Thomas Jespersen Victorious at WSOB’s UK Masters in London
by Will Cockerell - October 26, 2009
Thomas Jespersen
The World Series of Backgammon (WSOB) UK Masters and Play-offs. Twenty-four boil down to four in thrilling shoot-out. A real marathon of a day this, but one that proceeded fairly smoothly and gave us several dollops of spine-tingling drama.

It all started as your tournament director hauled maestros Frédéric Andrieu and Katja Spillum into work early as they were a round behind in the Consolation. It wasn’t early enough! Fred, the reigning WSOB champ is a deliberate player, bless him, and his 11-point match with Katja lasted well over 2-hours, which had a somewhat knock-on effect for the rest of the day.

That’s the thing about tournament direction, the event only proceeds as quickly as the slowest match out on course. So 90%+ of matches can proceed to schedule, but one late show-up or marathon match and it all starts running late. Anyway, suffice it to say that with Fred running his clock down to under 20 seconds, it came down to this: Fred, a closed board, a checker on Katja’s ace, and Katja three checkers left on her deuce. Coup classique anyone? No – but Katja did leave the shot, and Fred hits! 4.8% wins now for the inter-galactic sicko.

Fred starts bearing off, and instead of being too aggressive and leaving Katja that voluntary shot on purpose, he has, from the ace: 2, 2, 3, 3, 2, 2. There is a number. 66 for Fred! Katja suddenly in a bit of stir here. A moment ago before Fred hit she was 98.2%, and a fan here and she’d only be 3-to-1 on. She finds the crucial entering 5, somewhat limps round the field and wins by 4 pips.

Katja had the momentum now, and although her next victims Mike Heard and Marcel Nabarro fought valiantly, she basically kept them at a polite arm’s length, and Katja Spillum WINS the UK Masters Consolation, and over 10,000 euros.

In the main, Thomas Jespersen and Matvey “Falafel” Natanzon were also requested an early showing, as they had one more set of their semi-final to grind out. It was a hugely close, nip-tuck affair, but to the surprise of a few, Falafel couldn’t reach a second WSOB final of the year, and it was the powerful and extremely knowledgeable Dane who took his place against Halvor Losnedahl in the final.

Meanwhile, more excitement was brewing as players were gathering excitedly to see if they had made the cut of the top 24 in the points race for WSOB 2009.

Here is the order of merit of the top 24 players (byes for the top 8), minus Christian Plenz (qualified), Stick Rice (absent), and John Hurst (absent).

Shahad Ghodsi, Steen Gronbech, Falafel, Jan Jacobowitz, Sander Lylloff, Jurgen Orlowski, Thomas Jespersen, Marcel Nabarro, Tage Mellgren, Gary Bauer, Sven Olav Noren, Kazuriho Shino, Fabrizio Lo Surdo, Katja Spillum, Frédéric Andrieu, Masayuki "Mochy" Mochizuki, Filo Karantzali, Eli Roymi, Halvor Losnedahl, Christos Groutsos, Konrad Froschl, Sean Williams, Philip Vischager, Claude LePintre. First reserve Raj Jansari.

Effort was made to pair off players in the upper echelons of the race with those lower down. It turned out that the 2009 World Champion Masayuki "Mochy" Mochizuki tied on points with WSOB champ Andrieu, right in the middle of the pack, and they were duly drawn to do battle. In a valiant defence of his title, Fred won, but bit the dust in the next.

The pick of the first round was a stunning encounter between Eli Roymi and Fabricio Lo Surdo. The latter roared into a 7-2 lead (to 9), and when I arrived Eli had a last gasp double shot to get back into the match. “Watch this,” he said, “I PROMISE I miss – I hit NOTHING all match!” He duly missed. A short while later, Eli needed a 22 or above for the gammon save. Shaking his dice cup in one hand, he proffered the hand of resignation with the other. (A shark could have grabbed the hand, shaken it and walked off!) “Fab” waited till the dice fell. 66! Not dead yet (to the disgust of the tournament director, this match was already an hour behind schedule due to the Andrieu-Spillum log-jam of earlier). Another hour later, and it was Eli who duly took his place in the next round. Backgammon at its most fickle.

The other matches proceeded fairly to schedule. Here was the last 8 of the Play-offs:

Ghodsi vs Mellgren
Falafel vs Groutsos
Shino vs Orlowski
Jespersen vs Gronbech

It was Mellgren, Shino and Gronbech who won the seats as the crowd gathered round for the last match out on the course: Falafel and Christos Groutsos.

