Exclusive Interview: National Backgammon Champion, Historian & Collector, Detroit’s own MAURICE BARIE!
“Backgammon is 70% skill and 30% luck.”- Maurice Barie
Backgammon is an ancient game. Enjoyed by millions of people over thousands of years, the basic concept of the game has remained relatively unchanged.
Backgammon consists of two players who each move 15 solid color checkers around 24 triangular points according to the roll of the dice. The first to bear off (ie: get rid of) all their checkers from the board is the winner.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with local Detroiter and national backgammon champion, historian and collector, Maurice Barie.
“This plastic Doubling Meter from the 1930’s is extremely rare. It’s the only one that’s come up in my 22 years of Ebaying. My starting asking price for this item would be $975.00.”
Maurice Collects Many Things
Maurice collects all things backgammon, books, games, books about games, Coca Cola, Monopoly, bookplates, stereoviews, vinyl records, dice cups, etc.
“I have one of the largest collections of English language backgammon books, the largest collection of backgammon postcards and backgammon advertisements, probably around 15,000+ pieces in my collection. I sometimes accidentally buy duplicates of things because even I forget what I have.”
“I have too many hobbies. That’s why my house is cluttered. As a collector, one thing I would recommend to aspiring collectors is to try and focus on one, not multiple collections.”
“Collecting multiple things becomes too unwieldy over time. Rather than being a generalist and trying to absorb everything, try having 100 significant items but of the highest possible quality. My house would be paid off in full by now if I had had that advice to follow.”
“Older backgammon books with dust jackets are especially rare. I have every hardcover backgammon book with the dust jacket from 1920’s to present day.”
“From 1960-1979 there’s a gap in the historical documentation of backgammon. In 1998, I talked with the legendary Albanian-Greek backgammon collector Michael “Max” Maxakuli in Las Vegas. Max was President of the Last Vegas Backgammon Club and founder & editor of the Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine.”
“Max said he had an entire warehouse full of historical backgammon stuff covering that particular period. He died in 2006 and I never got to check out the warehouse and assume his collection has been lost or scattered. I would like to know definitively what happened to it.”
History of Backgammon
“The true history of backgammon is not really known. The oldest known board game is a Mancala board 5,400 years old from North Africa. The oldest known backgammon board is 5,000 years old from Egypt. There was even a backgammon board found in the tomb of King Tut. However, it is believed that backgammon originated from ancient Persia (modern Iraq).”
“The Ancient Egyptian game of Senet from 3,000 BC is not backgammon but very similar in concept. The Royal Game of Ur from Mesopotamia in 2600 BC, no one knows how it was played exactly but it appears to be somewhat similar to backgammon. Tabula is an ancient Roman form of backgammon.”
“Backgammon spread over the world via the Silk Road trade routes. American colonists were playing backgammon in the 1600’s and backgammon has had several heydays: the 1890’s, late 1920’s-early 1930’s, late 1960’s-1980’s, the computer age.”
“Backgammon exploded in popularity in Western Europe and the United States with the invention of the doubling cube.”
“Sometime between 1925 and 1927, the doubling cube was invented. This helped make it popular among gamblers who could double the stakes. They could double and re-double 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, ad infinitum. Prior to that people used a cribbage board to keep score. The doubling cube spread to Western Europe via trans-Atlantic ocean liners and became hugely popular.”
“C. Wheaton Vaughan, one of the pioneers of popularizing backgammon, wrote one of the earliest backgammon books in the 1920’s and helped evolve the rules. He co-wrote ‘Winning Backgammon’ with Grosvenor Nicholas. The copy I have is $425.00, if I were to offer it for sale, because it has the dust jacket.”
“Oswald Jacoby was another influential popularizer of backgammon. He was one of the pioneers of backgammon theory, the doubling cube, a member of the New York Racket and Tennis Club, who standardized rules for tournament backgammon in 1930.”
“In 1964, the 1st major international backgammon tournament was held in the Bahamas.”
“Nowadays, thanks to computers, backgammon is more popular than ever but the majority of players play online. I personally think its more fun to play in-person. I usually play at coffeehouses like the Java Hutt in Ferndale.”
