defined. In games, you know what’s right and wrong, legal versus illegal; whereas in life, you don’t.”
Paul David Magriel Jr. was born on July 1, 1946, in Manhattan. His father, an immigrant from Latvia, was librarian at the American School of Ballet and curator of dance archives at the Museum of Modern Art. His mother, the former Christine Fairchild, was an architect.
As a child, Paul was remembered as a savant who rarely answered questions and spoke only when he had something to say. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and getting a perfect score on his college boards, he earned a bachelor’s degree in math from New York University. At. N.Y.U., he was a fellow of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.
He was later a National Science Foundation fellow at Princeton University, where he specialized in probability. He taught at the Newark College of Engineering (now part of the Newark Institute of Technology) from 1969 to 1973.
Mr. Magriel made his transition from chess to backgammon in Greenwich Village, at hangouts like the Olive Tree Cafe, while he was a doctoral student at Princeton and on track to become a math professor there.
“Psychologically, backgammon is very different from chess,” Mr. Magriel said. “It’s an exercise in frustration — you can make the right moves and lose, or you can make the wrong moves and win. And chess didn’t have the gambling that I like.”
Mr. Magriel grew increasingly gifted at backgammon, and consumed by it, cataloging, in the era before computers, thousands of potential playing strategies on index cards. And he ascended to more upscale venues, like the Mayfair Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where wagers might be made for $1,000 a point.
Gambling, too, became an obsession. Coupled with that were on-again-off-again brushes with substance abuse and a preoccupation with his own celebrity in the rarefied world of backgammon, his first wife, Renee Roberts, said.
“He had an incredible ability to concentrate his intellect on the things he wanted to know,” she said in a telephone interview. “He had so much promise, but the gambling took him to a place where everyone was relating to him because of his fame.”
With Ms. Roberts, he wrote the seminal “Backgammon” (1976) and “Introduction to Backgammon: A Step-By-Step Guide” (1978). His Times column appeared from 1977 to 1980.
Mr. Magriel made a small fortune from backgammon and later low-stakes poker. Playing poker, sometimes huddled disheveled over a table, he was known for uttering a signature “Quack, quack” when betting (usually a bet beginning with 22, the pair of numbers known in backgammon as double ducks and in poker as ducks).
His more enduring legacy to the card game was his formulation of the M-ratio — a measure, named for him, of how many chips a player needs to sit passively and make only compulsory bets.
For all his expertise in any game that required mental acuity, Mr. Magriel found backgammon to be “the most frustrating, the cruelest.”
“The fascinating thing about backgammon is that it represents an interesting paradox,” he told The Boston Globe in 1977, adding: “People who want a sure thing don’t make it in backgammon. There are risks, yes, but on the other hand there is an enormous amount of control needed, something most gamblers lack.”
In 1977, he played a promotional match at the 21 Club in Manhattan against George Plimpton, the adventurous journalist and author who liked to slip into other careers and write about his experiences. (Mr. Magriel’s original backgammon tutor, years earlier, had been Mr. Plimpton’s wife, Freddy Espy, a decorator and artist.)
In this match Mr. Magriel had a serious handicap: He was playing Mr. Plimpton while blindfolded.
“I have nothing at stake except the honor of my psyche,” Mr. Plimpton told The New Yorker. “My tactics are going to be to talk as much as possible, ply him with drinks, and do everything else I can to befuddle him. If he loses track of a single piece on the board, I win.”
Mr. Plimpton lost.
Well, George Plimpton finally got sacked. The rude upending of the longtime amateur scourge of professional sportsmen was effected the other afternoon, before our very eyes, by X-22, a professional player of and writer about backgammon, who is sometimes also prosaically known by his name, Paul Magriel. The scene was a private dining room at "21." The occasion was a press conference to announce a forthcoming backgammon tournament in Las Vegas that was being co-chaired by Magriel and the venerable jack-of-all-games Oswald Jacoby, and would have a million dollars in prize money and a winner's purse of half a million. Plimpton's comeuppance occurred in a single game of backgammon against Magriel. However, Magriel, though his prowess has earned him the further sobriquet The Human Computer, was not heavily favored to prevail. The reason was that he had agreed to play blindfolded.
