The world’s leading tournament director had an early passion for backgammon that changed his life – and made it easier for the rest of us to just play the game. Shane McNally reports.
Arda Fındıkoğlu is a masters-qualified earthquake engineer who has been so consumed by his commitment to backgammon that he gave up his “day job” before it started to concentrate on improving the world’s oldest game.
Instead, the man born in the Turkish capital of Ankara in 1980 has become the best backgammon tournament director in the world. And backgammon is better for his involvement.
While Arda may one day use his engineering skills, he finds himself too busy managing and improving tournament play and running his two organisation and consulting companies in Istanbul and Montenegro. Backgammon, it’s fair to say, is a passion that consumes him and the backgammon community – or as he calls it, his global family – appreciates his tireless efforts.
The man who calls himself a backgammon engineer is bringing the best of his skills gleaned from formal education and half a lifetime sitting across the board from a tactical opponent to a tournament near you or at least one in which you hope to compete one day.
“My backgammon career started as a player and like the majority of Turks, I learned the traditional variation of the game Tavla from my father when I was a kid,” he recalls. “That was just a social street game for me, nothing really serious. I was introduced to modern backgammon in 1997 and fell in love with the game.”
His commitment to the game became serious in 1999, after a friend registered him for an online backgammon tournament. He beat a field of 200 in the event and won a CD Snowie 2 (the analyser software of the time), and was subsequently featured in GammonVillage magazine. Worldwide Backgammon Federation (WBF) general secretary Marco Fornasir read the article and contacted Arda to help him establish the first Turkish backgammon club.
“Since I was very young, I had been working in event organisations and then I created my own company in Istanbul, mainly focused on backgammon events. That is my main way of making my living since the year 2000 so I am doing what I have always been passionate for, that’s organising global events.”
Arda’s introduction to event management was a modest one, attracting just 18 players to his first tournament in 2001. Of those, 16 were close friends. Things improved though, as his events became WBF-endorsed and soon the WBF-Turkiye tournament became one of the leading affiliated events. It became so big that Arda made the decision to give up engineering and focus on organising events for the fast-growing region, which quickly numbered more than a thousand players. And now he makes his living doing what he loves.
By 2010, Arda had organised his first international backgammon tournament in conjunction with the WBF. Leading international players attended the Istanbul Open and the rest is history.
“I kept on working so hard with very limited resources and I was very lucky in 2013 that it attracted the attention of Merit, my partner in Northern Cyprus,” he says. “The aim of the company was to create the biggest backgammon event in the world, so they asked me if I would be able to collaborate with them to reach that point. My reply was positive, they trusted me, and we made plans to be the flagship event of the world backgammon community within five years.
“Even in our first year there in Northern Cyprus, I was amazed by the huge support I received from the world community. We got a much greater attendance than we were expecting and in our second year only, we were the biggest event in the world.
“That event opened so many doors to me and in the years that followed, I received invitations to take on the role of head TD in many other international organisations, including the World Championship in Monte Carlo.
Arda was contacted by former World Backgammon Federation (WBGF) president Steen Groenbech after directing his second Merit Open in Cyprus.
“He has my greatest respect as one of the best organisers of all time and he invited me to the Federation,” he recalls. “As I believe we are strong when together, plus I could never say no to Steen, I accepted the invitation without hesitation.
“I organised a national teams event in Budva under the WBGF brand in 2019. That one still holds the record attendance of national teams but I’ll be trying to have the new record in Skopje next year, where I will be the host of the 2023 edition of the event. I assisted the WBGF in its first clubs’ event in Neum, Bosnia & Herzegovina this year.”
Arda’s work with the WBGF has led its president Bernhard Mayr to describe him as the “tournament mastermind of the Federation”.
Today, Arda runs a major organisation that caters for 3500 players from 40 different cities in Turkey – in addition to the international duties, using his skills in hospitality, management and public relations to broaden his client base. In his organiser’s career, he has completed more than 250 backgammon tournaments so far. For all of the work, though, he insists on doing his TD work alone and not impose his expectations on others.
“I prefer to get the director’s sole responsibility and authority myself,” he says. “At the same time, I am well aware that a successful event organisation always passes from teamwork and synergy between team members. I have my own full-time team in Turkey, with its members who have become mastered over the years about what we are doing and outside of Turkey. Depending on where the event will happen, I invite some other well-known names of our community to collaborate with me.”
National events and the Istanbul Open aside, in 2023 Arda will put his polish on the Gibraltar Open in February, Loutraki Grand Prix (Athens, March), Montenegro Grand Prix (Budva, April), French Riviera Challenge (Beaulieu, June), Swedish Open (Stockholm, July), World Championships (Monte Carlo, July), Skopje Open (August) and the Merit Open Kyrenia in Cyprus in November. “The interest of producers getting me involved in their events is growing year by year. Each new offer I get, I feel proud and motivated to work harder.”
