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King of Backgammon

There are situations Emily Post has failed to cover. This morning, for instance, a naked man was talking to me – in Japanese – about the Dow Jones. The question is: should I have ignored him, or, pretended to follow what he was saying? In practice I told him I didn’t own any stock, and didn’t follow the market. This convinced him I was some sort of weirdo, but at least snipped the Dow Jones thread.

Having such encounters is one of the reasons we travel. Certainly the same thing could have happened in Chicago (likelihood varying with the neighborhood), but on the road the border between real and surreal is not as well guarded.

Full disclosure of the full frontal encounter is that it took place in the sauna of Tipness Fitness Center, Roppongi branch, which brings the discussion around to Roppongi.

Roppongi! Look at a map of Tokyo and you’ll see Roppongi-dori and Gaienhigashi-dori cross in an X. As with all good treasure maps, X marks the spot. Within the half-mile radius from the front door of Almond’s (“Armando” to the cab driver), the landmark restaurant at Roppongi Crossing, there are approximately one thousand places where one can eat, drink, or be entertained. There are: Wendys, McDonalds, and Freshness Burger; Café Prontos and Hard Rock Cafes; Russian, Hungarian, and Mexican restaurants; sushi, teppanyaki, shabu-shabu, and yakiniku joints; karaokes and gentlemens’ clubs and “members only” spots; bento box vendors and Korean BBQ’s; Thai and Chinese massage parlors – the Bali Relax being a Chinese spot in disguise, but it is next door to Geronimo’s Shot Bar, which is owned by an Australian Jew; there are clubs like the Matrix, where tiny Japanese girls in baggy pants practice hip-hop moves, watch reruns of Bad Boys II, and date the black bartenders, and huge discos like Gaspanic (nope, not Iberian – the name was inspired by the oil crisis back in ’74); there are Irish and English pubs, whose TV’s are tuned to Europeans running around in shorts kicking a soccer ball, and there is everywhere else, tuned to reruns of Pride and K1 (local ultimate fighting variants); there are … But I’m running out of semicolons. Oh, yes, there is also my apartment.

Your city, if it is a big one, may have a neighborhood with a hundred places of entertainment, so imagine a neighborhood with a thousand! Not surprisingly such neighborhoods have a slightly disreputable air about them. In Roppongi’s case this is enhanced by the disproportionate number of foreigners found there. Roppongi is ringed by embassies (the US Embassy is around the corner from my place), and over decades has become a magnet for foreign sojourners.

Which brings the discussion around to the drawsheet. What drawsheet? You ask, brain reeling from being bounced from naked Japanese to Russian Karaokes to bento box vendors. (“Martha, what’s a bento box?”) The drawsheet, I am about to explain, for the auction of the players entered in the Oui Sen, which is one of Japan’s four major tournaments.

Oui Sen has been variously translated as “Tournament for the Crown,” or “King of Backgammon.” Like the Japan Open it is an elimination with consolation, and like the Open it is held over a holiday. Every May the Japanese celebrate Golden Week, when four otherwise unrelated holidays occur during a one-week period. Three of them were the Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday comprising May 3-5, and while other Japanese were flying off to Guam, or climbing Mount Fuji, or were next door at the Tokyo Dome watching the Yomiuri Giants lose to the Yokohama Bay Stars, the Japanese Backgammon League players were inside the Bunkyu-ku ward office building vying for the crown.

The thirty-three players (two were half entries) were grouped into fields of two and three, with eight individuals at the top of the sheet. Following the names were scouting reports supplied by Kaneko. For instance Kageyama “Michy” Michihito was credited with his authorship (his fifth book is due out soon), and with winning one of the other major titles, the Bon Sen, four consecutive years! Some of the scouting tips were humorous: “Yamamoto plays very well when he rolls double-six.” And with the background supplied in the opening paragraphs you will understand mine: “Of the outlaw foreigners living in Roppongi he is probably the best player.”

The tournament has two Consolation brackets, and I wound up in the first of them (by losing in an earlier round). Waiting for the semifinals, I watched an interesting quarter-final match. Michy (whom I had purchased in the auction) evidently misunderstood the ten a.m. starting time, and arrived an hour-and-a-half late. The Japanese use clocks on all the matches, with a 2-point penalty for the first flag drop, and a 1-point penalty thereafter, five minutes being put back after each flag fall. So Michy began his match with Abe Akiko down 0-6 to 11, with five minutes on his clock versus some larger amount (twenty minutes I think it was) on hers. It was theoretically possible for him to win, but in practice it didn’t happen.

This is a good double, and a good take at the score, but my follow through was faulty.

