GammonLife - Hi Victoria, thank you for accepting to be interviewed by GammonLife.com. Please give us a little background on yourself?
Victoria Smirnoff - Hi Michael, thank you for inviting me to participate. I was born in Moscow on July 8, 1974 and attended a primary school, specialized in literature, and also completed seven grade violins.
In 1997, I graduated from the Moscow State University of Sociology with Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. Later the same year, I got involved in the world of professional gambling - first as a student of Paul Magriel, and then as a backgammon player myself.
In 2000, with Paul Magriel as my partner, we won the Doubles Consulting World Backgammon Championship in Switzerland.
I currently live in London and am working on my autobiography book From Russia with Luck due to be released next year.
GammonLife - Smirnoff? Any relation to the makers of Smirnoff Vodka?
Victoria Smirnoff - Unfortunately not…
GammonLife - When and how were you first introduced to backgammon?
Victoria Smirnoff - I met World Champion Mike Svobodny in 1997 on a beach in Monte Carlo. It was Mike that recommended Paul Magriel as the best backgammon teacher.
GammonLife - What were your first impressions on the game and how do you compare Backgammon to other games?
Victoria Smirnoff - I found it very different to card games because it’s almost impossible to cheat in Backgammon! Seriously, I wondered about the proportion of skill and luck in backgammon and I was absolutely shocked when Mike Svobo said that even 10 years is not enough to completely understand the game.
GammonLife - You won the Doubles Consulting World Backgammon Championship with partner Paul Magriel in 2000, what other events have you won?
Victoria Smirnoff - I haven’t played in many tournaments since 2000. I prefer money games against weaker players! In the tournaments I have played in - at the Drones Club and the Palm Beach, both in London – I made it to the quarter-finals a few times. In Cannes last year, I won the Consolation of the Intermediate, another great tournament in Monte Carlo area, which always takes place right after my birthday, so usually I grab the glass instead of the dice cup and toss out my drink instead of the dice…
GammonLife - Please tell us your thoughts on Paul Magriel, as a player and teacher? What were the most crucial areas of the game that you learnt from him and would recommend to others to learn as a priority?
Victoria Smirnoff - I started with Paul as a beginner, I hardly knew the rules and the fact that he taught me something means he is a real genius! Paul sees the level of a player and teaches just what that person needs to know – without giving too much information. The only problem with backgammon is… the more you learn the more you realize there is still such a long way to go! Imagine that only Paul’s lecture about the doubling cube lasted four hours alone.
GammonLife - You are registered to play in the PartyGammon Million tournament in January 2007. Fantastic! We wish you luck. How do you intend to prepare to compete in this historical event?
Victoria Smirnoff - Snowie, three times a day, once after every meal.
GammonLife - If you win, what would you do with $500,000?
Victoria Smirnoff - I will invest all of it in the anti-cancer drug project I’ve been organizing for many years in Russia.
GammonLife - I saw a video on your website from a TV show in which you appear with John Clark and Kara Scott. Clark brings up some statistics about backgammon being male-dominated and refers to some “discoveries by scientists” that the brains of men and women are different, as is their ability to process logic, and this is why men are better backgammon players than women? Wow, that was rather shocking! What’s your input on this?
Victoria Smirnoff - The fact is, John Clark is absolutely right. The world of gambling, just as the world of politics and science, including the Nobel and other prizes nominees is male-dominated… big time! And, of course, in this time of equal rights it must be due to men’s better ability to process logic, better memory, etc.
However, my lessons with Paul Magriel give me a huge advantage against average players and, as I said in that TV show at the time, I'm very glad that men are so confident because since they are richer then women, in general, it’s even more of a pleasure to win money from them!
GammonLife - Maria Krancheva of Bulgaria claims to be the best woman player in the world and definitely Katja Sophie Spillum Svendsen is way up there, being a Champion of Europe amongst other victories. There are dozens of other great women players all over the world including female World Champions. Which women players do you think are some of the best and why?
Victoria Smirnoff - Mike Svobodny says I'm better than 98% of all backgammon players in the world. Well, Maria and Katja are in that 2% as well! They are professional gamblers, their level is much higher then mine and they spend much more time playing then me. I wish them luck!
GammonLife - What about men? Who do you consider to be amongst the top male backgammon players in the world?
Victoria Smirnoff - Gus Hansen, Falafel, Mike Svobo, Nack Ballard, Andreas Humke, Bob Wachtel and Paul Magriel.
GammonLife - Stephen Pearson and Player International Ltd are planning a new world backgammon tour, “Backgammon International”, and the creation of a new international federation. What are your thoughts on this?
Victoria Smirnoff - Finally one of the most fascinating games will be televised worldwide! It is the key to making it hugely popular. Thanks to Stephen Pearson for working on this project – he’s doing a great job. I’m looking forward to playing in a world tour and I’ll make sure Moscow is included as one of the venues!
GammonLife - Backgammon is definitely increasing in popularity worldwide, but do you feel it can reach the awesome height of popularity that it enjoyed in the 1970s?
Victoria Smirnoff - It’s hard for me to compare - I was only born in the 70s and wasn’t really into backgammon yet, but there is definitely a big difference today since backgammon was cracked by computers and more people are interested in improving their level.
However, the increase in popularity is inevitable - just a few TV shows for a start including me playing in a bikini - and success is guaranteed!
GammonLife - What would you personally do to help the game become more popular?
Victoria Smirnoff - I’ve done quite a few things already but they didn’t work out. In the first TV show, "High Stakes Backgammon", most of the entire interviews I organized (with Mike Svobo, Gus Hansen and myself) were cut out for being "too different".
Then I had a great idea to make a documentary called "Life of the Gambler" and I even signed a six-month contract with the biggest TV production company ‘T W I’ in London. But apparently no TV channels were interested.
Let’s hope I am interviewed at The Bahamas event so I can have a few minutes chance (before losing in the tournament) to tell TV viewers what a great game Backgammon is!
GammonLife - I like the title of your forthcoming book, “From Russia with Luck”, cool! What is the book about and can we expect to read any extraordinary stories about backgammon in it?
Victoria Smirnoff - It was meant to be mainly about gambling stories. But because I have gambled since I was 12 (I mean betting money on ping-pong, badminton, chess, drafts and all sorts of card games), I decided to show through my stories the fall of Soviet Union, the major change in the society and personal values. For example, gambling in Soviet Union was illegal and backgammon was the most popular game in prisons, where boards are made of black and white bread, sand and water.
By the way, since it is my biography, all the stories are extraordinary!
All photos Copyright © 2006 by Victoria Smirnoff.