“The best reward is the feeling of satisfaction of completing another successful event. Earning money has never been a primary goal for me, as when you succeed in what you are doing, it is a natural result by itself. I’ve heard people saying they wouldn’t want my job as serving people from different cultures with different mentalities could be a headache. I disagree with that, as I love especially that part of my job, trying to accommodate all in one hall, understanding their needs, helping them adapt to the rules and conditions, offering them a comfortable event experience.
“I additionally love being the very first person to congratulate an event winner right after a final match is over. Especially during big events, where we hold the final in a separate room, at the end of the match until I bring the winner to the main playing hall to announce his/her victory, we share a couple of minutes without anyone else around, usually full of emotion. This job made me a collector of unforgettable memories.”
So, what skills should a successful TD possess? There’s no one particular asset, according to Arda, but TDs need to have a broad range of abilities to meet a variety of situations.
“I think a sense of fairness before everything else is vital. It is not easy to treat every person equally under every circumstance, as there can be cases in which your close friends are involved. Even my closest fellows would know by heart that I would always direct according to what I believe is correct. I can make mistakes too, but everybody should know that I always try making the most fair ruling.
“Then comes transparency. I never expect any player to trust me blindly but I try being very transparent when directing an event, giving explanations as detailed as possible. I’m confident the community trusts me but I’ve had to earn that trust. Each new event brings new challenges and I do my best to increase my credit in players’ eyes.
“When acting, I always try putting myself in players’ shoes and ask myself how I would see the case from their perspective.
“Finally, I try to be humble when dealing with players who may or may not have an issue in a tournament. I constantly remind myself not to forget where I came from, and never to see myself as a different person than the day I first started my career.”
While running events has become a normal way of life for Arda, he never loses the excitement that comes from travelling to new places or revisiting the best of the old ones.
“I love meeting new communities with their own gaming cultures in different countries,” he says. “My usual experience is people who don’t know me or are meeting me for the first time being hesitant to trust me and then having those same people give me a warm hug at the end of the event. That’s the best way I know I’ve done a good job and it’s priceless to me.
“Every new destination is exciting, but it comes with challenges. Nothing to fear, just challenges. I’ve never encountered any discomfort from players but there are language barriers. Although I am multilingual, sometimes it can be an issue communicating with a guest, however there is always another local player around, who can speak one of the languages that I do, so I just ask for assistance. Additionally, it helps to learn in advance about some basics of the local language of the place I’m running as locals enjoy, even get a laugh out of, hearing me speak in their own language with my Turkish accent.”
Arda loves every aspect of playing backgammon but draws the line at playing in the events at which he is paid to be TD. While he acknowledges other TDs do this, he believes he owes it to the events that are paying him to be fully-focussed on directing.
“I’m a semi-professional player in love with the game and the analytical mathematics, and I enjoy the social side of the game so I meet those needs by playing at the events other TDs run,” he says, not naming the many titles and trophies he has managed to capture.
“With my respect to others who do so, I feel uncomfortable with the idea that someone pays me to participate in an event I organise and I play in the same event to beat him, so I cash twice in a way. Additionally, I believe I should invest myself full-time during events in giving better service to guests. So, no, I don’t play in my own events. There can be rare exceptions in smaller events I organise that I might play in only side games like Doubles, my favourite Speedgammon or DMP, usually because players in those smaller events have encouraged me to play.
“I love the game because it gives everyone a chance to compete against the best. I believe the main appeal is that better players will win more in the long run, but there is always a chance for a weaker player to win as well. That’s a perfect balance which we don’t see in the majority of board games.”
Arda believes the social aspects and the balance between skill and luck has helped backgammon go through a major worldwide resurgence in recent years.
“While other activities including poker took people away from backgammon in the 1990s and 2000s because of the financial considerations and the nature of backgammon not rewarding better players as often as those other games, there’s definitely a big move back to the game. I believe one of the major game changers was Merit’s involvement in Backgammon in 2013, with big sponsorship value. The success of Merit Open events repeated itself every coming year with growing attendance though and it was a good example for many other organisers too. Today, there are many well run events with decent prizes all around the world and I believe it will continue to grow.”
While Arda has an obvious bias when asked about his favourite tournaments because of his involvement at events such as Cyprus and Monte Carlo, it’s difficult to name just one tournament so perhaps the fairest way to answer is looking at the location and what it offers between matches.
“On that score, it’s hard to go past Varenna in Italy. It’s a well-run event by the CNB organisation but, for me, it’s also played in the most beautiful venue I have ever experienced at a backgammon event.