ALL ON BOARD – Dice and spikes for the open tournament

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After chess success, it’s time to summon backgammon at the Caleta Hotel for the second edition of the Gibraltar Backgammon Open Championship scheduled for the 8th to 12th of February.

Having attracted some two hundred and forty players and five former world champions in the first edition, won by German champion player Jurgen Orlowski, the 2017 event is touted to muster once again top European and world players to ‘the other side of Gibraltar’, just days after the January staple chess kermesse is over, in a bid to promote the venue as an ever-vernal cultural destination.

European Backgammon Team Championships

Throw in the mix of fine wining and dining, sunbathing and sightseeing, the opportunity to rub shoulders with giants of the game including worldwide champions, playing against them to watch and learn their moves, not disdaining of course the total prize funds that well exceed the one hundred thousand pounds mark, and you’ll see why over a hundred and fifty players had already registered by mid-November and full capacity was reached well before the end of the year.

“Backgammon is considered a game of chance because it involves dice, and the Hotel is fully licensed to hold gambling events on its grounds, but this means that no junior tournament will be happening on the side, like we do with chess,” says the hotel manager Franco Ostuni, one of the minds behind last year’s launch, and this year’s improvement, together with Michael Pitaluga and David Frier, the Chairman and Treasurer of the Backgammon Association of Gibraltar.

Not for gambling but for fun, the fifty-strong membership meets at Latino’s in Casemates every Wednesday evening, and wannabe members are welcome to pop around, soak in the atmosphere and join the club. There is no minimum proficiency level and the basics of the game can be learnt quickly but they can take a lifetime to master.

The current membership is organised in a proper league with fixtures and scores duly noted and the champion is crowned at the end of the season in June. There are also cup tournaments organised in January and during National Day week as well as other forms of the game taking place during the year such as speed, doubles and team events. There’s plenty of room for amateur players who just enjoy their daily dose of synapses’ stimulation, because backgammon is more about strategy and forethinking than it is about opportunity, with maths and planning skills coming in handy and perhaps being developed in those who struggle with turning procrastination into prognostication. That said, the element of chance still stands: a few good or bad rolls of the dice can quickly turn a losing game around.

Gibraltar team in Denmark

Backgammon has been present on the Rock for years (“We used to organise tournaments at the old Cool Blues,” Michael reminisces), but the Backgammon Association of Gibraltar was formalised with its constitution and a committee of six in June 2015, and soon after, it joined the European Federation as a separate member nation alongside 25 other countries.

A board game steeped in history as much as its regal counterpart chess, backgammon has been known with various names albeit little permutation through the millennia and the empires. Nowadays, it is still as popular in the Middle East as it was in Byzantine times, when it was simply called ‘table’. Scandinavian countries also enjoy their big leagues – in Denmark, where last autumn’s European Championships were held, the fanship size is comparable to football.

Gibraltar team outside Casemates

There, David noted that the Danish players are quite young, meaning that the game is promoted agonistically since childhood, and the local association would like the model to be exported to Gibraltar too, to offer a competitive edge to those youngsters who, for various reasons, aren’t practising physical sport or other activities. It is hoped to introduce backgammon into local schools which is something that the local association would very much support.

The Gibraltar national team attended the European Team Championships in Copenhagen last October with seven players: Michael (captain) and David, together with Stewart Stone, Charlie Sanguinetti, Gilbert Licudi, Bryan Zammit and Nadine Chipolina, with delegate Natalie Passano. They fared well against Hungary, Croatia, Cyprus, Austria and United Kingdom, recording wins and giving a few ‘bloody noses’ even in defeat. Considering they were debutants against countries with tracked experience of international competitions, the humble beginnings were encouraging enough to start planning for next edition and even toying with the idea of holding a future European Championship in Gibraltar, the ideal venue for competing and socialising in a jovial atmosphere.

Friendly backgammon matches at Latino’s

A truly international game, backgammon requires no verbal communication and the player’s gender is irrelevant with men and women competing together equally.

Unlike for chess match attendance, the atmosphere surrounding backgammon competitions is considerably noisy with players often engaging in conversation and banter with one another. Spectators are allowed to closely observe progress, as long as they don’t bother the players, some of whom wear headphones to block out the background buzz.

A live commentary will also be provided and streamed on the website www.gibraltarbackgammon.com where one can find information about registration, programme, trivia on cast and crew, and information about the local Association.

words | Elena Scialtiel