How it All Started for Maurice
“I had been playing backgammon in high school and at that time there was a columnist Alfred Sheinwold who did a syndicated column in the Detroit News about backgammon.”
“In 1989, I wrote Alfred and he wrote me back saying there were 7 backgammon clubs in Michigan. The Plymouth Club intrigued me the most because one of Michigan’s top players, Dean Adamian, played there.”
The Plymouth Club
“The Plymouth Club met weekly at The Box Bar in Plymouth, Michigan. They were doing tournament play with money play on the side and using the doubling cube. I wasn’t familiar with the cube at the time, so for the first 5 weeks, I didn’t play in the tournaments, I just watched. It was $10.00 entry with a $5.00 side pool. I just observed Dean’s strategies with the doubling cube.”
“Then, the 6th week, I tried it and came in 2nd place in the tournament and won a total of $82.00. At the end, I played in the chouette money game. I played 7 other players simultaneously on one board. In one game I won 192 points at $3.00 per point and I backgammoned₁ everyone at 16 cubes.”
“I ended up winning $692.00 in that one game. My weekly income at the time was only $125.00 as a student assistant at Wayne State University. At that point, I became energized to start collecting backgammon books to learn as much as I could. Dean is still the tournament director for the Plymouth Club, although they play in Canton now.”
Backgammon Skill Takes Time
“It took me 6 years to become a decent player. I learned how to hand rollout moves. There are 36 dice permutations for a hand roll-out. If you do 360 hand rollouts, you’re doing 10 rollouts per dice roll. This is done if you don’t understand a position, you hand-roll it out with a different permutation every time until you understand it.”
“Today, computers can do this in minutes, as opposed to days. I still recommend hand-rollouts for backgammon students because there are certain positions the computer does not get correct, typically seven or eight ply rolls into the future.”
“In backgammon, the highest ELO rating₂ is 2100. I’m around 1750. I used to be ranked 58th place of all-time backgammon players.”
“There’s still some backgammon clubs in Michigan. Carol Joy Cole’s club in Flint is the biggest. Metro North meets at the Crash Landing Bar in Warren. The Plymouth Club in Canton. The Grand Rapids Club. Nationally, Chicago is the hottest area for backgammon. And you’ll find the most high-stakes money players in Vegas and NYC.”
“The world’s top player is a Japanese man named Mochy (aka: Masayuki Mochizuki). In fact, the world’s top 3 players are all in Japan.”
“Big money players seek out Fish. A good example was the now deceased heir to a popular liquer brand fortune and later a construction and real estate mogul, who would play for $300 per point and frequently lose 200 points in a night. Nowadays, a lot of the fish have dried up but some big money games still go on. The oil sultans, for example, play up to $5,000 per point.”
Maurice Toured the United States
In 1996, Maurice toured the USA on a hot streak. He won first or second place in 7 of the 11 tournaments he entered, taking MI, NY, OH, PA, IL, NV and IN.
“The year I toured the United States, I read that Stillwater, Minnesota was comprised of nothing but antique shops. On my way there, I stopped in Madison, Wisconsin and went to all 7 used book stores there and bought 83 used backgammon books for a total of $257.00. Some were from the 1920’s-30’s and in supreme condition with dust jackets. In Chicago, a money player bought half the books from me for $2,500.”
“I made it to Stillwater and found a Colliers Magazine featuring backgammon from April 11th, 1931. I paid $3.00 for it. I ended up selling 39 reproductions of the cover at $158.00 each. The original is French matted and framed and hanging in my living room.”
In 1998, Maurice won the Michigan Summer Championships, a double elimination tournament and finished 3rd overall in the United States on the American Backgammon Tour. He also played in the Monte Carlo World Championship and at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in Switzerland.
“In Monte Carlo, I was in the round that guaranteed winning at least $15,000. My opponent rolled double sixes, seven consecutive times in a row. That was a bitter loss.”
“In Europe, they use narrow dice cups, which look like cigarette packs. You get much more action on the dice with the round American cups, which I prefer.”
Famous Backgammon Players
“Backgammon in the 1970’s-80’s was everywhere. It had corporate sponsorships at tournaments and was endorsed by celebrities. Then poker and Texas Hold Em seemed to takeover since the potential for higher stakes and greater earnings was higher.”
