Flamboyant gambler and professional backgammon player who established himself as the best in the world during the Seventies.

Phillip Martyn prided himself on being “the world’s first self-professed professional backgammon player”. He even had an agent — Mark McCormack of IMG, who was better known for representing golfers — and much of his time was spent playing at grand tournaments or on cruise ships.

“Backgammon is a sport, not a game,” the Englishman told Vault magazine in 1974, making it sound like some fierce primeval struggle, a “very aggressive” game. “It has contact, violence, one-to-one competition like boxing. Good players tend to stay in good physical shape. People used to think you had to stay up all night and drink and smoke to be a backgammon player. That’s silly. One can think much more sharply when the body is fit.”

Martyn was certainly that. He was tall, lean and athletic-looking, with hair that turned muddy grey at an early age. To keep in shape he would run in the park with his friend Jackie Stewart, the racing driver, who wrote a foreword to his 1976 book Phillip Martyn on Backgammon. Although backgammon is an ancient game, which can be traced back almost 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, it had effectively been reinvented as a gambling and tournament game in the 1960s by Prince Alexis Obolensky, a Russian-American socialite. By the 1970s events were being held in places such as Las Vegas and Palm Beach.

Martyn won the American backgammon championship in 1972, and a year later was widely recognised as the world No 1. He claimed to be able to make as much as £40,000 a year (about £480,000 today) if his luck and skill held out. He also had a profitable line in merchandise, with his autographed Phillip Martyn attaché-case boards racking up big sales.

Phillip Vivian Martyn was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1938, the only child of Vivian Martyn, who worked in shipping, and Nancy Martyn (née Hunt). He was little more than a month old when the family sailed for England, where they settled in Cornwall. His father died when he was six and his mother subsequently married a Russian émigré.

Martyn was sent to prep school in Worcestershire, travelling from Cornwall by train with a name tag round his neck, and then to Sherborne School in Dorset. He undertook National Service with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in West Germany.

While a student at Lincoln College, Oxford, he devoted so much energy to the bobsleigh that he failed to complete his history degree, although not for lack of trying: on one occasion he drove nonstop from training in St Moritz to sit an exam. He claimed to have been a member of the British bobsleigh team at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Austria, but his name does not appear on official records. Other diversions included fast cars. He also started to take an interest in backgammon while at Oxford.

For six years he dated Sally Crichton-Stuart (née Poole), who later became the Begum Aga Khan. In the early 1970s he moved to Switzerland and married Nina Rindt (née Lincoln), a Finnish model who was the widow of Jochen Rindt, the German racing driver. The couple had a daughter, Tamara, who has worked on the America’s Cup. Nina already had a daughter, Natasha, who worked with Bernie Ecclestone at Formula One.

After their divorce Martyn lived in New York, where he was involved in various businesses. Back in Britain in 1987 he met an old friend, Jane Spencer-Churchill (née Wyndham), an interior designer and the former daughter-in-law of the 9th Duke of Marlborough; they were together for 32 years, but never married. She survives him with her three sons, his daughter and his stepdaughter.

As international enthusiasm for backgammon faded, Martyn lived on a mixture of investments and gambling, becoming a regular figure at casinos across Europe. He lived in Chelsea, west London, walking every day in Hyde Park, and enjoyed watching football and golf.

Martyn, who claimed to have won $325,000 from a backgammon opponent in London, once explained why it was important for players to remain on top form: “To be successful at this game is a bit like being the fastest gun in the West. There’s always someone who’d like to take you on and shoot you down.”

Phillip Martyn, backgammon champion, was born on March 17, 1938. He died of kidney cancer on July 23, 2019, aged 81.

Courtesy of The Times