It was 1983. I was 24 years old. It was not enough to become a chess professional. You had to put in a lot of effort, many tournaments went on for a week or longer. To get to the meat pots, the really good cash prizes, you had to be really outstandingly good. More and more often you met grandmasters and international masters who had to, wanted to or could earn their money in open tournaments (tournaments where everyone was allowed to play). The first prize was often “only” 2000 or at most 6000 DM. And for that so many applicants, all of them very strong? And even for the winner, 9 days of hard work were not even royally rewarded with 6000 DM. You could live well on that for 2-3 months. Then the next tournament victory was needed.
My best friend, Christian Maier, lived in Freiburg. Freiburg was the most beautiful city in Germany for me anyway, even before Hamburg and Munich. The location is uniquely beautiful, the surroundings picturesque. And I didn’t even know any of Berlin’s surroundings. There was only Berlin or travelling (far) until then. So, a brave decision, moving to Freiburg, also as an act of proving independence. I can take care of everything, find a flat, enrol, re-register, move. Take care of myself alone and independently.
I also honestly intended to finish my studies. That’s why my father gave me 600 DM a month, which at the time was roughly equivalent to the BaföG rate. You guess what I studied? Yes, that’s right, it was mathematics. And the Albert Ludwig University also had a very good reputation. But as it turned out, that was of secondary importance to me.
Because what did we really do there? There was only playing, day and night. We played a dice game called yamb, a game from Serbia. I calculated everything and made statistics. You could call that studying, couldn’t you? I calculated the whole game, all the probabilities. It was played with five dice, a kind of Yahtzee. By the way, this part of mathematics is modestly called “combinatorics”. And it is only a tiny aspect of probability theory. And even that is not something for the “real” mathematicians.
Whenever I had the (real) maths books in front of me and wanted to study seriously, the doorbell would ring. Someone wanted to play a game of yamb. Off to the café and roll the dice, what else could I do? Yamb was, as I mentioned, a Serbian dice game. And “Professor Yamboss”, Dario Doncevic from Koblenz, was also a real legend, but more about that later.
I hadn’t given up chess for good, despite the realisation of the lack of professional prospects. From Freiburg, you could also reach great tournaments, especially in Switzerland. There were good prizes and not so good competition. Then I also got the opportunity to write an article here and there for the newspaper “Schach” by Peter Boldt from Freiburg, to analyse a game, also a little extra income.
And then suddenly there was the game of backgammon. I had already seen it for the first time at the turn of the year 1982/83 at the chess tournament in Zurich. Roland Ekström, who became one of my best friends, had already played it very well and I watched fascinated. I didn’t dare ask for the rules, but tried to learn them by watching.
So then in Freiburg there was the weekly Chouette. A chouette is a variation of backgammon in which many participants can join in, in principle unlimited. One person sits “in the box”, he is the lone player, he plays against all the others. His opponent, who places the checkers and rolls the dice, is the “captain” of the team. The single player plays against all the others, but they are allowed to consult each other. This is usually only done for critical decisions, otherwise the game drags on too long. The captain’s goal is to win the game. If he succeeds, he enters the box and becomes a single player. The captain is then replaced in turn. Everyone gets the chance to become a single player. The single player can win a lot, namely from all participants. And if you have a “run”, especially there and in the “box”, then you win a lot in every game.
I was now the beginner, just knew how to move the pieces. I was destined to be the loser in the round, was laughed at, even if sometimes only secretly. And games were played for money.
Yes, we all played games for money, small money of course. In the yamb it was also about money. But if you were very lucky, you might win 60 DM. Not enough to break up a friendship. Christian’s and my anger was always felt by the dice. Sometimes they landed on the roof of a house, sometimes in a pond. When they were gone, we always had to drive to Basel, 60 km, to get new ones. Only the real poker dice from Switzerland were our “playing material”.
But back to backgammon. The game was really fascinating. Besides, I had the feeling that the game suits me. I thought I had been a backgammon pro in a previous life, that’s how much it suited me.
So I got books, all the books I could get. And I devoured them. Then I knew that Professor Yamboss, Dario Doncevic, who was also German Champion at my first German Youth Chess Championship in 1977, was an expert in this game (besides, Dario was also an excellent bridge and backgammon player; the man could do something; you don’t become a professor just like that, even if only h.c.). And he had American backgammon books. So I went to Koblenz. I copied all his books.
The best book was the bible of backgammon, Paul Magriel’s book, simply called “Backgammon”. But whoever had read (and understood) that had taken the first (most important) step towards becoming an expert. Let’s say required is understanding-internalising, if you know what I mean.
I was soon a winner in the round in Freiburg, and it quickly dissolved. But there were other people who played for higher sums. Suddenly 10 DM per point and even more, so real money. It could get expensive, into the hundreds. Once, at the very beginning, I earned 300 DM in one day. This led me, still completely clueless, to multiply these 300 DM by the number of days in a year and imagine a life of wealth. Well, children’s dreams.
But Freiburg was small.
So it happened that one day I came to Hamburg. There was the famous, legendary “Schachcafé”, Schanzenstrasse. And people really gambled there. I also knew a lot of people in Hamburg. Sure, I was still playing in the national chess league. And Hamburg was our travel partner. I was playing (again) for my home club Lasker-Steglitz, for a Berlin club that had made it into the 1st League.
