Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chess and gambling in the old days.

National Geographic magazine stated a few years ago that world wide more money was spent via recreational gambling than all the money spent on food, legal, and illegal drugs combined. The culture of the early to middle of the last century in Boston actually catered to a different type of recreational gambling whether it be under the table gambling or wagering, having no state sanctioned lottery or casino with taxation, and very few traveled to casinos at Los Vegas or Atlantic City then. Gambling was entwined in recreation that had old country origins with horse tracks and dog tracks attracting people as did boxing; all of these industries are now dying as are their customers. People gambled via informal wagers or employing the dark side as a middle man. It was a time when everyone played "the number" and played football cards. Every payday my dad would cash his paycheck at the local bar, pay his tab, and transact with the local bookie. BTW his bookie attended my dad's wake to say goodbye to a good friend and solid customer, somehow I don't see Mass State Treasurer Timothy Cahill doing the same.

When I was six years old and giving my grandfather Frank Power SR. trouble in our skittles he called in the heavy artillery -- BCF member from 30's thru the 50's my great uncle Justin "Ducky" Power. He taught me both openings: the Giucco Piano & Captain Evan's gambit. He is the reason I am playing OTB today. In addition I learned about gambling from watching my Uncle Ducky in action while I was a caddy at Franklin Park Golf course in the 60's. Uncle Ducky told me to always plant in your opponent's mind that they lost because it was a bad break, a bit of luck, where one better executed shot would have won (Ducky Power a man who shot 69 at the age of 69 - when he had to) but never nuked an opponent he was gambling with. He also warned me if you are gambling and you are thinking you need just a little more to win: you are being had; pay up and walk away.

A decade later I watched a very similar process while a young Jim Rizzitano would earn lunch money playing speed chess at the old Boston Chess Studio on Newbury Street against adults during 1970's.

There was some gambling in the smoke filled back room of the Boston Chess Studio, very little happened out of doors at Harvard Square in Cambridge, but where it occurred big time was in the old YMCU/Young Man's Christian Union, home of the BCF. The 70's introduction of Backgammon increased the incidence of all types of gambling. Backgammon has the doubling cube, the average game lasts 11 minutes, and the presence of dice gives the appearance that luck plays a bigger role than it does. This makes Backgammon most seductive for gambling. Similar to the current wave of poker this past decade has had in redirecting many OTB players of today, as backgammon had in the 70's.

This YMCU atmosphere weaned Dan Harrington of poker fame

[Dan Harrington (BCC Champion 1972) won the World Series of Poker in 1998 ($1 million) and place 4th in 2004 ($ 1.5 million). In 2005 he finished 6th in the World Poker Tour ($ 620,730) and to 2006 has won $ 4,800,000 playing poker. ]

and developed world backgammon champ Bill Robertie as well. [ Bill Robertie, 1975 BCC Champion. Bill shifted his interests to poker (writing books with Dan Harrington) and backgammon. He was the World Champion in backgammon in 1983 and 1987 and won the 1994 Backgammon World Cup in Istanbul. ]

When people gambled in the YMCU no money ever passed hands in public, score was kept in a match book and both parties would retire to the men's room to pay up. I vaguely remember a +.25(cents) victory over Robertie one time. I can't say I have ever beaten any world chess champ yet.

Fortunately today chess gambling happens in broad daylight in parks. And chessplayers being a frugal bunch don't gamble much, so people attracted to gambling are playing poker because today it's the game that attracts the most money with the dumbest participants. Chess a game of skill where luck manifests itself only in opponent oversight; very different than the roll of the dice or the card that is dealt which seems to provide a randomness that could offset skill. As my Uncle Ducky would say: that's the margin that enables him to make money.

03/26/2008 Mike Griffin

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