Oswald Jacoby had flown in for the press conference from Dallas, where he lives, to watch the contest, and before it started we asked him to tell us something about Magriel. Instead, he said, "I am the best seventy-four-year-old player of any game. Bridge, backgammon, poker, gin rummy—any of them. I play bridge better today than I did forty years ago, when I was the best in the world. I once played backgammon blindfolded, about thirty years ago. Very difficult. Harder than playing bridge out of my pocket, harder than playing chess blindfolded, because in backgammon you have these thirty men, all the same shape, wandering on and off and around a twenty-four-point board."
Mr. Plimpton joined us, and we put our question to him. "Paul is a noted mathematician who specializes in probabilities,'' X-22's adversary told us. "He began playing chess at the age of five, and he played all through Exeter and was a whiz. While he was a graduate student at Princeton on a National Science Foundation fellowship, he switched to serious backgammon. That was seven years ago, when he was twenty-three. Incidentally, it was my wife, Freddy, who taught him backgammon. I wish she were playing him today instead of me. Oh, well, I have nothing at stake except the honor of my psyche. My tactics are going to be to talk as much as possible, ply him with drinks, and do everything else I can to befuddle him. If he loses track of a single piece on the board, I win."
Mr. Plimpton reminded Mr. Jacoby that they had played bridge together many years ago, at Harold Vanderbilt's. "You can probably remember the goddam hand, Ossie," he said.
"Yes, and it wasn't too good," Jacoby said.
"I remember I was playing the hand," Plimpton went on, "and you suddenly said 'What on earth are you doing?' and I said 'I haven't the faintest idea.’ "
It was time for the big match to start. "À la table!" cried Plimpton. Magriel tied a green-and-brown scarf over his eyes and, to make doubly sure he didn't inadvertently peek at the board, turned his back on it. His dice were rolled for him, and the outcome conveyed to him, by a young woman with a long string of pearls and a strong throwing arm.
Just as Magriel led off, with a 6-3, Barclay Cooke, another backgammon expert of international renown, arrived and stood alongside us. "I have never played backgammon blindfolded," he whispered. "I wouldn't dare. This is not a memory game."
The action proceeded in a hushed, tense atmosphere. Sportingly, Plimpton made no attempt to addle his foe either with drink or with gabble. At one point, Magriel, who scarcely hesitated over his moves, said, "I'll make a run for it." Plimpton could have smitten the piece that Magriel was running with if he had thrown either a 4 or a 2, but he came up with a 3-1, and Magriel escaped. Plimpton still had a chance, but the consensus of the onlookers was that he misplayed a crucial double 3. Then Magriel threw a fortuitous 5-3, followed shortly by a crushing double 6, and Plimpton's jig was up.
"I'm outraged," said the loser to the winner, without looking so at all. "Absolutely outraged. What have you done to my psyche? But it was a great privilege. I'll tell Freddy that I almost won. I should have stuck to my original game plan."
"In any one game of backgammon, there's a lot of luck involved," Magriel told him soothingly. "But there are levels and levels and levels. Backgammon is far more complicated than people believe."
A woman who had been watching asked X-22 if it was good practice for him to play blindfolded.
"I don't do it much," he replied. "In Russia today, it's illegal to play simultaneous blindfolded chess, because too many good young players went insane doing it."
We asked X-22 how he had acquired that nickname.
"I used to play backgammon against myself," he said, "and once I had a private tournament with sixty-four imaginary entrants, whom I designated X-l, X-2, and so forth, through X-64. In the final, X-22 was pitted against X-34, and X-22 won." ♦
Dan Rather 60 Minutes:
Anyone who has been around for a while should recognize the name Paul Magriel. He was a regular fixture at poker tournaments during the ‘90s and into the early 2000s; a strong opponent with a hearty nature and a love for the game. The 71-year-old has now left us, having passed away Monday in his sleep. He is survived by his wife and a son.
Magriel began playing poker after already proving his strategic capabilities in other sports. He was a successful competitor in chess, and won the New York State junior championship when he was 19. Following his time with the rooks and pawns, he segued into backgammon and in 1978, became the World Backgammon champion. He spent the next several years writing a piece on backgammon for The New York Times and even wrote a book on the subject, succinctly entitled ‘Backgammon.’ The book, which he wrote with his wife Renée, is considered by most to be the backgammon “Bible,” even today. He subsequently wrote an abridgement on the topic called, “An Introduction to Backgammon: A Step-by-Step Guide.”
