It was a little less than a year ago that Paul Magriel, the superstar of backgammon's 1970s reinvention, passed away. Though his end was hardly premature (he'd pushed a lot of physical boundaries) that cannot be said for the recently deceased former world #1, Matvey (Mike) Natanzon, much better known by his competitive moniker, Falafel.
Like me, Falafel had been a chess player before discovering backgammon. He acquired his nickname because, in the lean years before he'd honed his skills and become the subject of films and New Yorker articles, he'd subsisted while hustling chess in Bryant Park, NYC, on a thrifty diet that consisted in large part on the Middle Eastern fried edible by the same name.
Ten days ago, just embarked on his 6th decade of life, Falafel succumbed to a virulent (and largely untreatable) form of brain cancer--a suceptibility to which was packaged, apparently, in his Russian-Jewish DNA. His many friends and admirers mourned his passing, and shared reminiscences of his kindness and generosity. Having been his peer and rival for years, I knew him in a different way. This is the quick tribute I wrote for him on Facebook. There will be, to be sure, more words to come:
A Gambler’s Honor
Our best friend Falafel was one hell of a backgammon player. Sadly, he was knocked out of the game this year by a genetic anti-joker.
Falafel is a central character of the memoir I published a few months ago, The Backgammon Chronicles. Chronicles is so titled not only because it is a history of modern backgammon, but also because that was what Falafel called one of our favorite recreations.
Back in the day, I used to organize impromptu quizzes (usually based upon my own blunders) at major tournaments, rounding up as many world-class players as I could to weigh in on them.
Falafel loved these sessions. “Ohhh, the Chronicles,” he’d murmur happily as I’d begin setting up positions. And immediately the fun would begin. No matter how difficult the problem, within a minute or so he’d state his opinion––categorically and emphatically––and offer to bet all of the assorted “geniuses” present that he was right. Moves other than the one he’d chosen, he declared, were “impossible.”
Naturally bets and propositions flurried, as did negotiations over new bets and offers. The amounts at stake were not trivial; but it was the value of the insights attained, the spectacle of ideas clashing, and the sheer entertainment that these sessions provided, that made them truly memorable. Scenes like these also took place on the several occasions that Falafel captained the World team in its yearly challenge matches against Denmark. When he could not come to an agreement with his teammates, he’d always offer to bet with them that his choice was the correct one.
As his friends have recalled in the last days, Falafel was kind, generous and caring––but I must confess that I barely noticed those traits. To me he was a brilliant rival––but even more interestingly, a true gambler. Not the most verbal of persons, he found in betting a means of expressing not only his beliefs––on backgammon positions, sporting events, or political outcomes––but his integrity as well.
We have all heard the expression “Put your money where your mouth is,” but to Falafel that challenge (which most people completely ignore) was a moral imperative. “I guess,” I remember him announcing on a hundred occasions, “If I say it I have to bet on it.” And so he would. No hypocrisy or weaseling here: to require oneself to live by a strict creed like this requires no small amount of courage (called “heart” in the gambling world) as well as a deep sense of honor.
I am glad that I was able to send Falafel a copy of the book in which he starred while he was still able to read and appreciate it.