Fishing for salmon, losing at backgammon…(George Gershwin, “Isn’t it a Pity?”
Our sometime columnist David Sherrill is out with a new book on backgammon entitled Dice, Cubes and Gentlemen, which tells the story of the game’s ancient and more recent history at the Union Club and elsewhere, replete with tournament winners and a valuable glossary of backgammon terms.
There was a burst of backgammon mania in the 1970s at clubs and restaurants. “There were three types of players,” man about town Nicky Emmanuel recalls, “those who played at the men’s clubs, those who played for a living around town, and the Euros. Don Denton’s pub on East 79th Street was the place where they all met. Paul Magriel, who was awarded his M.A. in math from Princeton at age 18 and died last year, was often there. There were also tournaments in Monte Carlo, Nassau, and on ocean liners.”
Nicky had begun learning the game at Denton’s and recounts his club debut as follows:
“I was going out with a girl whose father lunched promptly at ‘21’ every day at 12:30 for an hour. So, of course, we would turn up at two for our lunch and add it on to his account, which he never noticed. One day we had an extra bottle of wine and that gave me the Dutch courage to join the group at my uptown club. I had been afraid to because at Denton’s we played for $5 a point, and at the Club they played for $15. At the time, I was making $74 a week at a bank. Anyway, Lady Luck was with me that day, I won 150 bucks, and never looked back. The older guys started calling me ‘The Terrible Kid,’ and the name stuck.
Up at the Union Club, the leading players included David Sherrill, Lyon Boston, Russell Burke, Tolly Spear, Oakleigh Thorne, Barry Donahue, and Joe Aulisi. The Racquet Club had perhaps the strongest contingent, with such recognized champions as Barclay Cook, Hunter Goodrich, Dinny Phipps, Porter Ijams, and Teddy Bassett. One snowy night when Ogden Phipps Sr.’s limousine was out of commission, Barclay Cook walked him from the Club to the Lexington Avenue IRT entrance a block away and handed him a token. It was the first and last time the elder Phipps ever rode the subway.
There were many late nights. “Guys would get drunk at Denton’s, put their dice in their drink glass by mistake and throw that on the table,” Temple Grassi remembers. “The first time I did it late one night with my Dubonnet and soda, they were very nice about it, cleaned up my mess, and let me continue playing. After the second time, the manager strongly suggested it was time for me to go home.
On the morning he was to play in the finals of the national squash doubles championship one year, Claude Beer stayed up playing backgammon and drinking until dawn. For some reason his play on the squash court suffered as a result, and his partner, Kit Spahr, was decidedly unamused.
After teaching fifth grade at Allen-Stevenson for a decade, Temple Grassi decamped to the Gilman School in Baltimore and ended his 30-year academic career at Landon in Bethesda. Thereafter, he realized his dream of becoming a full-time sportsman, and has devoted himself to building the court tennis scene in Washington with Haven Pell, as well as to reviving backgammon at the Metropolitan and Chevy Chase Clubs, where his daughter Helen won the first Grassi Cup tournament, beating him in the finals. The two clubs also play each other in the Town & Country Cup.
The Commonwealth Club of Richmond, the Chicago and Philadelphia Racquet Clubs, the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco, and the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club all have active backgammon scenes and friendly competition among them as well. Several continental clubs do, too, especially the very civilized Traveler’s Club in Paris, where no money changes hands; one delivers a chit to the office, which settles accounts with the players involved at the end of every week.
And the game has long been played at fashionable resorts such as the Bath & Tennis Club in Palm Beach, the Newport Reading Room, Temple Grassi’s annual July tournament in Northeast Harbor, and Russell Burke’s summer conclave in Watch Hill. I have fond memories of late nights with Champagne flowing at Tootie and Cortie Wetherill’s during the August race meeting in Saratoga, where Joey Walker, Cabot Lodge, Jennifer Davis, Toby Charrington, Sandra Wheeler, and future world champion Katie Mather Scalamandre honed their mastery of the doubling cube, until play was suspended for a fortnight when early one morning Mr. Wetherill came down downstairs in his bathrobe to find the late Warrie Gillette in a decidedly unconventional board position with a much younger Vanderbilt heiress.
Looking back on the backgammon scene as it was, Nicky Emmanuel nostalgically recalls, “They were all great gentlemen, who had had good wars and were glad to be back. After work they enjoyed getting together, smoked, drank, and played from five to seven, when they went home to take their wives out to dinner. I suppose you could say it was the puritanical WASP equivalent of the French cinq à sept.
Backgammon has enjoyed a remarkable recent revival in the clubs and elsewhere, which, thanks to David Sherrill’s new book, is only likely to grow in the years ahead.