Meanwhile in the main event final, the charismatic Halvor, with the movie star looks and the sharp line in dark collarless suits finally ran out of steam as Jespersen, one of the game’s most feared pros for the past few years, won in straight sets and picked up the €15,000 bounty. Congratulations Thomas, you are a worthy successor to John Hurst’s UK Masters crown.

In the Super Satellite Last Chance, Britain’s Mike Heard who has turned near misses at WSOB events into an art form, grabbed the seat – great stuff Mike.

Right, back to that Falafel match. At 7-3 up he was all but certain for the un-doubled gammon for match, but got hit right at the end so cashed for 8-3. Christos fought grimly back to 5-8 and with the crowd gathered in close it appeared that we could be heading to DMP, or even a gammon for match as Falafel had a checker stuck back on Chris’ deuce-point, behind the six-prime, and four other men in the outfield (albeit safe). 65 for Groutsos! Wow, he can point on Falafel here, gammons rising up over 20%. To the amazement of the crowd he prefers to bring round a little more ammo. This gives him more wins (up to 86% compared to 78% with the hit) but 8% less gammons. In other words there is actually almost nothing between the plays, and Christos may well be right by a fraction. Well done sir.

A short while later he has that extra bullet in his chamber – a spare on the 4 point. Chris rolls 52! Now he points on Falafel. The World number one enters on the ace. Chris lashes out and hits loose on the ace of his killer 5-point board and Falafel fans. Sevens for Chris to cover. No – but he gives himself a 4 next time. Breathless stuff this – come on Falafel! No disrespect to Chris but we need the world’s number one in the shoot-out final… Chris misses with the covering 4 to shut out the big man… AND THE PUNISHMENT IS SWIFT AND SEVERE! In comes Falafel with the sick 16 from the bar, and despite some desperate entering by Chris, he soon has two checkers on the roof, and Falafel finally stumbles over the line – but what a battle to bring the event to a close.


So there it is – WSOB Season III has one final act to play out to find our champion. Andrieu has made a valiant defence of his title – who will succeed him? It has been a turbulent year, but we’ve seen some splendid action and we are hugely grateful to many of the world’s greatest players for all they’ve done to support us and help further our dream of bringing backgammon into the 21st Century.

We shall keep in close touch with news of the shoot-out; who else qualifies for it; and who goes for the 10,000 buy-in option. Talks are ongoing with some suitable possible venues worthy of staging this grand event.

As ever, it has been a pleasure to report on these captivating events. I’ve covered all sorts of sports in my career, but the material you guys give me to work with is always the richest and most varied of them all. Despite the difficulties, pitfalls, uncertainties and eye-watering expense that the WSOB has been through since the early days back in 2005, when our founder brought Dennis Carlston’s DMP triumph in the World Championship final to the small screen, I always leave the venues feeling one thing: it was worth it. Already eyes are turning to next year. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked when Season IV will start.

But for now, I’ll leave you with the words of Scarlett O’Hara, a woman who went through a few trials and tribulations of her own. So nearly she let despair get the better of her (as any woman would after Clark Gable’s just told her he doesn’t give a damn). Is she bothered? Yes, a little, but she rebounds… She fights back. She resolves to triumph in the end, as she ends the picture with that resounding refrain:

“Tomorrow is another day…”

UK Masters (47+9)

Winner, Thomas Jespersen (Denmark) €15,000

Finalist, Halvor Losnedahl (Norway) €10,000

Semi finalists, (Team WSOB) Falafel Natanzon (Israel) €5,000; Manfred Hollederer (Germany) (WSOB qualifier) €5,000

Winner, Consolation: (Team WSOB) Katja Spillum (Norway) €10,000

Finalist, Marcel Nabarro (Holland) €5,000

WSOBC Super Satellite: Mike Heard (England)

WSOB RACE, PLAY-OFFS: TOP FOUR: Steen Groenbech (Den), Falafel Natanzon (Isr), Tage Mellgren (Den), Kazuhiro Shino (Eng)


From Will Cockerell's Blog - Monday, 26 October 2009

Visit the World Series of Backgammon website and Will Cockerell's Blog for other reports from the days of 2009 UK Masters - for October 23, 24 and 25 - at this link: www.worldseriesofbackgammon.com


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