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On Board

On Board

The ancient game of backgammon is thriving, thanks to legions of die-hard players and a handful of craftspeople who create elegant, intricate sets.

On Board

The ancient game of backgammon is thriving, thanks to legions of die-hard players and a handful of craftspeople who create elegant, intricate sets.
Summer 2024 issue of American Craft magazine
Alexandra Llewellyn’s Butterfly backgammon set features semi-precious playing pieces and a fumed eucalyptus box. Photo by the artist.

Alexandra Llewellyn’s Butterfly backgammon set features semi-precious playing pieces and a fumed eucalyptus box. Photo by the artist.

The Crisloid company's attaché-style BackCountry backgammon set, complete with Yeti, features a cork playing surface. Photo courtesy of the manufacturer.

The Crisloid company's attaché-style BackCountry backgammon set, complete with Yeti, features a cork playing surface. Photo courtesy of the manufacturer.

Jeff Caruso loves that his family history is integral to the ethos of Crisloid, the Providence, Rhode Island–based luxury board game maker that got its start in the 1940s, when Caruso’s great uncles— Alphonse and Lucky Lodato—founded A & L Manufacturing in Brooklyn, New York. A & L was a family business through and through, with aunts, uncles, and cousins living and working in one building. Each person was responsible for a different aspect of the production and distribution. Today, with its in-house woodshop and staff of 14 dedicated to case making, silk-screening, resin casting, and design, Crisloid is the premier maker of handcrafted backgammon sets in the US. They can be found at tournaments across the country.

A & L was purchased by a nonfamily member in 1970 and moved to Providence. The company changed hands and names several times before Caruso bought it in 2008, after having worked in every aspect of production for 20 years. He has personally trained each of the company’s current employees in skills ranging from printing the points on cork sourced from Portugal to wrapping the dice cups in leather.

While Caruso spends most of his time nowadays on the business side, he feels a particular affinity for pouring, pigmentizing, casting, cutting, and polishing the resin checkers. “It is very satisfying, because you are taking something from a clear liquid state and turning it into something that three days later is heirloom quality.”

Caruso believes his game boards enhance people’s lives. “They are bringing families together,” he says. “I get a lot of satisfaction from that.”

An ancient game whose origins are believed to stretch back 5,000 years, backgammon involves a board with 24 triangle-shaped points. It is for two players, who each have 15 playing pieces that look like checkers. The object of the game is to move those pieces to your home corner of the board, where you “bear them off,” or remove them from play. It involves strategy and, because your options are determined by a roll of the dice, a lot of luck.

TheTrue x Crisloid backgammon set has checkers with contrasting colors,  representing battles “between art and science, discipline and instinct, method and whimsy.”  Photo courtesy of the Crisloid company.

The True x Crisloid backgammon set has checkers with contrasting colors,  representing battles “between art and science, discipline and instinct, method and whimsy.”  Photo courtesy of the Crisloid company.

When making True x Crisloid, employees at the Crisloid company wrapped dice cups in leather. Photo courtesy of the manufacturer.

When making True x Crisloid, employees at the Crisloid company wrapped dice cups in leather. Photo courtesy of the manufacturer.

Early versions of backgammon were played by ancient civilizations in Greece, Rome, and Persia, as well as other parts of the Middle East. In the US, the game became chic in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was a staple of fancy bars and private clubs. Backgammon even had a high-stakes role in the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy.

Currently, the game is having a resurgence in America. The US Backgammon Federation was founded in 2009, and between that organization and the American Backgammon Tour, there are sanctioned tournaments every month across the country. Caruso says that backgammon clubs from New York City to Bozeman, Montana, are so flush with players, they have to hunt for restaurants and bars that can handle the extra capacity. Club Instagram accounts show players of all ages savoring the fun of contemplating their next moves.

Different cultures have different preferences for the boards themselves, which are often linked to the craft traditions of the region. In the Middle East, the game is usually played on a wood surface and the experience is intimately tied to the clatter of the dice hitting the wood. Other cultures prefer the quieter experience of a leather or cork surface. The game sets are often works of art, with artisans who love the game using marquetry, leatherwork, and woodworking to create sets that are passed down through generations.

These hand-crafted resin checkers, a specialty of Jeff Caruso's Crisloid company, are known for their heft and strong hand feel. Photo courtesy of the manufacturer.

These hand-crafted resin checkers, a specialty of Jeff Caruso's Crisloid company, are known for their heft and strong hand feel. Photo courtesy of the manufacturer.

Bringing People Together
The communal nature of the game resonates deeply with Alexandra Llewellyn, whose eponymous company is known internationally for bespoke backgammon sets. When she was 9 years old, Llewellyn visited her step-grandfather in Cairo and learned to play the game from an elderly local. They didn’t speak the same language but could still enjoy each other’s company because the rules of the game transcended words. “When you’re playing a game with someone, it’s such an incredible interaction,” she says, speaking over Zoom from her company’s London studio. “It’s a sort of different kind of conversation that you have.”

