Backgammon makes a cameo appearance from time to time in the movies, and when the game is enjoying a popular surge, has been the subject of television magazine segments and longer documentaries that preserve the distinctive backgammon scenes of years gone by. This page gathers some of the more notable and obscure productions from the days before backgammon videos became commonplace on social media.
The Mating Season (1951)
Judging by the swiftness of their play, Gene Tierney and Thelma Ritter were experienced players — and the niceties of proper play become a plot point in the scene.
Zdenka Doycheva, a noted Bulgarian animator of Czech origin, offers this playful cartoon capturing the mania that envelops dedicated players. A thank-you to Rayko Stamenov for bringing this obscure gem to our attention!
In what may be the first filmed recording of an entire backgammon game from start to finish, Joe Szutarski and Bill Delaney produced this whimsical Super8 home movie using stop-motion animation to capture the movement of checkers around the board, to the eerie tune of “Tubular Bells.”
60 Minutes (1978, Apr. 30th)
This lengthy segment provides a wealth of moving-image detail of the players, venues, equipment and attitudes that characterize the hustling backgammon scene of the late 70’s. New York’s Bar Point Club, Pips in Los Angeles, entire stores devoted to equipment. Luminaries including Lewis Deyong, Paul Magriel, Lucille Ball, and Joe Dwek all make appearances. The emphasis is on the big-money appeal of the game, as Dan Rather tries to nail down Joe Dwek and Lewis Deyong on the prevalence of “hustling” in the increasingly popular game. Magriel is interviewed as the winner of the glamorous Nassau tournament in the Bahamas.
USA Backgammon Final: Bill Marczak vs. Nick Maffeo w/ Paul Magriel Commentary (1982)
YouTube videos of streaming matches with commentary are commonplace today, but we are fortunate to have an example of top-level commentary from a time before bots like Jellyfish, Snowie, and eXtremeGammon revolutionized thinking about many aspects of the game — and democratized our ability to learn. Paul Magriel is at the peak of his celebrity and renown here, telling us how it’s done. And check out the dice display!
It’s exciting to see backgammon turn up in a major motion picture, but annoying to find the dynamics of the game so poorly represented. Don’t try pulling “player’s privilege” in your local chouette after watching this! For a thorough rundown of the spurious details in this scene, check out Jeremy Bagai’s annotations over at the Fortuitous Press.
Monte Carlo (1985)
Kudos to Chris Bray for discovering and posting this lengthy BBC Channel 4 documentary capturing the action at the 1985 World Championships, featuring Paul Magriel, Kent Goulding, Bill Robertie, Mike Svobodny and Lewis Deyong. It’s unfortunate that somewhere along the way the top and bottom of the frame was cropped in order to provide a “widescreen” picture — an unfortunate practice most obvious in the “how to play” segment. If anyone can locate a “full frame” (4:3 ratio) version, please let us know!
Movers & Shakers – The Backgammon Boy (1997)
Before finding success in poker, a teenage Mark Teltscher played a lot of backgammon. This half hour documentary produced for Channel Four in the UK provides a portrait of a cocky, headstrong young player frequenting the London money-game scene.
Backgammon the Cruelest Game (2006)
This well produced “teaser” for a full-length documentary (apparently never completed?) features British players questing to win the World Championship in 2004. Featured interviewees include Patti Rubin, Ronnie Rubin, and Antoinette Williams among many others, and Paul Magriel is shown commentating on the finals match between Bob Wachtel and peter Hallberg.
World Backgammon Championships Video Series (2006)
During a good run leading to a Super Jackpot victory in Monte Carlo, Jeremy Bagai was interviewed extensively by a Swedish production company that launched a 4-part television series melding Jeremy’s match commentary and backgammon instruction. The archived results provided an enduring time capsule of backgammon that can be compared to the 1985 documentary of the same event for a sense of how the game (and its characters) evolved over the course of two decades. You can read Jeremy’s account of his whirlwind European tour in this blog post.
World Series of Backgammon (WSOB) (2006 – 2008)
For two golden years, backgammon enjoyed a slickly produced television program along the lines of popular poker programs of the day. The program captured the thrill and strategy of the game as played in a series of high-end tournaments in glamorous European settings, with commentary by Gus Hansen, Morten Holm, Falafel, and Mochy. It’s not clear that all the extant WSOB material is collected on the Vimeo page, as a few others, including this first episode, can be found on YouTube — unfortunately, in the wrong aspect ratio.
[Magriel & Svobodny in Vegas] (ca. 2000)
This undated documentary was presumably produced for French television. It follows Paul Magriel and Mike Svobodny as they play high stakes games aboard a yacht in Monaco and then attend the 2000 US Open in Las Vegas, where Svobodny meets Gyl Savoie in the finals of the Super Jackpot. ProTip: By clicking on the YouTube “Settings” cog, you can follow the close-caption options to a Translation > English option to get a rough on-the-fly interpretation of the french.
Falafel’s Game (2010)
This atmospheric Israeli documentary offers a remarkably intimate portrait of backgammon legend Matvey “Falafel” Natanzon, whose passing in 2020 was lamented among players all over the world. The program, about an hour in length, is posted on YouTube in six segments, which you can access as a group here. Unfortunately, Part 5 is missing its soundtrack.
Backgammon – Path to the Nomads (2019)
Here’s an opportunity to get a sense of backgammon as it is played in Kazakhstan, in traditions dating back well before the game became popular in the US.
If you know of other examples of backgammon in moving-image media that might belong on this page, please contact Albert Steg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that the focus here is on media that were produced for distribution outside the internet — there are thousands of interesting videos recorded for modern social media worth curating, but that would be a separate and much larger project.