In the end, it all came down to one throw of the dice. If Itzik Yakobovitch, he of the snazzy white hat and the implausibly youthful dance moves, could manage double 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6, he would be crowned Jerusalem’s first-ever backgammon champion. If not, the title would go to the gleaming scalped, Chelsea soccer shirt-wearing Gadi Carmeli.
The prize was a nifty NIS 25,000 (almost $7,000). But though that was no trifling sum for the two finalists, this tournament was emphatically not about the money. It was, rather, almost certainly the most remarkable exercise in bringing people together from wildly different worlds ever to be held in the shadow of Jerusalem’s Old City walls… involving dice.
For much of the past year, at a range of venues across this strained mosaic of a city, about 500 Jews, Christians, Muslims and who knows who else have been playing in qualifying tournaments — in the garages of Talpiot, in the YMCA, all over the Old City, in Jewish and Arab neighborhoods — bidding to secure a place in Thursday night’s final event.
The ambitious affair was dreamed up by a group called Double Yerushalmi, dedicated to building better ties between Jews and Arabs in the city via cultural events. (Funding came from the Jerusalem Foundation, the government’s Jerusalem Development Authority and City Hall, the Leichtag Foundation’s Jerusalem Model, the Schusterman Foundation, the ROI Community, the Pratt Foundation, and the JCRD in East Jerusalem.)
One of the organizers, Zaki Djemal, said they got the idea when playing backgammon during a break in a meeting at which they had been trying in vain to come up with ideas for… You get the picture.
And it was hailed on Thursday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no less, who tweeted: “Tonight hundreds of Arabs, Jews and others come together for the Jerusalem Backgammon Championships. A beautiful symbol of co-existence.”
Tonight hundreds of Arabs, Jews and others come together for the Jerusalem Backgammon Championships. A beautiful symbol of co-existence.
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) August 24, 2017
The months of competition culminated in a last flurry of contests on Thursday afternoon to yield the final pool of 32 players for the evening’s knock-out event — Jerusalem Arabs; a garage owner from Ramle; a Russian-born, Israeli-raised professional backgammon player once ranked World No. 1 and generally known as “Falafel”; and the 2009 World Backgammon Champion Masayuki “Mochy” Mochizuki, who had flown in especially for the occasion.
Worried that “Falafel” (real name Matvey Natanzon) and “Mochy” would defeat all the locals and spoil the fun by making the final, the organizers had drawn them to play each other in the first round, so that at least one would be eliminated early on.
They needn’t have worried.
Backgammon involves a fair amount of skill, but the rapid-fire, best-of-three format used in Thursday’s tournament meant that luck played a leading role. After “Mochy” had defeated “Falafel,” in a game given added drama by the fact that they were playing on a fairly steep incline with the dice in permanent danger of disappearing into the undergrowth, the Japanese champ faced off next against Ayal Amari, the multi-tattooed Ramle garage man.
Reputation counted for nothing: World champion or not, “Mochy” was undone when a series of throws rolled usefully for Amari. Jumping to his feet in victory, Amari crowed, “I made sushi of him,” but then, more graciously a few seconds later, acknowledged that his win “was more about luck than brainpower.”
Thoroughly unfazed, “Mochy” spent the rest of the evening cheerfully playing informal games against all-comers — notably a stream of young ultra-Orthodox boys.
“I love the motive behind this event,” the Japanese champ said later in the evening. “It’s using backgammon to bring people together, which is wonderful. It’s very good for backgammon. And I get to see all my friends in Tel Aviv” — some of whom, he elaborated, he had made on a previous visit to Israel.
The 32 finalists were an overwhelmingly male, Sephardi and Arab bunch. The crowds were more diverse — lots of spouses and kids, shouting in Arabic and Hebrew for their loved ones or for the underdogs, and hundreds of fans and curious onlookers. Adi Suchovolsky, the only woman to make the later stages, was cheered all the way to quarter-final victory. And there were near universal groans when she was defeated by Gadi Carmeli in the semi-finals.
Was Suchovolsky a national champion? A neighborhood champion? She giggled. “I’m the champion of my office,” she managed.
Finally, after three hours of play, it all came down to Gadi and Itzik. Every game of the night had been dramatized for the crowd by the two relentlessly cheerful commentators — one a West Jerusalem soccer announcer, and the other an East Jerusalem actor known for his part in the drama “Fauda,” trading off in Hebrew and Arabic.
Now they welcomed the last players to a special table, set up on a stage directly beneath the Old City walls. The board was beamed, super-size, onto Sultan Suleiman’s mighty 16th century stonework, and the last two survivors girded for battle.
This last contest was not a best-of-three encounter, but a single game. Do or die. And there was no second prize — it was a case of winner takes all: NIS 25,000 or nothing.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, our canny duo attempted to fix up what is known in Hebrew slang as a “combina” — a little arrangement. After a few minutes of play, with the fateful game still evenly poised, there was a bit of whispering, and then Itzik and Gadi announced that they had agreed each would be guaranteed NIS 5,000 ($1,400), and that they would now finish off the game to see who would get the remaining 15,000 ($4,100).
The commentators were aghast — in Hebrew and Arabic. And the organizers were in no mood to allow for this last-minute deal. No way, the finalists were told. The winner gets the full 25K. The loser gets zilch.
The game resumed. Each man briefly held the advantage, but then Gadi nosed in front. Now the end was nigh. Only double 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 could save Itzik. He got to his feet. He briefly took off his hat. He told the organizers what a terrific event they’d arranged. “Roll the dice,” the crowd hollered back.
With an extravagant, theatrical flourish, Itzik rolled. Incredibly, he threw a double. But it was the only double that couldn’t give him victory. Double 1. So near. But victory was Gadi’s. He shot out of his chair, held both hands aloft, shook hands with Itzik, essayed a short victory strut.
Then he went to collect his trophy and that check, presented by “Mochy” and “Falafel,” as a 20-piece Jewish-Arab orchestra waited behind them to close out the extraordinary evening.
And for this tournament, with these participants, and this crowd, in this storied place, there was surely a little backgammon metaphor in that final roll of the dice. One wasn’t enough for victory. You needed two.