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 deuces, otherwise known as a pair of ducks.
But there’s more to know, and learn.
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 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 the 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 even the game’s greatest players weren’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.
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 New York. It’s actually in New Hampshire.