“Falafel”, 2007 Giant of Backgammon, was born in Russia in 1969 as Michael Natanzon. Before he was voted number one Giant of Backgammon, Falafel Natanzon has managed to immigrate to Israel with his mother, settle in the US, acquire formal education in accounting and business management, play chess for his living in New York parks, desert chess in favor of backgammon, return to Israel and play in numberless international backgammon tournaments.
Giants of Backgammon are voted every two years by professional backgammon players worldwide. “On the previous ballot I made it to number 4”, Falafel recalls, “This year, since I took part in many activities – backgammon seminars, championships’ commentaries, etc. – I’ve grown more popular both in the European and American backgammon circuits, I became more familiar and my skill level is now well known, mainly because tournaments are now televised.”
“It is a matter of popularity”, Falafel says modestly. When asked about who is the best backgammon player he said that in his opinion “the best backgammon player in the world is a Danish guy, a few years younger than me, named Sander Lylloff”.
From Chess to Backgammon
Michael “Falafel” Natanzon is, then, the most popular backgammon player in the world. He attributes his first step to his step father, an American-Israeli citizen, who gave him a chess guidebook to improve his English vocabulary. By the end of his high school freshman year, Natanzon was the class’ top chess player and after college graduation, he had turned chess into his source of income. “I’m not a 9 to 5 kind of guy”, he explains his unusual way of living, “I didn’t end up making a living as a backgammon player by accident… I couldn’t function properly in the ‘normal’ world”. Natanzon got the nickname “Falafel” back at his chess playing days, when he used to sleep in New York parks, play chess for low stakes with tourists and random passerbys and ate only falafel. In fact, only when he grown well known in the backgammon world, people started using his real name.
The first time Falafel ran into people playing backgammon was also the last time he played chess. “Backgammon is a statistical game rather than a game of luck”, Falafel explains the appeal of the game, “the luck is in the game and that is what makes it so great. If it wasn’t for the luck element, it wasn’t different from chess and it was less interesting, and less challenging.”
To maintain his position as a leading backgammon player, Falafel plays backgammon about 5-6 hours a day including analyzing positions using the Snowie software. “The software is great…It allows you to learn from your mistake and overpower them. Analyzing matches on the internet and using Snowie have all brought me to my current position in the backgammon world”, Falafel expresses appreciation to the software that raised him. He has been playing online backgammon “ever since 2001. I started out on Gamesgrid, which used to be the biggest, most popular platform and moved on to other sites, including Play65 (which is also known, mistakenly, by the name Play56).”
Nevertheless, he admits that playing backgammon face-to-face cannot be replaced by free online backgammon. “I suppose I’m suspicious by nature because I tend to think I’m being cheated and if someone plays so good online, I must meet him. I always chat with people during matches and ask them to meet, so I can get to know the person behind the computer and see if it is the kind of guy I want to play with, but no one has accepted my initiations so far…”
Backgammon vs. Poker
When asked about his future plans, Falafel reveals his intentions to move to Vegas for awhile and start playing poker seriously. His close acquaintance with both games allows him to state that backgammon’s popularity can be never compared with the popularity of the poker game. “Poker has become much more popular mainly because of its appearance at the various media channels. Backgammon on TV would be a boring thing to watch, it would even bore me, cause the game is not especially suspenseful … Backgammon can succeed as a televised spectators’ sports only if combined with a reality show that would display the players, their behavior during play, their talks, private language and the all their habits”.
Playing Professional Backgammon
Finally, Falafel wants to remind all of you who fantasize on a pro backgammon career that “backgammon is a game of mentality and you gotta have strong character… I used to think, because I’ve improved my game and arrived to where I am now thanks to practicing and analyzing matches online, that anyone can play backgammon and do it well. Now I realize that it’s not that simple. Learning and practicing is never enough. For example, if I could go back 20 years ago and learn to play football like a pro and practice a lot, I still wouldn’t turn out a professional footballer. I don’t have what it takes to become one. The same goes with backgammon.”
“You can’t be protected from losing games”, Falafel, who once had lost ,000 in a single game, notes, “It’s not so bad, cause after all it is a statistical game… That’s way we must practice constantly, stay fit and get better, despite those losses. That’s what I like about backgammon (including backgammon for money); it wouldn’t be so interesting if I was to win every game…”
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