Looking for a new challenge, the Las Vegas resident turned to poker in the 1980s, and began a career that would go on to cover more than three decades. He cashed in some of the most difficult tournaments, making a final table appearance in 2003 at the WPT Championship Event and reaching money in eight WSOP events. He also made his way to final tables on both the Professional Poker Tour and the Ultimate Poker Challenge, earning a total of $527,364 in live action over the course of his career.
Magriel became known for his signature “quack quack” when making a bet at the tables. He would shout it out when betting an amount beginning with 22, such as 2200 or 22,000. It was derived from his nickname in backgammon, X-22. In that board game, a pair of 2s is known as “double ducks,” and in poker simply as “ducks.” Poker pro Erik Siedel was the first to announce his death to the poker world, tweeting, “Woke up to the sad news that backgammon legend Paul Magriel (X-22) has passed away. He changed the game with his book, was a generous champ and enthusiastic teacher. He changed my life and the lives of many others.”
Backgammon on the Boardwalk: The Great Atlantic City Backgammon Trial
Les B. Levi, 1983
From Backgammon Times, Volume 3, Number 1, Winter/Spring 1983.
The continuing battle between backgammon and America's legal system was waged this time in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The purpose of the Superior Court trial was to determine the legality of backgammon tournaments in the state. Caesar's Regency Boardwalk, one of Atlantic City's titan casinos, joined forces with American Backgammon Championships with the hope of scheduling a major tournament at Caesar's in March of 1981.
What follows is an account of backgammon's day in court. The central figures in the account need little introduction: Paul Magriel, possibly the best backgammon player in the world, served as expert witness; Henry Wattson, promoter of the world's largest tournaments, testified on backgammon's behalf; Nicholas Casiello, Jr., the dynamic attorney who had seen through the legalization of Atlantic City craps tournaments, was representing Caesar's and ABC; and myself, Backgammon Times's editor.
We walked jauntily to the courthouse that morning after Magriel and Wattson had their conference with Casiello. The three seemed optimistic, although it was not difficult to sense their underlying anxiety. As we walked against the light across Atlantic Avenue to the courthouse, Wattson japed, "How come jaywalkers have that run-down feeling?"
The tension, at least for the moment, was eased.
Casiello, who works for the firm Horn, Kaplan, Goldberg and Gorny, had clerked for the judge we were going to meet in a few moments.
The Honorable Philip A. Gruccio, Assignment Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, was fond of Latin, according to his former clerk. Scarcely missing a beat, Magriel started to rehearse pronouns in the first three declensions, which he followed with several impenetrable fragments from Cicero. (Magriel's backgammon is fortunately better than his Latin.)
We sat in the courtroom staring at the greyish beige walls, waiting for Judge Gruccio to appear. Carol M. Henderson, a Deputy Attorney General of the State of New Jersey, was already there conferring with her assistant. In this particular trial, the state was the defendant and Caesar's was the plaintiff.
Henderson, like Casiello, a product of Seton Hall Law School, intended to argue that the game of backgammon relies "materially" on chance and is therefore in violation of the state statute that prohibits "lotteries." And unlike craps, roulette, wheel of fortune, blackjack, slot machines, and baccarat, backgammon is not regulated by the State Gaming Commission and has not been legally sanctioned by a referendum vote of the people of New Jersey.
At 11:20 a.m., twenty minutes after the trial was to have begun, an armed guard wandered in and sat directly behind me. Twenty minutes later a frantic young woman clutching an infant whirled through the door and pleaded with Casiello to excuse her for being late. The guard behind me woke up and told her that she had the wrong courtroom.
At 11:45, a side door swung open and an armed bailiff announced the entrance of the venerable Judge Gruccio.
In the career of most judges there is always one case that is so far-reaching in its consequences that it strikes at the very heart of the times. I don't believe this was Gruccio's case. Gruccio didn't think it was either.
