Backgammon Legends

Jacoby and Crawford
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In his second article for Ladbrokes, Lewis Deyong gives us a first person account of one of the most famous names in Backgammon.

The Jacoby rule, now so popular in cash games, was not a name plucked idly from thin air. It was invented by the agile brain of Oswald Jacoby, perhaps the world's most impatient human being, who just wanted to speed up the game.

His innovation has helped tremendously, and despite his fame at bridge and other club games, he will always be associated with backgammon.

Who was Jacoby? Well, facts first. As well as writing a daily bridge column for 1000s of newspapers, his profession was as an insurance actuary (a job 100% devoted to calculating odds). He lived in Dallas, flying around America to compete at his various games, and was one of the most outstanding characters I ever met.

At the time I write of, serious backgammon was concentrated in New York and London, with smaller offshoots in Paris, Los Angeles, Palm Beach and Monte Carlo. The Open Tournament scene was virtually non-existent (Nassau and a little later Monte Carlo - that was it). The rest were in private (with a capital P) clubs.

I lived then in New York and used to play a lot with Gino Scalamandre. One evening, he told me, "We are going on a little road trip." I didn't know where, but soon we entered a nice hotel suite, to be introduced to our opponent. Oz was then in his 70s, tall, vigorous with an unruly mop of white hair and talking a mile a minute. He looked like The Nutty Professor but was in fact, the legendary Jacoby, who had also invented the concept of the pip count for races.

His love of the game bubbled over from roll to roll and he transmitted a spontaneous excitement which I have never seen equalled - for those who follow tennis, his table persona was something akin to a septuagenarian Rafael Nadal (without the legs). His mental arithmetic approached warp speed. While Gino and I were pondering a racing double, Ozzie would save us the trouble, at a faster speed than any calculator.

"My count is 122, you are 14 behind Gino, so this is a definite take. Odds are 68% me, 32% you, way below 3/1, so you do not even have a hesitation."

I learnt later that no one ever questioned his sums, he was deadly accurate and scrupulously fair to the other side. He was quite happy to surrender his advantage just to speed up the tempo.

Fittingly, the rule he invented has done a lot to achieve this end. How his impatience could cope with the tedious pauses of tournament bridge I never ever understood.

Incidentally, that night we broke even, which bored the pants off the other 2, but thrilled me.

"I broke even with the great Jacoby "whew! Perhaps I'm on the way."

The other basic innovation of that era was the Crawford rule, devised by Ozzie's bridge pal, New Yorker John Crawford, who won the first ever Open Tournament (Freeport, Bahamas, 1964). Together they wrote the first book of the modern era, "The Backgammon Book" and also numerous books on bridge and many other games. At one tournament Jacoby was steaming away on the blackjack tables, playing maximums, as he informed the Dealer, "I split."

Crawford chanced by and couldn't resist a little dig:

"But Oz, in your book it says never split 7s!"

Without a pause came the reply.

"Just forget my book, right now I need the money."

During World War II Jacoby was commissioned in the United States Navy and worked in an elite group that broke the Japanese Military Code. He explained obliquely,

"Our greatest success was the Battle of Midway, I cannot tell you more, but I can confirm that we won."

He must have been doing something right because back in the early days he did a "Tiger Woods" and won the Bahamas event 3 years running, no one else since has even come close. In a decathlon of club games Oz would have been unbeatable.

Click here for the first article: Early Days of Backgammon