“Lucille Ball was a huge promoter of backgammon. She would finance and sponsor many tournaments.”
“Hugh Hefner was also a major supporter of backgammon. He would throw regular backgammon parties at the Playboy Mansion.”
“Some other famous backgammon enthusiasts are: Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Groucho Marx, Roger Clemens, Lewis Carroll, etc, very long list of people.”
Maurice grew up in Metro Detroit and received his B.S. in Liberal Arts with a concentration in fine arts and graphic design from Wayne State University.
From 1981-1993, he served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. During Operation Desert Storm, he was sent to Saudi Arabia where he drove 18-wheelers 18-22 hours per day.
“That sort of experience allows you to appreciate the things you have at home. In the desert all we had was bare sand and tents. We built flooring out of old pallets for the tents to make it more tolerable.”
“I’m also a certified credit counselor. It’s enjoyable to help people evolve their financial understanding. The process of credit repair can be around 3-years long, it’s not overnight.”
Maurice Loves Bookplates
“I have 300 bookplates or so. I’m a generalist. I really like Rockwell Kent bookplates, bought a box of 50 of them. Also enjoy Edward Gorey.”
“To me they’re miniature pieces of art. I’ll buy a book for fifty cents just to get the bookplate. I don’t collect them for rarity.”
“If you want rarity, the most desirable ones are bookplates for a famous person who inscribed their own bookplate. Also, bookplates from the 1500’s-1700’s are heraldic and scarce.”
Maurice’s Book Collection
“I love the work of Kurt Vonnegut and have first editions of Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and others.”
“I also collect mystery, fiction, true crime, books with engravings, chromolithographs. One year, I got a great two-volume set of chromolithographs from John King called ‘Quadrupeds of North America’. There were 68 chromolithographs in there.”
“So for Christmas, I asked friends and family what their favorite animals were and gave them out as unique gifts. The biggest compliment to me was seeing them framed and hanging in some of their houses afterwards.”
Maurice Publishes a Rare Backgammon Book
“’Backgammon as Played in Hollywood’ is an obscure book from 1930. It’s about how the doubling cube revitalized backgammon in the 1920’s.”
“I first heard about it online. To my knowledge, it’s only available on microfilm. I’ve never seen an original print copy. However, if you have the original with the dust jacket, it would be around $500.00 for my personal collection.”
“So, I went to the Library of Congress and copied the book off microfilm. I printed 250 hardcover copies with dust jackets in Smyth binding.”
“I only have maybe 60 copies left. If you want to purchase the book, they are $45.00 each, including shipping and handling. Email me if you’re interested.”
Maurice will pay $$$$ for the following items:
If you own these items and want to sell them, email Maurice.
If you want to buy rare backgammon items, email Maurice.
“I’m looking for the newsprint editions of Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine from 1975-77. The newsletter ones, not the glossies. If somebody has them, email me and you will be handsomely rewarded.”
“Backgammon stamps are uncommon. There’s about 5,000 chess stamps and maybe only 5 backgammon ones. Supposedly someone in North Korea privately printed a backgammon stamp and a postal employee smuggled 10 of them out of the country. I’ll buy one for $500 if it’s genuine. Another very rare one is from Yemen. If you have either of these, let me know.
42nd annual World Backgammon Championship in Monte Carlo (July 2017)
42nd Michigan Summer Backgammon Championships @ Sheraton Novi (June 30-July 3rd, 2017)
“A backgammon is a triple game and happens when one player has taken off all of his or her checkers and the opponent has one or more checkers in the inner home court or on the “bar” (all they way on the starting point). A gammon is scored as a double game and happens when one player has taken off all of his or her checkers and the opponent has one or more checkers in the outer board or has not taken off any checkers.”
“ELO rating was developed by Hungarian -born American physics professor Arpad Elo used for calculating the relative levels of players in competitor-versus-competitor games. A 100 point difference in skill level means the higher rated player would defeat the lesser player about 63% of the time. A 200 point difference would mean the higher rated player would defeat the lesser player about 75% of the time. A 300 point difference would mean the higher rated player would defeat the lesser player about 80% of the time.”