I have been asked this question time and again since the beginning of my career. I would like to share a few general observations and considerations. From my point of view, the way things are handled at the moment is by no means permanent. There are many loopholes in the law that would have to be fundamentally addressed at some point. It is conceivable that my position on the subject will surprise you. I am happy to accept that. I also have no intention of “clearing my name” in any way here. It is a general feeling that the lack of understanding, also on the part of the judiciary, is too great to ensure proper handling. I would like to give a few examples of what has happened in practice along the way.
The basic problem is that there is simply no such profession as “betting professional”, “gambler” or anything comparable. But there are definitely people who make a living from it. They are therefore in a quasi lawless zone. It is a back-and-forth struggle to avoid being prosecuted by the state, or even to avoid being prosecuted. The state, for its part, also shifts the problem itself by simply talking about “illegal gambling” for some games, without having examined the games in detail to see to what extent these games offer fair chances for both sides or even sufficient skill. Skat is not considered a game of chance, which is curious, since it has a rather higher share of luck than backgammon or poker.
One of my first personal experiences was the following: in 1984 a small backgammon boom had broken out in Germany (also in Europe then). There were a few tournaments in a row, there was a backgammon calendar, there was a proper organisation, with travelling events etc.. One of the very early tournaments was to take place in Bad Wiessee/Bavaria directly at the Tegernsee. I and several other players went there full of anticipation. But when we arrived there and the tournament was about to start, suddenly the police were at the door: the tournament, including the prize fund, was cancelled without further ado. “Forbidden gambling” was the reason (as you can read in the chapter “Golden Dice”, this was also the first tournament in Hamburg without cash prizes). We had to go home without having achieved anything (ok, there was a little private game here or there).
The disappointment was great, of course. Our main complaint was that for all of us backgammon was clearly a game of skill. There was a reasonably high proportion of luck, which made it exciting and rather, compared to chess, even more attractive. But above all, we compared it to Skat. There, for us backgammon players, the share of luck is clearly higher and on top of that, the participation of a third player sometimes has devastating consequences (cheating?). This is not the case with backgammon.
We had a prosecutor in the players’ community. He was of the same opinion as everyone else. We planned to ignore the ban and play for money anyway, so that the matter would come to court. There we would have been able to prove unequivocally that it was not gambling. We had already worked out how to prove this.
We did not pursue this matter, but nevertheless it was tacitly tolerated a while later. I think it had something to do with the fact that there was a backgammon association that was tacitly joined. Then again, other laws applied.
Another friend of mine, also a professional player, was once investigated by an overzealous customs officer at the Spanish border. He was on his way back from Marbella and had won a considerable amount of money there. The customs man discovered larger amounts of cash, which my acquaintance tried to pass off as tournament winnings. The official did not give in and declared the story a fable. 8,000 DM had been collected. Well, it was really not customary at that time to get a “certificate of origin” for higher winnings. You collected the money and that had to be enough. At least my friend came to some (albeit sad and at the same time minor) fame: the story was picked up and published by the newspaper “Bunten”. Whether he ever got his money back is unknown to me.
A story that was only funny many years later happened to me once: I was once again on a long-distance trip. My passion for chess had long since waned, but I had nevertheless “preserved” the game over the years. I had invested so much that it would have been a shame to give it up completely. However, playing chess itself still gives me ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, ambition always breaks out and I immerse myself in another world, but on the other hand, I despise it so much and smile at the people who put themselves so deeply into it, because in the end it remains a breadless art. But this spring, in 1983, I once again took the chance to participate in the chess festival in Lugano. It’s simply beautiful there, and in addition you can go hiking in the mountains in the springtime south of Switzerland with a fantastic view of the lakes. If possible, you play chess “on the side”, which was always quite difficult for me.
The tournament was over, my friend Roland Ekström was also there and he had another idea for us: there would be a backgammon tournament in Gstaad, which would start in a few days. Well, my travel fund was obviously still sufficiently filled, apparently there was also no one waiting for me in Berlin (or elsewhere). I spontaneously agreed. Roland had chosen a different form of travel, I went by train. I also have very pleasant memories of this journey. Especially the last passage, when a tiny funicular took me up the mountain.