I should have redoubled here; at the score this is a monster redouble, and missing it was a major blunder. I thought, wrongly, that I needed to get one of my back men moving first. So focused on that was I that I compounded my error by playing 23/18 when I rolled 41. I doubled her out, and got as close as 4-away, 2-away, when an aggressive not quite good enough double could have worked, but didn’t.

Abe defeated JBL Director Shimodaira Kenji in the final. I mentioned earlier that Michy had won the Bon Sen title four years in a row. The player who ended his streak was Abe. In her acceptance speech (they do that in Japan) at the awards ceremony Abe said that she had entered intending to win the title, and regretted her one loss. Next year she promises to do better.

Meanwhile the player who knocked me out of the main flight, Takahashi Kodebu, had reached the final. Playing him in the best-of-three 11-point match series was Katagami Daisuke, a professional shogi player. (Shogi is similar to chess.)

Katagami won the first match, and led throughout the second. Both players were in time trouble with Kodebu trailing 3-away, Crawford. Kodebu had a 15-second or so edge, with about three minutes left to play, when this position arose. Since the penalty for a first flag fall is two points the gammon has no special time value. That being so, I think most players would anchor here, but Kodebu made a nice play and hit both blots: 8/4*, 4/2*. Making the twenty-point is correct at DMP, and while this score is like DMP, it isn’t quite the same. This position is an unusual exception. The two plays turn out to win nearly the same number of games; the difference is .1%. But hitting wins 16% more gammons, and that is enough to make it worth trying to eliminate Katagami’s free drop.

Ironically, hitting led Kodebu into time trouble – at first. Katagami, on the bar, wasn’t using up much time. But then he anchored on the deuce, and hit Kodebu in the bearoff, putting him back under time pressure. Not so much pressure that he was unable to close Kodebu out, and go on to win the game, match, series, and title.

One other title was and is, at stake. The Open and the Oui Sen tournaments are three-day eliminations. The fall Bon Sen (“Board Saint”) and the spring Mei Jin (“Master”) are more grueling. The JBL has clubs all over Japan where players can play rated matches. The highest rated players from each club play each other in a round-robin. The winner (or for larger clubs more than one) advances into a standard elimination tournament. The Bon Sen uses the best-of-three 11-point match format. The Mei Jin uses a 25-point match format instead. At the beginning of the Oui Sen the field was already down to eight, and the round-of-8 was played off. One semifinal had to be postponed, as Nishikawa Kiyokazu’s opponent was otherwise occupied – Katagami was busy winning the Oui Sen. The other semifinal pitted erstwhile coauthors, and the first two professional players in Japan, Mochy and Michy, against each other.

The match was dynamic: After two games Mochy trailed 0-8 to 25; after four more he led 12-8! Mochy tied it up, and ultimately pulled ahead 24-17. Both players had gotten into time trouble, and while Michy can play quite quickly (as he had to in his match with Abe), Mochy would be a seed in any speed gammon tournament. Mochy told me the next day (the match had already been analyzed) that their error ratings were disappointing. I told him that it only pointed up one of Snowie’s shortcomings. From my vantage point the match was extremely well played on both sides. Both players are world class, and both played hard. But some games are no-brainers, while others are dauntingly complex. Here is an example from the last game, perhaps the last major “error” of either player. Certainly the last that mattered.

Yes, the cube is centered. I have played this sort of game myself, holding the cube, hoping to induce an error. I wouldn’t have tried it at the score. Mochy had made a costly error by doubling a roll late the previous game, an accident due to the time pressure; I wouldn’t risk it happening again, as the pressure was even greater now. (The players had under five minutes each, and might have to play two more games after this.)

Despite the pressure, Mochy did spend precious seconds on this play. He chose 21/16, 8/2. This turns out to be a blunder, but to me this seemed a very hard play, and at the time I wasn’t sure that his play wasn’t right. My own choice would have been to bring both men out, which turns out to be better – second best, in fact – but ask yourself if, between the two, you could persuade the chouette if all the other players wanted to make Mochy’s play? The advantages to bringing both out are several: fewer total shots hit you; he does not get to point on you while hitting, making a solid five- or six-prime in the process; both men have (for the moment, anyway) escaped the prime, which means that if you are lucky enough to be missed you are in much better shape. The downsides to coming out are that you have a blot in your board if it comes time to fight, and you don’t the return shots at a blot on the 21-point.

Meanwhile, the best play is the baby play: 9/3, 9/4. That would also have been the winning play. Michy hit both blots with 53, and Mochy fanned with … 55! Sometime soon Michy will play the winner between Katagami and Nichikawa, perhaps adding Mei Jin to his list of titles. And since I have added “Outlaw Foreigner Living In Roppongi” to my own list of titles, I am happy too.



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