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Tilting Toward Bali

“You’re from America? Tell Americans to come here. We love Americans!” No, I wasn’t in the Wisconsin Dells. Believe it or not I was over in the mysterious, (and to Americans) slightly sinister, Indonesian Islands. On the island of Bali, to be precise.

I had flown down as a last-minute substitute for Paul Magriel. He and Max Modesti, organizer of the 1st Bali Championships, had been unable to coordinate a flight from Vienna. I happened to be spending a month in Hong Kong just then, and while commitments prevented me from coming early enough to play in the tournament, I was available to give a talk.

After a flight on Singapore, the world’s greatest airline (16 movie channels in coach!), I arrived at the airport outside Denpasar, and was immediately welcomed. Okay, Max had sent a driver to pick me up, but still, it was nice to see someone waving a sign saying: “Mr. Jacoobs.” I felt like one of the Beeatles. For those of you who think that the next sign I saw was in the hands of some protestor – “Yankee Go Home!” – you may be disappointed to learn that it was a billboard reading “Colonel Sanders Welcomes You To Bali!” The Colonel, by the way, was the only person I saw dumb enough to be wearing a suit in the tropical heat. Formal wear in Bali means you have a shirt to go with your bathing trunks.

The hotel also reminded me of tournaments back home. At least the lounge did, as it was there I found Antoinette Williams and Emil Mortuk. It was karaoke night, so Antoinette serenaded us with “New York, New York,” and Emil did a heartfelt version of “Wonderful World.”

In the morning things began to seem more Balinese. A few months ago I did with interview of Max Modesti. I asked him what was best about Bali, and he said it was the people. I guess that sounds like a cliché; it did to me when I heard it. Now that I’ve been there, I understand what Max meant, but that makes it no less hard to convey to someone who hasn’t experienced Bali for themselves. I’ll try it this way. Much is made of the “Thai Smile,” and certainly the Thais have lovely smiles. But the Balinese smile is something else. When Balinese see you, they break into smiles as though they have been smoking temple hash all morning, and you are the coolest hallucination of all.

Then there was the friendly cab driver, taking me to the tournament site, he of the quote that opened this article. After saying “We love Americans,” he added “After September 11th they afraid, but here we have everybody – Hindu, Christian, Islam, Buddha – everybody get along.”

The cab ride cost 10,000, no wonder he was happy! I had a moment of panic, until I did the conversion: 10,000 rupiah equals $1.03. With the money I had changed at the airport, I was a multimillionaire. But, I assure you, my readers, I was just as humble as ever despite my suddenly lofty estate.

The tournament was held at Kudeta, possibly the finest restaurant on Bali. Kudeta is located on what, if this were Acapulco, would be a hundred million pesos worth of ocean front. Not knowing local land prices, I don’t know what it would cost on the outskirts of Denpasar, but I think that it might take, in rupiah, one of those McDonalds signs to spell it out. (“We have spent over 99 billion.”) Huge, rolling surfer’s waves formed a backdrop to the huge rolls the players were striving for. Here’s a roll that is deeper than it looks, but Thomas Christensen, in his semifinal match against Jan Bloxham, found the play to avoid drowning.

For money it’s clear to make the 3-point, even with the cube in the middle. (As it likely would be – the race is nearly even before the roll.) At the score, since Black doesn’t need the extra gammons that play creates, and certainly doesn’t want to lose the extra gammons the play gives up, it seems right to simply play 16/11(2), 16/6. It is safe and flexible, it clears the 16-point, and it leaves Black with a substantial racing lead. However, White may be quite pesky if left on Black’s three, and the three extras pips (and the extra hyperpips) gained by pointing are quite substantial. Thomas correctly pointed, and later bore in and off safely to win the match. He would now face Seiichi Nagai of Japan.

For a tournament with relatively few players, there were a tremendous number of countries represented: Libya, Switzerland, Italy, Hong Kong, Germany, Indonesia, America, England, and Denmark were among them. But the country sending the most players was Japan. Since Kenji Shimodaira was directing, this was not surprising, but it was surprising that two of them, Atsushi Teramoto (winner, with Susum “Sam64” Mizutani, of the Doubles) and Michiyo Suzuki (winner of the Beginner/Intermediate), were on their honeymoon. That’s love of the game!

If you are going to make a borderline cube decision, and this one is on the fringe, you’d better back it up with solid checker play. That Thomas did, by pointing 8/3*, 6/3. It didn’t help. Seiichi hit, won the game, and soon led 13-3. Thomas caught up, tying the match at 14-14, only to fall behind 14-19. Then he rallied with 8 uninterrupted points, before Nagai closed the gap again. The seesawing lead sounds more exciting than it was. The players played a consistently solid match, but the dice were boring. There were not many really interesting decisions, and only one “Ohmigod! Did you see what he rolled?” After four hours, the match had reached here.
To some of the spectators, judging by the comments afterwards, this was a controversial doubling decision, but to the players it was a routine double (at the score), and an easy take (even at the score). Seiichi hit, and went on to win a gammon without even breathing hard, making him the 1st Bali Champion.