If you've been reading Backgammon Times, you'll remember that last spring, backgammon's legality had been upheld in the State of Oregon at the trial of tournament promoter Ted Barr. In a heated legal battle that brought expert witnesses Henry Wattson and Paul Magriel to Portland, Barr, a lawyer himself, along with attorney Marshall Amiton successfully persuaded a state judge that the game of backgammon relies chiefly on skill. The Barr case was regarded as a signal victory for backgammon promoters everywhere, setting a nationwide precedent for other courts to follow. Or so it was thought.
When Casiello put forward the Barr case for consideration, Gruccio refused to take "judicial notice."
"There's no question that the court should take notice of the revised Oregon statutes," Gruccio explained. "But the problem with the Oregon state decision was that no written opinion had been handed down, no decisional law submitted in writing. It's therefore not a written opinion of a court," he concluded with severity.
The first witness to take the stand was Henry Wattson. He explained at length the format of American Backgammon Championships's tournaments and described the popularity of backgammon in America.
"Tournament players," he told the court, "are more skillful on the whole than casual players. Differences in ability are based on both natural aptitude and on the frequency a person plays. A tournament like the World Amateur, for instance, is designed to maximize the importance of the players' skill and minimize the luck factor."
So elaborate was Wattson's explanation of the tournament format that Gruccio could have gone off and set up his own tournament the next day. That he didn't is a matter of public record.
When Magriel next took the stand, Casiello labored to establish his expertise. The judge's head was buried in Magriel's Backgammon (which was labeled exhibit F), and he seemed to scarcely hear the author-player's testimony.
"And what did you receive honors in at Philip Exeter Academy?" the lawyer prodded.
"Mathematics . . . and Latin," was Magriel's rehearsed response.
Gruccio looked like he was conked with a doubling cube. "My favorite subject in the whole world was Latin!" he exclaimed. Then, with some skepticism, "But Mr. Casiello, my former clerk, undoubtedly knows that."
Magriel didn't even get to fire off a word in Latin.
Magriel's credentials are extraordinary. After Exeter he studied at the Courant Institute of Mathematics at New York University and then did graduate work in probability theory at Princeton as a National Science Foundation Fellow. He was a professor of mathematics for seven years at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and developed their graduate program in probability. A nationally ranked chess player, Magriel learned backgammon in the 1960s and soon became an expert. He has since played in hundreds of tournaments, served for two years as The New York Times backgammon columnist and published Backgammon in 1976, which is now in its sixth printing.
A trader on the New York Mercantile Exchange, Magriel is currently under contract with Viking to do ten more backgammon books. And even those, he told the court, will barely scratch the surface of the game.
"Mr. Magriel, what determines who wins a game of backgammon?" Casiello began.
"Look at it this way," he responded. "On the average there are twenty possible moves after each roll of the dice. The player's choice—and he must exercise his choice for each move—is what makes backgammon a game of skill."
"How many possible moves are there on the first full turn?"
"And on the second?"
"In excess of 100,000,000."
"A single wrong move will often determine the outcome of a game," replied Magriel. "And if you picked one of twenty possible choices at random, it would be impossible for you to win."
"How does backgammon compare to chess?"
Pensive for a moment, Magriel responded with enthusiasm. "Backgammon ranks along with chess and bridge in subtlety, complexity, and sophistication. That's why I gave up a promising academic career and spent ten years of my life studying the game. It is far more complex than poker and gin rummy. Blackjack is trivial compared to backgammon."
To demonstrate backgammon was more than a race with dice, Magriel elaborated on several key strategies. But for all the interest Gruccio evinced, you would have thought Magriel was describing the roundness of a ping-pong ball.
"There are deep structural problems in backgammon," he continued. "It's not unusual for a player to anticipate ten or fifteen moves ahead."
I began to wonder if the backgammon I played was the same game Magriel was speaking about.
"Do you have an opinion on whether backgammon to a material degree relies on chance?" Casiello asked.
"I believe that the element of chance is not material," Magriel asserted.
"Is the game under the control or influence of the players?"
"Yes," he concluded, "it is." In the history of litigation even Clarence Darrow never created such fireworks during a trial.
Lunch was a grim little affair. We brown-bagged cheese and roast beef sandwiches at the luncheonette across from the courthouse and ate in the courtroom itself.
Magriel and Wattson were already pessimistic. Casiello said it could go either way. I made a pointless comment about the inscrutability of the judiciary. All three expected that the worst would come in the afternoon when Henderson began her interrogation.
