"The Super Bowl has the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The National Hockey League has the Stanley Cup, and the Othello championship tournament now has the Jim Becker Trophy," says Jonathan Becker, who now runs Anjar Company, the company that licenses the strategy game Othello. The trophy will be awarded for the first time this year, in honor of the tournament founder, James R. Becker (1921-2011), who died this summer.
The world championship tournament for Othello is now in its 35th year and is underway this weekend in the New York area. The tournament is held in a different country every year, though it is guaranteed to return to both the U.S. and Japan -- the first two countries to play the game -- once every ten years.
In 1971 Goro Hasegawa was working to bring back an ancient Japanese strategy game known as "Go." A form of the game, called Reversi, was popular in England in the late 1800s, but Hasegawa felt the game needed to be improved upon to introduce to modern culture. He called upon Jim Becker, already well established in the toy industry, to advise him and handle licensing of the game.
The goal of the two men was to create a two-person board game that was rich in strategy, but still approachable by the casual player.
The game pieces are thin circular disks that are white on one side and dark on the other. The disks are moved across the board in an effort to capture disks of the opponent. While at first glance, the play seems simple, the strategizing begins as each player considers what options each of his or her possible moves will open for the opponent.
Becker suggested simplifying the game by creating the 8-square by 8-square game board. He also coined a priceless tagline for the game: "A Minute to Learn..A Lifetime to Master."
The name Othello was decided upon at this time, too. The name references the Shakespearean play about the conflict between Othello and Iago, as well as the unfolding story about Othello, who is black, and Desdemona who is white.
Once perfected, the Othello game was first introduced in Japan in 1973 by Tsukuda Original Co. who, at Becker's suggestion, organized the Japanese Othello Association. In 1975, Becker's company, Anjar, licensed Othello to Gabriel Industries for the U.S. market and, subsequently, throughout the world.
About the Tournament
The first Othello tournament was held in Tokyo in 1977 with a single player from each of five countries. The following year Jim Becker brought the tournament to New York and the annual tradition began. Today over 30 different countries have Othello associations, and representatives from 25 of those countries are playing in the tournament this year.
The competitors must win local tournaments in order to earn the right compete in the world championship; this year the tournament boasts a 9-year-old champion from France, and a competitor from Hong Kong who is blind (because the game pieces have ridges on one side, it can be played by those without sight).
Over a period of three days (November 2-5), the World Othello Champion, Team Champion (country with the most wins) and Women's Champion will be determined. For more details about the Tournament, including the countries represented, see The World of Othello Federation.
"I have attended at least ten of the tournaments, and it's always so exciting to see the way people from different cultures and countries come together to share their passion for the game," says Stephanie Becker, a business consultant and granddaughter of Jim Becker. "Each year the contestants bring something to share with others that represents their country and that adds to the fun."
Since its inception in this form in the 1970s, Othello game sales have exceeded $600 million, and more than 40 million classic games have been sold in over 100 different countries, making Othello the most successfully licensed strategy game in the world. The company Jim founded, Anjar Co., is the owner and exclusive international licensor of Othello.
Broader Meaning for the Toy Industry
But the story of Jim Becker and Othello actually had ramifications worldwide for the toy industry as Becker introduced to the toy world the process of global licensing. Starting with two characters, Gumby and Pokey from a television show that began in 1957, he began adapting and selling toys in foreign markets. From his early years in the industry up until 1970, global marketing of toys really didn't exist. Neither Hasbro nor Mattel had worldwide distribution or subsidiaries in most foreign markets, so Jim Becker was a major force in growing the industry.
Othello has received numerous awards including being selected in 2004 as one of the "Top 100 Classic Toys of the 20th Century" by Playthings magazine. Jim Becker has also been recognized many times as well. This fall he will receive the "In Memoriam" TAGIE (toy and game inventor) Award. Jim Becker's son, Jonny, who has worked in the company for many years, will continue on as principal of Anjar Company.
Board Games Began Early
Evidence of basic board games has been found in royal tombs that date as far back as 2500 BCE, so it is clear that as soon as there was some level of leisure time, people were looking for ways to amuse themselves.
In the United States the first board games date to the early 19th century, and many were religiously-themed, offering basic primers on how to qualify for heaven. By the 20th century the religious themes had ended, and by the middle of the 20th century the U.S. was in the midst of what is thought of as the golden age of board games -- think Monopoly, Scrabble, Life, Chutes and Ladders, and Candyland, to name just a few.
For more about some early toys in America, visit www.americacomesalive.com.