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Chicago backgammon player is new international champion

Carter Pfeifer Mattig (center) with his award after winning the 5th Merit Open International Backgammon Championship in North Cyprus on Nov. 5. | Photo courtesy of Carter Pfeifer Mattig

Carter Pfeifer Mattig first learned to play backgammon in a Gold Coast hair salon. While waiting for his mother to have her hair styled, a stylist taught the 8-year-old how to play the game he would come to master across the globe.

Since then, the game has brought Mattig to tournaments in nearly 30 countries, and most recently, to the biggest backgammon competition in the world. On Nov. 5, Mattig took home the title of “Master Main Winner” at the 5th Merit Open International Backgammon Championship in North Cyprus.

“It was absolutely the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Mattig said about his success in the game. He added that his daughter, Lindsay, is his best prize outside of the backgammon world.

He won more than 10 matches over five days at the Merit Park and Hotel Casino before facing off against friend and competitor Lars Trabolt, of Denmark, for the €67,000 — or $77,600 — grand prize. Trabolt, who won the world championship once, had to beat the undefeated Mattig twice, and Mattig was confident his opponent could do it.

“He’s one of the strongest players in the world,” Mattig said. “He’s the Michael Jordan of backgammon.” But to his surprise, a combination of strategy and lucky rolls of the dice gave Mattig a victory in both rounds. The first thing he did was call home to Pilsen, to tell his wife, Christina, that he “won the whole thing.”

Mattig, who works as a sound engineer in Chicago, said the hefty cash prize will go right back into the game. “It’s kind of like a timeshare,” he said. “I won a tournament, that means I can go to more tournaments.”

When he landed back in Chicago on Tuesday evening, he didn’t wait long to unpack his board. He went straight from the airport to the Tilted Kilt in Skokie to meet the Chicago Bar Point Backgammon Club, a group he’s been playing with since he was in his 20s.

“It was the first group I found,” he said. “It’s a really interesting community of like a lot of misfit toys.”

Mattig said when he first started competing with the local club, he learned that five or six of the world’s top players were based in Chicago. He credits them with helping him improve his game. “I was playing with these super strong players so I was learning all these tricks,” Mattig said. “I kept playing and playing with the top players in the world so my skill set increased exponentially.”

In 2005, he traveled to Japan for his first international competition. According to the U.S. Backgammon Federation, he is now considered one of the most active American backgammon players in overseas tournaments.

“It’s so nice to have this community of people from all over the world,” he said. “You get to play with them in all these places and it’s awesome.”

The Chicago native has competed in Denmark, England, Italy and more than 20 other countries, and he said he travels overseas for backgammon at least once a month.

Mattig, who is turning 50 next year, is expecting backgammon players from all over the world to attend his birthday party in Las Vegas.