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Posted by on Mar 6, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker | 12 comments

Remembering Paul Magriel

 

 

Paul Magriel died yesterday.

Most poker players likely remember Paul from his disheveled appearance and quirky behavior.  At times, it seemed like he was from a different planet.  His nickname was “X-22.”  He often quacked like a duck at the poker table, usually after winning a pot.  When you heard “quack quack,” you knew Paul was in the room. Fittingly, his favorite Hold’em hand was pocket dueces, otherwise known as a pair of ducks.

What most people probably don’t know is the fascinating story of Paul’s life decades before he became a regular poker player.

From early childhood, Paul was a prodigal gamesman.  He started out playing backgammon and chess.  He won the New York State Junior Chess Championship just a few years after another prodigal talent, Bobby Fischer burst onto the scene.  By the late 1960s, New York’s Greenwich Village became his personal playground.  He frequented the Olive Tree Cafe on MacDougal Street, known to be the hangout of hustlers.  Later, he spent most of his free time at Singapore Sam’s, and after that, the far more fashionable uptown Mayfair Club.

Within a decade, Paul was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest backgammon players in the world.  He often played games for $1,000 a point — astronomical stakes at the time.  He won the 1978 World Championship of Backgammon held in Nassau, The Bahamas.  Months earlier, Paul was victorious in one of the greatest backgammon matches in history, a grueling 17-hour marathon in Athens, Greece against then European champion, Joe Dwek.  Paul was so proficient at the game that he became known as the “Human Computer.”  In 1977, he wrote a co-wrote a book with his first wife Renee Roberts simply titled Backgammon, which became the game’s bible.  It sold 10,000 copies in the first two months of release.  Later, Paul wrote the weekly backgammon column for The New York Times. 

But that was just part of who Paul was, who most did not know.

 

This photograph (above) shows Paul playing backgammon against Kiumars Motakhasses at the Mount Parnis Casino in Athens.  

*****

 

Paul was more than a master of games.  He attended the prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  He earned a B.A. in mathematics from New York University, graduating at age 20.  Next, he did his graduate studies at Princeton.

He was a math wizard, who loved numbers and relished the opportunity to solve complex puzzles.  At night, he played games.  During the day, he was a math instructor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he worked for seven years before deciding to finally put away the chalk and take up backgammon (and later poker playing) for a living, because the money was just too good a thing to pass up and there were plenty of suckers who wanted a game.

Back then, backgammon was a high-stakes web of rich people and cultural elites who gathered nightly at posh social clubs.  Paul’s immersion onto that privileged scene, first in New York City then later around the world at the most exclusive resorts, was every bit as momentous as the indelible impact on games and gambling left by Ken Uston and Stu Ungar, every bit his contemporaries.

Paul’s exemplary talent was perhaps best displayed by playing backgammon while blindfolded.  He couldn’t see the board.  However, Paul could remember the placement of every piece and memorized the new layout after every dice roll.  He barked out his moves with the authority of a military general.  Paul regularly beat opponents who glared studiously at the board, ultimately forced to reach into their pocket at game’s end to settle a lost wager.

Quoted in a 1978 magazine feature, Paul explained his fascination with games as follows (see footnote below):

I think I’m addicted to backgammon.  I’m addicted to games in general. Games are controlled violence.  You can take out your frustrations and hostilities over a backgammon set, where the rules are clearly defined — in contrast to life, where the rules are not so well defined. In games, you know what’s right and wrong, legal versus illegal; whereas in life, you don’t.

Psychologically, backgammon is very different from chess.  It’s an exercise in frustration — you can make the right moves and lose, or you can make the wrong moves and win.  And chess didn’t have the gambling that I like.”

 

This photograph (above) shows Paul Magriel playing “blindfolded” against the legendary writer and adventurer George Plimpton at New York’s famous “21” Club.

*****

 

It’s been said that backgammon offers the ultimate challenge of creating order out of chaos.

Making the leap from the king of backgammon during the 1970s to one of the many millions who became caught up in the poker craze three decades later posed a new challenge and even offered the rare chance of reinvention.  Paul found a new game filled with chaos, but like even the game’s greatest players wasn’t able to create any sense of order.

You wouldn’t have known about Paul’s mastery of other games by looking at him in his later years, which were mostly spent grinding low-stakes poker games in Las Vegas, with the occasional tournament cash here and there.  He rarely talked about his life before poker.  The last time I saw Paul was a month ago.  He was playing in a $70 buy-in nightly tournament at the Orleans.

