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The 26th Sense

Warning! This article reveals the ending of the 2001 Pittsburgh Open. If you haven’t already attended, it’s too late, so you might as well read further.

 What is it about some players that finds them forever associated with a number? In Chicago we have “Bobbi’s” (55) and “Joann’s” (21). The players in Thailand all cry “Spencer!” whenever 36 leaps a prime or hits from the bar, preferably both. One former Chicagoan used to scream “Arriba Rafael!” when he wanted to invoke 16 from the bar. (Then again, after 11 vodka/grapefruits, he used to scream a lot of things!) The most mystical number of all, though, has to be 26. Nearly thirty years ago Gene Chait was famous for rolling 26. Meanwhile, California sandcastle builder Todd Van Der Pluym claimed 26 as his number. This very weekend in Pittsburgh Laila Leonhardt’s opponent hit her with 26, and without turning around she named the lurking kibitzer: “Go away, Ray.” Despite these worthy claimants, we in Chicago credit Steve Mellen with ownership of 26. Steve is an avid student of the game, and so far his one notable discovery is that “26 is the most common roll from the bar.”

Under Steve Hast’s professional direction, the weekend went smoothly. Eerily smoothly. Of course, losing in ALL side events quickly, while not having to play the Consolation or Last Chance, ensured an unrushed schedule for me. While my dice left a trail of angry ghosts, doubtless trapped in backgammon limbo awaiting vengeance, I advanced to the Championship Finals.

My Finals opponent was Dennis Culpepper. Dennis confided to me later that he had never lost a match after reaching the final four. I found that easily believable after losing in money rounds to him at least twice in 2000. Speaking of awaiting vengeance in a backgammon limbo!

Watching our match was a contingent of players from Dennis’ hometown, Richmond, Virginia. They bought their man in the auction, and were there to watch the rout. (They had just seen him, in the semis against Paul Weaver, stave off a near gammon for the match, to win with a thrilling set of double fours.) Successive last shake doubles for gammon wins in games two and three put Dennis ahead of me 8-1 to 15. He took a break, and one of the Richmondians remarked: “The Bear is hungry!” They call Dennis “The Bear” in Richmond, and call their weekly chouettes “Feeding The Bear.” Meanwhile, one of the others was checking Dennis’ chair to see if the seat was on fire. “The match isn’t over,” I remarked, but I had my doubts when another gammon, and a couple of plain wins, put the match at 14-6, Crawford.

I won a gammon in the Crawford game, and despite Dennis’ opening 66, became a solid favorite to win at least a game, before things got hairy.

My preference is 18/2, slotting, but Dennis chose 18/14, 6/2 (3), which led to:

Two sets of doubles at the end of the bearoff, and I trailed 14-12. Dennis again started things off with 66, and once again I took the lead in the game, only to trail here:

I rolled 55. The Crowd gasped, and the Richmond contingent headed for the gift shop, to buy up the Maalox.

In the double match point game, the supernatural pattern continued. Dennis rolled 66 (the second roll, this time), I took the lead, and he turned things back around. We reached this position:

Just then I looked up, and beheld an unearthly sight. Looming behind Dennis, a spectral halo that might or might not have been the waning sun backlighting him through the window, was Steve Mellen. As I looked, he smiled at me beatifically. Dennis rolled a 52, hitting me, and covering his acepoint. I knew with supreme clarity that my next roll would NOT be 35. Of course it had to be a 26. It won the game, the match, the Championship.

If this were a movie…well stop and think for a moment. Remember The Sixth Sense, filmed just down the street from Pittsburgh in Philadelphia? Throughout the movie you wonder, why is Bruce Willis so sad? Then, at the end, you discover a startling fact, that forces you to reevaluate all that had gone before: during the filming, he was still married to Demi Moore! Were this a movie, after rolling that 26 I would have looked up, and Steve would have been gone. I would have hunted in vain, only to learn, in the climactic shocker: “Steve’s dead. At 3:37 p.m. (the exact moment I rolled my joker) he was run over by a bus in Charing Cross. Bus number 26 it was.”

This was real life. Steve hung around after the match, explaining to everyone how he had won the match for me, and offering to sign autographs. He is hoping to star in the sequel next February. To find out if he does, you’ll have to come to Pittsburgh and see for yourself.



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