My long-suffering editor, Carol Joy, is doubtless thinking that if I went all the way to Bali, I should have brought back something more interesting than that. After all, I could have been at the Midwest Championships, where the players come from exotic places like Dearborn, Michigan, and Peoria, Illinois, and excitement is a given. Well, I did find something interesting: the people I met there.

There was Johan, one of the players. “When I was 19, I saw EASY RIDER. I went to America, and hitchhiked for 3 months, all the way across from New York to Seattle, then down the coast, and back across the South. Some of the people giving me rides there in Arizona were rednecks, just like in the movie, with guns in the back of their trucks. But everyone was so friendly. They had never met anyone from another country, and I was always being invited to come to their homes, eat meals, meet their families. I knew then that my future was in America. But the next year I went to Afghanistan for the first time, and after that I always went east. I’ve been here in Bali 20 years. I never made it back to America.”

There was the retired bullfighter I met at Club 66 (what a place for a backgammon player!), a spot that doesn’t get moving until around 3 a.m. It was about two hours after that when I bumped into the bullfighter. He was old enough to have gone to school with El Cordobes (and if it weren’t 5 a.m., I would have thought to ask him), and had retired “rich,” he told me. He had been gored three times, and edified everyone on that side of the dance floor by showing us a particularly deep and spectacularly gruesome wound. We were all impressed, except his girlfriend Reysa, who seemed never to have heard of bullfighting, and for that matter, may never have heard of Spain.

There was also Jan, a friend of Max’s, who was in another club, Liquid. Liquid was more for the lunch crowd, as people were quite willing to show up there at a ridiculously early hour like midnight, while waiting for Club 66 to heat up. Jan was another long-time resident of Bali, but he was originally from “all over.” His mother was from Ireland, and his father from Sweden. He was born in Israel “but my wife was American, so I lived there for a long time.”

Also at Liquid was an epicene young Balinese who talked to me nonstop for 15 minutes. I had trouble following his conversation, as the music was loud, he had a thick accent, and he had a pronounced speech impediment. I finally decided that he was proposing to sleep with me, if I would let him swim in my hotel’s pool. Kind as this offer was, I thought it might be hard to explain him to my friend Refa, who was on her way to Liquid with remarkably similar intent, except her proposition did not include swimming. I adroitly transferred him to Max, like a decal, for Max to peel off, and borrowed Jan’s phone once again to call Refa. Alas, somewhere between the karaoke (I had called her at 1 a.m., when she got off work), and Liquid, her cell phone (certainly), and her taxi (seemingly) had broken down.

In what may seem a non sequitur, as it has nothing to do with backgammon, or backgammon people, let me tell you about Njepi; I think Njepi says something about Bali. Njepi is the Balinese new year. The Balinese still keep track of an old, lunar calendar. Each year consists of ten 35-day months. There are probably some adjustments, but how much do you really want to know? It’s enough to know that it isn’t in synch with the solar calendar, so the New Year falls on a different solar date each year. On New Year’s Eve, which will fall on April 13th this year, in every village, there will be an Ogo Ogo parade. Ogo Ogo are evil spirits, so the parade features huge, grotesque, masks and puppets designed to scare them off. The trouble with evil spirits is that they aren’t very cooperative, and will not take the hint that, as guests go, they are not wanted. So, for the 24 hours of New Year’s Day, all Bali shuts down. There are no flights in or out, no lights are allowed, and no people are allowed out of their homes. That way, when the displaced spirits return to check out the island, they’ll think it’s deserted, and leave for more interesting places. According to Johan, the large hotels have dispensation, and each guest room may turn on exactly one light. In private homes some people do turn on lights, but only if they aren’t visible from outside. If they are, there are watchers, sort of like the air wardens of WWII, who will come knocking, telling you to turn them off. According to my driver, on the way back to the airport, Njepi is also a day for fasting, though if you don’t fast “that’s okay too.”

On that departing drive, I saw one final image I’d like to share. There is a traffic circle, along the road to the airport. On the island in the middle is a statue that looms two or three stories. It was done by a locally famous artist, and is quite impressive. According to my driver, the muscular, sword-wielding hero has stepped from the pages of the Mahabharata. Did I mention that Bali is Hindu? The dragon he is battling is twined around him like a python, and has a decidedly Chinese look to it. “Our Hinduism is strongly influenced by China.” Standing atop the hero’s head is a golden god, giving him a blessing to aid him in his battle. Right there are captured most of the island’s older cultural influences, but there is something more. Just past the circle, and if I had my camera handy, and the time to stop, I could have framed it with the statue, is Planet Hollywood. Max says that there will be a 2nd Bali Championships next year. Having been lucky enough to attend this year, I know enough to go back next year. And next year, I’ll know to have a camera ready, to collect that shot.



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