History of Backgammon in Australia

We don’t have much information about organised BG prior to 1975.

In the 70s, backgammon was largely the domain of various ethnic groups who considered it as their national game. Greeks, Russians, Middle-Easterners from diverse places like Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Cafes abounded throughout Sydney in suburbs like Campsie, Marrickville, Lakemba, Punchbowl and lots more. Most boards were the wooden variety, had no cups or doubling cube and games were very noisy, both as a result of rattling dice on wooden boards and screaming and highly excitable players.

In Sydney the first generation of backgammon players to take the game seriously learnt to play at the Double Bay Bridge Club in the mid-1970s, where the preferred game was bridge. It didn’t take long for a number of the players to make backgammon the priority, rather than bridge, and so was born the chouette. Lots of the bridge players joined the chouette whilst waiting for a bridge game, and soon the players began to improve their play. Improving their backgammon playing standards soon became an important objective for many of these backgammon pioneers.

These early chouettes were generally played for $1 per point, but within a couple of years stakes per point of $5, $10, $20 and higher were common. Over the road in New South Head Road in the centre of Double Bay, a card club opened and backgammon chouettes were played daily at stakes of $5, $10 or $20, games often attracting anywhere from 3 to 7 players.

Pioneers of that era (including players based at the Double Bay Bridge Club) were: Steve Kessler, Anna Phillips, Bill Marczak, Tony Hutton, Bob Richman, Ian Revelman, Alex Horowitz, Peter Slunecko (aka Peter Sun), George Dohla, Gabby Rona, John Dalley, Alex Czapnik, Dr Tony Burke, Pierre Nasiff, Tony Kayrala , Habib Shalala; Simon Shamesh, Tony Ziegler, Tony Ong, Paul Lavings. Steve Kessler was an American who played only backgammon and not bridge. He can be regarded as the best ever player from those early days and in fact the general consensus was that he was the best player in Australia right up to the end of 1987. He returned to America not long afterwards and seems to have disappeared from the backgammon world.

World class players from that era included American Steve Kessler; Anna Phillips, a New Zealander who settled in Sydney at the time and was a chouette regular; Peter Slunecko (aka Peter Sun) , who had a very aggressive style both in play and cube action; Ike Solomon, a totally formally untrained player who had a natural instinct for the game and who many considered to be one of Australia’s best players; Tony Ziegler, who won the 1982 Australian Backgammon Championship; and Bill Marczak, who won the 1981 and 1984 Australian Backgammon Championship and the 1982 USA Championship.

In the mid to late 1970s, backgammon tournaments were becoming popular. One of the early organisers of tournaments was the Paternoster Club, which held tournaments at the Tattersalls Club in Pitt Street in the Sydney CBD. Other large events were organised at Sydney hotels, like the Hyatt at the top of William Street, Kings Cross. Tony Hutton was involved in the implementation of many of those tournaments.

In the mid-1970s Michael Lloyd was writing a backgammon column for the Bulletin magazine, which in those days was one of the major political and news weekly publications, much like Newsweek was. Bill Marczak wrote a weekly backgammon column for the Sunday Telegraph for several years from about 1978 (these articles can be found in the archives at the State Library of New South Wales in Macquarie Street in Sydney’s CBD).

The Valley View Backgammon Club was founded in the late 1970s by Bill & Jacqui Marczak and Ivor & Eva Bitel. Club nights were held once a week at the Valley View Bowling Club in the northern Sydney suburb of Castlecrag. It was not uncommon for club nights to attract anywhere from 40 to 80 players. The main event was the $10 entry, 32 field knockout event, and the tournament was filled every week for many years. The club folded in 1985.

The following were the serious players of the early 1980s and helped make the Valley View Backgammon Club such a success: Brian McDonald, Alex Falon, Michael Mills, Gary Stavrou, Shahen Marootians and son Ned Marootians, brothers Habib and Edgar Shalala, David Reitzin, Simon Woodhead, Steve Roberts, Peter Brown, Jay Deva, Kevin Mansfield, Steve Clarry, Robbie Solomon, Jacqui Marczak, Carol Wakelin, Pam Keegan, John Doringer, Eva Bitel, Ivor Bitel and Adrian Bitel, and many others.

In 1983 Joe Russell, one of the best young backgammon players in the world at the time, came to Australia for several months, where he played in some of the top-rated chouettes of the day in Sydney. Players included Bill Marczak, Robbie Solomon, Peter Slunecko, Tony Hutton, Pierre Nasiff, Steve Kessler, Simon Shamesh and Tony Kayrala. Joe went on to win the World Championships in Monte Carlo in 1989. He is still heavily involved in both administation and playing backgammon and was in Australia recently for Ralph Burd’s Tournament in January 2020.

Many thanks to Bill Marczek for his historical writing.