The Great South Pacific Backgammon Tournament

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A large crowd gathered on the second day of January of the new Millennium, around the tiny harbour of Hanga Piko, in Easter Island, to cheer the departure of the six brave participants of the first backgammon championship to take place in the vast Southern Pacific Ocean. In the following three weeks a long series of games would have raised one player, just one, to a throne reigning over the greatest surface of Planet Earth, even wider than Russia. This is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, and indeed all the entrants felt the great weight of the endeavour, and showed the serious countenance of the great men leaving towards a great enterprise. Some of the bystanders were exceedingly happy to see the competitors leave, notably the Chilean navy, to whom one of the sea-bound chaps represented a serious threat of deteriorating cooperative relationship with the Interpol. Others were there to collect the last instalments of the amazing costs, bordering the thousand dollars, of the gas station-based, airborne operation organized to victual our heroes. Most of the rest were there for lack of alternative entertainment. Whatever their motives for being there were, every single one shared the impression that the six ocean bound players were potty lunatics.

The start of the regular season was delayed for three days, to the utmost distress of the players who were eager to cast. Strong, unforeseen easterly winds and 9-feet waves blowing from the wrong direction had a negative effect on the turf, unsteady enough to force the commission chairman, Mr. Feickert, to postpone the starting whistle. The turf was the cabin table of S/V ‘Cadeau’, a 44-foot long, S&S designed and Finland-built sailing yacht on her route from Alaska to Puerto Natales, Chilean Patagonia. In the meantime the commission ruled out the calendar, which involved a regular season with five games of each player versus each of the others, thus making for a total number of one hundred and twenty five regular season events. The four best players were to face two semi finals, the first versus the fourth, best of seven games. The two winners were going to fight for the sought-after title. In these first three days the team made a good use of the contrary winds to sail straight towards the South Pole, thus enlarging widely the territory over which the would-be monarch would have reigned. To the question whether this route was not exceedingly making the crossing too long, the captain responded firmly that lossodromic voodoo was on their side and the course was not as bad as it appeared. ‘Do you think that all airplane pilots flying over Greenland on their way from London to Miami are idiots?’

easter easter7 waveThe first cast rolled on the fourth day of the crossing, when conditions on the turf eased to the point of being almost still. Too much actually. Some entrants began to wonder if the food was going to last. In the meantime the first matches delineated a prevalence of the Anglo-Saxon players versus the Latin. Mrs. Albertazzi and Mr. Tritarelli soon found themselves too far from the others to aspire to the semi-finals, while in the meantime Mr. Feickert took the lead, followed by Mr. Rossi, Mr. Philbrook and Mr. Huggins.

Before the end of the regular season the turf crossed the 40th parallel, entering the roaring forties. The team duly gathered in the cockpit, each with his own amulet, among which a huge and ragingly expensive wooden Moai, belonging to Mr. Huggins, who denied to have been ripped off, stood bald. Instead of praying for a calm crossing, they were actually forced to pray for some wind from the right directions before the food ended. In this they were duly rewarded and soon a halo around the sun appeared, foreboding livelier days.

The first serious depression arrived on the 14th of January, twelve days out, and brisk southwesterlies raised important waves and speeded up the vessel. But the waves and wind direction were favourable, the rolling did not disturb the turf and the semi-finals took place regularly, even if some games were disturbed by the helmsman crying out loudly the many surfing performances, the appearance of albatrosses and the most disturbing rollers. These came in various shapes and sizes, but all had in common the fact of being rather shorter than expected, thus confirming that the existence of the so called ‘long swell’ is totally, so to speak, groundless.

Both semi finals were fought to the bitter end, even if we cannot overstress enough the fair play of the players, broken only by a single, but totally understandable, episode of intemperance, when one of the players threw the board off the turf into the fore cabin. The search for the missing guys was only partially successful, and small pebbles were introduced to make up for the missing chaps. These were lately found in various intervals in the following years. In general the morale was very high, and each of the crew did his best to keep it there, concentrating uncommon efforts in the galley, where sumptuous dishes like lasagne were dished out among the cheers of the team. Mr. Tritarelli employed wisely the spare time he found after the elimination to test a wide number of combinations of very Mediterranean ingredients such as flour, tomato sauce, anchovies, ham and cheese, dishing out pizzas, calzones and panzerottis in various shapes and sizes, all equally remarkable.

On the 17th of January a second and more vigorous system came in and settled a consistent westerly flow of air, clouds and water to cheer up the finals. Surprisingly enough Mr. Huggins, fourth after the regular season, prevailed after a furious battle against Mr. Feickert. True enough Huggins had a slightly higher ranking before the tournament but he suffered from a serious number of blows from the casting results and on the whole no one expected this to turn any time soon. The second semi final was fought on a totally different level with Mr. Philbrook, third after the regular season but with a higher ranking than Rossi, who had started playing only few weeks before, who just could not cope with the sometimes unforeseen risks the Latin took, repaid by sheer luck. While the luck at the dice did not favour either of the players, Philbrook was strategically unbalanced by the bold style of the adversary and had to capitulate after six games.

On the 18th of January the westerly blow was settled, with winds in the 30s and swell to cope. A dark, rolling army of angry clouds, mischievous squalls and steely breakers was warming up for the final assault against the buttresses of the Andes, 3 hundreds miles away. The encounter lived up to the promises, and we could appreciate fully some of the battles of this the ongoing, never-ending war between water and wind on one side, and mountains on the other. Even when the adversaries rest, the effects on the battlefield are self explanatory. Whole mountains are polished clean by rain and wind, wide valleys eroded barren by flowing glaciers, massive islands are slowly but surely ground to sand, the scant vegetation reduced to mosses and lichens. The resulting effect of this continuous Dresden bombing is a fascinating and complicated geography, rich in channels, island and bays showing that the land’s victory is only apparent and, with time’s help, the elements will finally prevail.

The South Pacific Backgammon World Series was no lesser fights. Cast after cast, the match lived up to the stormy surroundings. While breakers roared louder, clouds grew darker and the wind whistled a pitch higher in expectation of things to come, mainly ridges and peaks where it could play the nastier katabatic trick undisturbed, Mr. Huggins took a slight lead, and his experience finally defeated the bolder tricks of his opponent. He was declared the absolute backgammon monarch of the widest territory of the Earth.

On the 20th of January, in the early hours of the morning, light revealed the battlefield ahead. Blackened by the clouds, land stood proud and wet. It’s lower branches still extend in many tricky ways out at sea and it was fortunate enough that the team arrived in daylight, because a nasty group of rocks, emerging from the water two miles north of where it should been according to the chart – who was printed before the GPS era – risked to shorten the life of our champions. It was the monarch himself, who spotted it while on watch. A couple of hours afterwards the vessel rounded the islet hosting the light station marking the northern entrance of the Patagonian Channel system. The crew announced their presence and the existence of a new champion. This left the officers at the lighthouse baffled, but cheered them nonetheless. After another half an hour, in which a 50-knot squall gave a warning of how things work down there, the anchor was let go and the crossing completed after 18 days and 2296 miles. 

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