Llewellyn employs artisans across England, in disciplines that include leather making, cabinetry, silversmithing, stone cutting, and engraving. Her boards are especially known for their intricate marquetry—designs of inlaid wood of different colors and textures—made by British artist Joe Geoghegan. The only game pieces the company doesn’t make are the dice, which are precision-cut casino quality and have to be perfectly weighted.

A detail of Alexandra Llewellyn’s Midnight backgammon set, which features intricate marquetry and stars made from mother of pearl. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Llewellyn.

A detail of Alexandra Llewellyn’s Midnight backgammon set, which features intricate marquetry and stars made from mother of pearl. Photo courtesy of Llewellyn.

Midnight was inspired by the beaches of Miami and Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Llewellyn.

Midnight was inspired by the beaches of Miami and Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Llewellyn.

The company sells sets on their website, each designed by Llewellyn. One is a midnight scene inspired by the beaches of Miami and Los Angeles, with marquetry made from sustainable sycamore, bird’s-eye maple, and satin walnut. The points are in the shape of palm trees, and the playing surface is dotted with stars made from mother of pearl. The playing pieces are malachite and tiger’s eye and encased in gunmetal brass.

Alexandra Llewellyn also produces custom sets, each taking approximately four months to complete. Llewellyn estimates that she has made more than 400 commissioned sets since starting the company in 2010. “A bespoke client puts so much trust in my hands to translate their passions and vision into the different materials,” she says. ”That’s a rather magical moment.”

Inspirations in Wood and Leather
California artist and woodworker David Levy wasn’t drawn to the game itself when he started making backgammon sets. Rather it was the creative challenge of building the boards out of solid wood that appealed to him. Levy grew up in the pine forests of New Mexico, where he worked at a logging camp during the summer. He says those early experiences with wood became more formalized when he studied design at University of California, Davis. He started his woodworking career in the 1970s making kitchen products, including cutting boards and knife blocks. In the 1980s, he ventured into games.

Under the name Hardwood Creations, Levy estimates that he makes between 20 and 30 backgammon sets per year. His boards are made out of African sapele, African padauk, maple, white oak, and walnut. He uses tongue-and-groove joinery to insert the points into the panels that make up the playing surface. Each set weighs roughly 10 pounds and is finished with lacquer to add luster and make it more durable.

The Shesh Besh’s mahogany case. Photo by Brian Roedel.

The Shesh Besh’s mahogany case. Photo by Brian Roedel.

Available at Upstate Handmade, The Shesh Besh comes with handmade black walnut and birch checkers. Photo by Brian Roedel.

Available at Upstate Handmade, The Shesh Besh comes with handmade black walnut and birch checkers. Photo by Brian Roedel.

Brian Roedel makes this wet-molded board from Badalassi Carlo vegetable-tanned Italian leather. Photo by Brian Roedel.

Brian Roedel makes this wet-molded board from Badalassi Carlo vegetable-tanned Italian leather. Photo by the artist.

“I’m into making things that are not common,” he says. “It’s extremely hard to make a solid wood backgammon board.”

Los Angeles–based Brian Roedel’s interest in working with leather—and eventually backgammon boards—started with an aha moment. In 2018, he was working as a film unit still photographer, a job that required him to carry two cameras at once. There was no shortage of dual holsters he could have purchased, but he decided to make one himself. Working with leather was a revelation, even though it wasn’t easy. “I try not to drink coffee on days when I am working with it,” says Roedel, who creates leather goods for his company, Upstate Handmade. “It is a very unforgiving format, where all your flaws are exposed. So you have to slow down.”

In 2023, he and a woodworker named Joe Lepp—who works as a grip in the film industry—launched a line of backgammon boards called Heirloom Boards, which feature playing surfaces crafted mostly from luxury Italian leather sustainably sourced from the meat industry. Everything is done by hand, from the cutting to the stitching to the creation of the wet molds used to shape the leather. While Lepp initially made the solid wood cases by hand, he switched to a CNC machine to increase precision. Wood options for boards and checkers include mahogany, cherry, purpleheart, alder, maple, African padauk, and teak. Each backgammon set takes a day and a half of sanding, finishing, and polishing to complete.

To gain design insights, Lepp and Roedel regularly visit backgammon clubs and meetups in Los Angeles. “Backgammon is back!” says Roedel. “It’s getting people together, getting strangers together to talk and meet in real life.”

crisloid.com
alexandrallewellyn.com
americanmadewoodart.com
upstatehandmade.com

I’m into making things that are not common. It’s extremely hard to make a solid wood backgammon board.

David Levy

The backgammon board in David Levy’s Hardwood Game Table is made of Peruvian walnut, padauk, sapele, white oak, and maple. Photo by David Levy.

The backgammon board in David Levy’s Hardwood Game Table is made of Peruvian walnut, padauk, sapele, white oak, and maple. Photo by the artist.

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