In Gstaad, the atmosphere was still quite wintry. There was a lot of snow and the ski area was used accordingly, although in the village itself, in the most beautiful sunshine, there was already a kind of thaw and spring atmosphere. We registered together for the tournament and shared the hotel room for the 4 days in a nice, but not absolutely top exclusive (budget conditioned) accommodation. We also agreed to share all income. On Thursday evening, the warm-up began. I had to leave early, but Roland fought his way through, even to the final. The first prize was 2000 DM, but the final had to be postponed.
On Friday, the tournament started. I had a run from the beginning. Roland was knocked out of all possible events relatively early; depending on the number of participants, there are one or two consolations and sometimes a last chance for the losers in the main. When I also defeated the very strong Yank Ed O’Laughlin in the semi-finals, I gradually felt that I was on my way to a special success. In the final, only the German backgammon legend Ulli Koch stood in the way. At that point, I felt not only grown but actually superior.
The final was a one-sided affair. I was always in the lead and had hardly any critical moments. I was sure to win the first prize and the trophy. Roland also won the final in the warm-up, which was held in parallel, so that we were allowed to share 10,000 DM in the end. I had decided long before that if I won the tournament, I would finally be able to afford a decent suitcase. This plan was put into practice. We had a short stay in Zurich afterwards, Roland’s home at that time, and I went back home for the next weekend. There was a Bundesliga chess match scheduled for the next weekend.
So I strolled through Zurich’s city centre for the last hour before the train left and suddenly spotted a beautiful cream-coloured linen suit in the shop window. It seemed quite cheap, even at 400 Sfr, so I grabbed it.
Only a few hours later I regretted it. It was just as I was leaving Switzerland, when the customs officials asked me about the origin of the good piece. I answered, correctly and truthfully, that I had bought it in Zurich before leaving. To this day, I cannot quite comprehend the legal situation when the officials took another 400 Sfr from me, because I still cannot feel like a “smuggler”. I also don’t want to believe that I have harmed Switzerland or Germany. Especially as I then thought in my naïve imagination what would have happened if I had put on the suit without further ado? Or even denied that I had bought it just now? And what was actually going on with the neighbour in the train compartment? I had the impression that his shoes had only walked 3 kilometres at the most. Why wasn’t he prosecuted?
Actually, I wanted to talk about the legal situation. Here I mention once again that the whole kuddle, including the unclear legal situation due to money games on the internet, is simply a big fat grey area. It’s not supposed to be done, that’s the verdict. But it is being done. And there is no stopping it. It’s a form of entertainment. And there are a few good to very good players, in all fields, whose skills are enough to feed off it in the long run. No matter how the laws are rewritten, it’s guaranteed to stay that way. If you force these people to do it behind closed doors, then so be it.
My suggestion, however, would be a completely different and a much simpler one: there is a new profession. This profession is called professional gambler. The lawmakers recognise that there is this possibility of proving oneself superior to other players through purely gambling skills – regardless of whether in a so-called “game of chance” such as backgammon or poker, a casino game such as blackjack or even roulette, even pool or the stock exchange – and to make a long-term living from it.
The consequences are as follows: on the one hand, these gamblers will participate in the tax system in the normal way. In principle, I see no problem with this. I use all state-subsidised facilities, the transport system or enjoy works of art just as much, I submit applications or rely on the protection of the police. I certainly feel an obligation to also contribute to the financing of this complex system. I would do so as soon as I am granted the status that I also occupy.
In return, however, I dream of finally being able to step out of the penumbra. No more people who think I’m a pickpocket or a fraudster, no more people who think I’m just crazy, no more car dealerships that only let me use their cars for cash, no more banks that block my accounts because they declare me a drug dealer or a contract killer because of high cash receipts. Rather the opposite: a cultivated conversation in which everyone announces their job descriptions and, as usual, everyone tips their hats to all the lawyers and doctors, but suddenly they also say to me: “Wow, you’re a professional gambler? Yes, I once dreamed of that too. Well done!”