And there, in this chess café, they also played, even more people, higher amounts. So my studies had more or less failed. I was unstoppable. On top of that, I met this woman, Britta. I fell in love right away. So I moved to Hamburg. A small boom had broken out. A lot of people were suddenly playing the game, and thankfully quite weakly. So there was quite a bit to earn. Not great but enough. Only with Britta I just couldn’t land. I did something wrong. Nothing left to do. All doors closed. One wrong remark. Or was it? With persistence but unobtrusiveness? Let’s see…
Coincidentally, the first official backgammon tournament was also in Hamburg. I was very excited. Did I really have special skills? The entry fee was 100 DM, quite a handsome amount. However, the gambling laws in Germany were such that there could be no cash prizes. So the winner received two golden dice. But I already had a taker, supposedly worth DM 2000. And I actually won!
By the way, my opponent in the final was a certain Gerd Schiesser, who will be mentioned later. But when the score was 16:16 and I had a good throw, he offered me a split. I accepted, probably because I was afraid that the second prize would be silver dice. So everyone had a gold and a silver cube, but I still won the tournament.
I got 600 DM for the gold one, I don’t remember for the silver one. But at least it was a bit of money. Even more valuable for me was the tournament victory. It seemed so easy.
I then spent a few months in Hamburg. The nights were spent in the chess café. The day was used for sleeping, studying (but only backgammon) and also lazing around. My friend and partner was Andreas Förster. And Andreas was outstanding. He certainly learned a lot from me (contradiction, Andreas?), but he was the killer. I could trust him blindly. And above all, he beat everyone. Many times he came to me, after a long night and session, and pressed 400 DM into my hand, he had won, 800, 400 was my share. I didn’t do it any differently. But I found it harder to win, at least in the pure “money game”.
But it was enough to live on, we earned quite well. Then, of course, we felt strong. We thought we were the best. But there were legends. One was that Munich was really home to the creme de la creme of backgammon. So we had a few thousand DM together. And we dared. Off to Munich, into the lion’s den.
And in Munich, a different world really awaited us. You could feel that right away. I was able to stay with my good friend Bobby Taeger, whom I had known since the 1980 chess tournament in Badalona, Spain. But we couldn’t win anything there. Let’s say: quite the opposite. We lost everything. Andreas met Peter Blachian. He had been in Monte Carlo before, at the Backgammon World Championship. Also Karl Laubmeier, a real giant. In addition, I met Phillip Marmorstein for the first time, who later became world champion himself.
So after about 2 weeks our money was completely gone. Andreas went back to Hamburg, somewhat meekly. I stayed with “Bobby” for a few more days. We went on bike tours and bathed in the Isar (“brrr”). Without money you have other pleasures in life. But you have to eat something sometime. And that can be a problem without money.
4) Bad Aibling
Bobby wanted to go to a chess tournament in Bad Aibling. Oh, chess, I’ve heard that before, haven’t I? So why not? Off to Bad Aibling. But my pockets were really empty. But what coincidences there are: I met the daughter of the tournament director on the first evening. Really attractive and with a motorbike to boot, that’s what she was. Should I say now that the first night was taken care of?
I suppose it was a bit like that, but it was more like all nights. I can’t remember how or why. But she put me up in the hotel, no strings attached, shall we call it “free”? To my shame, I must confess that I don’t even know the name of this great girl. Was the last name “Nuhr”? I thank you anyway!
Well, I was accommodated and even got something to eat occasionally. It was an open tournament, one game every day, 9 rounds. It was a kind of knockout Tournament. But if you lost, you played on, just in the open. But only one person was the winner, the one who was never eliminated, like in tennis. If a game ended in a draw, you only got half a point for the open. But the winner was then determined by one or two blitz games.
So I won and won. And when I drew, I won in blitz. At some point I had to play Bobby himself. But I won there too. The strongest opponent in the tournament was Klaus Klundt. He had even represented Germany at a chess Olympiad once. But, once in the run, I defeated him too, in the final. I was the tournament winner!
I had already enquired about the prizes during the tournament, of course. Bad Aibling was a family tournament (right, very family?!). There were only material prizes, I already knew that. But it was called “valuable material prizes”. In earlier years, there must have been colour televisions or bicycles. So I hoped for such a prize so that I could immediately sell off the “equipment” I had bought. The hunger grew stronger and stronger.
So I had become the winner of the tournament. Now it was time for the unveiling. And what was I allowed to discover, what was the first, i.e. the most valuable prize? An embroidered cowhide! That couldn’t be true! I felt, in new German, fooled….
So I spent the time of the award ceremony in the beautiful park of Bad Aibling. By the way, the only edible thing I could make out among the prizes was a box of chocolates.
The daughter of the tournament director was looking for me, right in the park. The mayor was there, I had to come in. I refused. I said the only prize I could think of was the chocolates. And I wouldn’t want to put the organiser through that either. I was really very offended, and hungry.
What can I tell you? I remembered a book by Ernest Hemmingway that I had read once when I was 16: “The Winner Goes Home Empty.” I had always tried to make sense of the title. The answer was that simple…
Shortly after the award ceremony, I learned that I was banned for life from the tournament in Bad Aibling…. Klaus Klundt took me, he had the cowhide, back to Munich.
And one more thing. I have sinned, I confess here: In the course of the tournament I got to know quite a few players. One of them I dared to ask if he could give me some money. I found a “victim”. He wrote me a cheque for 400 DM. He also gave me his bank details. Since then, contact has broken off…
What else can you do when your stomach is growling?