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Original Issue


A chess or bridge tournament it definitely was not. At the finals of the U.S. Othello championships last month in New York, flashbulbs popped, cameras whirred and spectators stood within a few feet of the players. The competition was fierce, but never bitter. When finalist Jonathan Cerf made a forcing move in the first of two games, defending champion Carol Jacobs gave him a forlorn but affectionate smile.

"There's so much camaraderie," said timekeeper Emily Whelan. "They even go over games with their opponents. Maybe it's because it's a Japanese game, or maybe it just breeds that kind of mind." Or maybe, as fourth-place-finisher Roger Richards suggested, the game of Othello hasn't been around long enough to develop big-time hostilities. "The bigger it gets," said Richards, "the more of that we'll have."

But Othello is by no means small-time. Though it wasn't imported into the U.S. until 1976, four million sets have been sold. The U.S. game even has a publication, Othello Quarterly, as well as a rabid following.

The game is called Othello because it has as many dramatic twists as the Shakespearean play of that name. Players alternate placing reversible black and white disks on a 64-square board, capturing one or more rows of an opponent's pieces on each move. To capture, a player must outflank a row of the opposite color. For instance, if a black disk is placed in such a position that there is a black at either end of a row of whites, the white disks must be turned over to become blacks. Play continues until no more moves are possible, and the player with more disks of his designated color than the opponent has of his color is the winner.

Lawyers love the game, but mathematicians dominate it. Jacobs, a 29-year-old math teacher at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla., had won the two previous nationals and improved her game this year by using a computer. Cerf, 33, a son of the late publisher and What's My Line? panelist Bennett Cerf, is a New Yorker who writes arithmetic books for a living. Playing textbook-perfect Othello, Cerf took the U.S. title by whipping Jacobs 51-13, 48-16. Two weeks later he placed second at the world tournament in Rome, losing to Japanese champ Hiroshi Inoue. Afterward, Inoue said Cerf was one of the toughest players he had ever faced. It looked like the beginning of another friendly rivalry in the friendly game.