A woman with three small children crowded into the courtroom and surrounded Wattson. I suspect they thought he was a legal aid lawyer because of his beard. An armed guard said they were in the wrong room. Magriel then bolted from his chair and ran to the public phones. He wanted a quote on gold from his New York office.
After lunch, Deputy Attorney General Carol M. Henderson, before an audience of seven that included the judge and a slumbering bailiff, constructed an argument that ultimately clinched the case for the State. To whit:
- Backgammon is a game that uses dice.
- Dice are instruments of chance.
- Therefore, backgammon is a game of chance.
The syllogism, more simple than Bertrand Russell's proof that God does not exist, seemed to convince Gruccio.
"Chess," said the judge accusingly to Magriel, "does not use dice and involves no element of chance, does it not?"
Magriel ignored the question. "Dice have no effect on the outcome of a backgammon game!" he shouted. I squirmed in my chair. "What the layman calls skill and luck are actually murky concepts!"
"When two people of equal ability play backgammon, don't the dice determine who will win?" Gruccio persisted.
"There are no two people of equal ability," Magriel replied. "It's something that never happens. Players of so-called equal ability actually have strength and weaknesses in different areas of the game.
"Golf," he continued, "which the layman recognizes as a game of skill, actually hinges a great deal on luck. The fickleness of the wind, the peculiarities of the course, a small pebble on the green—all of these introduce a luck factor into the game against which the skillful player strives. In backgammon the dice are the background on which you employ strategy."
Sophistry? Henderson thought so. She battered Magriel's testimony with her sold little syllogism until Gruccio, not Magriel, screamed in pain.
"Stop, stop. We're going in circles," he cried impatiently. "I think I've found something here which clarifies this."
Gruccio had a copy of Sports Illustrated with an article by backgammon writer Roger Dionne. Dionne was reporting on a tournament where Magriel had reached the final. Tied in the final game against his opponent, Magriel was bearing off. He had two checkers left when his opponent took the dice. According to Dionne, the entire tournament would be decided on the next roll. A 6-1 or better, Magriel would lose.
"Mr. Magriel," Gruccio asked, "is it true that the outcome of the tournament described here was determined by that single roll of the dice?"
"It's not that simple—"
"Just answer the question: Is it true or not true?"
"Yes, but there were considerably more factors—"
"Then the answer is yes?"
"Thank you, Mr. Magriel."
Gruccio had refused to hand down a declaratory judgment until he had more time to review the evidence. In one week, he announced, a written decision would come from his office. But by the end of the trial it seemed clear to most of us that it was no-go. Even Wattson, an unyielding idealist whenever backgammon's involved, gave it a 1-in-6 chance. There would probably be no tournament in Atlantic City this March.
Our trip back to New York City was somewhat less elegant. We had hired a limousine with a bar and television to carry us down. Now Magriel was dragging his Gucci luggage through the Atlantic City bus depot while Wattson stood in line for tickets. Despite the murmuring of the drunken retiree who had lost last month's pension at the slot machines, I found the bus trip relaxing. There was at least a bathroom on the bus. The limousine didn't have one.
A week later, when I was in Las Vegas for the Holiday Tournament, Magriel stopped me in the lobby of the Sahara Hotel and gave me the news. Gruccio had said no.
From the archives ... previously unpublished
A difficult middle-game position analysis
by Paul Magriel
From Bill Robertie: Since his death on March 5th, Paul Magriel has been much in my thoughts.
From an abstract perspective, though Paul’s health had often been precarious, he had been a part of the backgammon world for so long that it was easy to believe he always would be.
And – more personally – for the past 4 years, I have been working on a new backgammon book. I knew Paul would be interested in the ideas in that book and I was greatly looking forward to the enjoyment of talking with him about them. Alas, those days are gone now.
I find myself wanting to find ways to commemorate what Paul Magriel meant to backgammon generally, and to me as a player and a person.
What follows (from my backgammon archives) is a particularly-insightful and previously-unpublished difficult middle-game position analysis by Paul Magriel.
Sure, XG could do this analysis correctly today in mere moments. What’s impressive is that X-22 did it in 1982, unaided by any computer but his own impressive brain.
Read about it here.