The world of backgammon has lost one of its best ambassadors on February 14, 2020. Mike Natanzon also known as Falafel died of brain cancer and left a big hole in the heart of every backgammon lover in the world. Portrait of a player with an extraordinary destiny.
From a bench park in New York to the top of the backgammon world
Mike Natanzon was born in Russia but spent most of his childhood in Israel. When he was a teenager, his mother took him to the United States at Buffalo, New York. After graduating in 1991, he decided to move to Manhattan « like Madonna »as he used to say, which means without money or a place to stay.
He lived for 6 months in Washington Square Park, sleeping on a bench and making a few bucks hustling chess. It’s at this time that he discovered backgammon and he completely went into it. It is also at this time that he gained his nickname Falafel, referring to the cheap Middle East dish that was the only thing he could afford to eat.
At some point, some of his friends offered him a place to stay and Falafel started studying backgammon deeply with the help of a computer. His mathematical genius brain did the rest, and he quickly started to improve his backgammon skill. After some time he made enough money to play in the big game and slowly made his path to the high stakes backgammon world.
The number one backgammon player
In 2007, Falafel received the highest distinction in backgammon as he was named number one « Giant of backgammon » by his peers. It is not really in tournaments but in money play than Falafel genius showed. He could make thousands of dollars in an hour and he always had more bets going on that he could count. The New-Yorker made a very nice article about him in 2013 that I recommend.
Unfortunately in 2018 he was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer and fought bravely until his death on February 14, 2020. More than his genius, it is the heart of this man, who enjoyed life more than anything, that is missed among his family and friends. He had the power to bring people together and will be sorely missed.
If you want to know more about this exceptional man, I recommend you the formidable documentary called « Falafel’s Game » made in 2005 by an Israeli filmmaker.