Cynics might have gazed upon Paul, seen his wrinkled pants barely hanging around his waist, observed his distracting facial tics, and be very hard-pressed to imagine this same man was once a gaming giant who regularly dressed in tuxedos, dined at the world’s finest restaurants, and always flew first-class.

Indeed, Paul seemed to become what many old poker players become in the late autumn of their years, broken down men who long ago forfeited their riches and glory to old age and the creeping hands of all human clocks, their lost triumphs now long past in the rearview mirror of life, invisible to the casual eye.

But we shall remember Paul because it is the right thing to do.

To remember him.  To honor him.  To celebrate his life.

To have known Paul Magriel and remember who he was is to gain a better appreciation for those greats who proceeded us all and blazed their own path, often alone, and left their own mark.

Paul certainly blazed a path.  And he certainly left a mark.

Quack.  Quack.

 

________

Photo Credit:  The three photographs posted in this article were taken from an August 1978 feature story in Gambling Times magazine. 

Some of the biographical content is also taken from the narrative, written by Susan M. Silver.

Here’s a link to another article, published in The New Yorker in 1977.  “PLAYING  x-22

Correction: A previous version of this article identified Phillips Exeter Academy as being located in NewYork.  It’s actually in New Hampshire

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Although I didn’t know him well I did play some poker with Paul and he will definitely be missed. His unique style was appreciated by many.

    By the way, Exeter is in New Hampshire, not New York.

  2. RIP Quack, Quack…ANOTHER GREAT READ Nolan, THANKS.

  3. Would love to read an entire book on him. Reminds me a bit of Stuey Ungar.

  4. People are complex. Interesting article, Nolan

  5. As his son, I just wanted to thank you so much for writing this. I’d never seen those pictures of him before. Thank you.

    • Louis,i had BG lessons from your Father 1994 in Monte Carlo,and witnessed his first ever meeting with Martine in Cannes.Funny enough i admired her too,but Paul was THE giant.I met and played him countless times.From him i learned the concept of triplication .Great guy,great teacher,so funny.

  6. Louis, I used to meet with your Dad for poker lessons from time to time. He spoke of you proudly and often. No matter how long-standing an appointment we had, if he found out you were going to be available he’d jokingly, lovingly and seriously tell me, “You’re screwed – Louis is coming – you’ll have to reschedule.” He was always delighted to say this to me and I was always happy to hear that you and he were going to have a visit. Thanks for sharing him with us.

    • I met your father when I lived in Vegas. I played poker with him a handful of times. A couple times at the Orleans playing no limit holdem and a few times at the Aria when playing 9-18 Mix. One night we played backgammon while waiting for a game to start. I was introduced to him by a good friend named Zach Holyoke. It was a pleasure to have met your father, and although we were not close enough that he would probably call me a friend, I considered him one.

  7. Another great Nolan Dalla piece! I had the honour and pleasure of playing with Paul Magriel. It was in a a HPT satellite at the Stratosphere. He was in the seat on my left unfortunately. I remember it vividly because I three bet with deuces and it got through. I showed it and X-22 laughs and points and says, “quack quack.” It is a great memory.

  8. Really sad to hear. What a complex and interesting person. I’ve been hearing the stories of Quack Quack for years, unfortunately never had the chance to play with him. I’ll need to pick up his backgammon book.

  9. I took most of his chips at Wsop senior event at the Rio once and he busted the next hand. Either he had Parkinsons or angle shot, but he tapped table with his finger and 3 players checked behind – but he complained that he had not checked, the floor let him bet. After he did that fake check again, no one checked after him until they verfied he had checked.

    • You took most of his chips and it’s still a highlight that you want people to know – and yet you criticize a person of whom you thought enough to brag about beating and about whom you know very little . Paul was not an angle shooter and he didn’t go around trying to get noticed at the expense of others.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Décès de Paul Magriel à l’âge de 71 ans – ComPok.fr - […] Nolan Dalla a écrit un excellent éloge sur son ancien ami. Vous pouvez le lire ici. […]
  2. Paul Magriel R.I.P | Armchair Warrior - […] Back then, backgammon was a high-stakes web of rich people and cultural elites who gathered nightly at posh social…

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