A beautiful game
PUBLISHED: 09:54 12 April 2016 | UPDATED: 09:54 12 April 2016
Ross Bentley meets Andrew Pinkus, Sudbury-based designer and maker of luxury backgammon sets
Stepping into the Suffolk workshop of Andrew Pinkus is like entering a treasure trove for board game players.
Different shapes and sizes of dice are arranged on shelves next to an impressive selection of checkers. Nearby, rolls of fine leather in an array of sumptuous colours lie neatly on a workbench.
These are the materials of Andrew’s unusual trade – he is a maker of luxury backgammon sets.
Over the past three years Andrew has been developing the business from a base in Sudbury, applying his training as a cabinet maker and experience as a carpenter to produce wonderfully handcrafted backgammon sets which each take around 40 hours to complete.
He first got the idea for the business after being introduced to a collector. Having been shown some of the finer examples, he became captivated.
“The boards grabbed my attention in a big way, the craftsmanship and the precision of it all,” he said. “With my background as a cabinet maker I enjoyed that element of fine detail.” Andrew began to research the market and decided there was a gap for the kind of high quality backgammon set he had in mind.
A key part of establishing the business was exploring the right materials, starting with the leather that is intricately inlaid into his boards in striking combinations of blue, red, white, green, brown and mustard yellow.
His quest for the perfect hide led him to Northampton, one time home of the British shoe-making industry, where a number of tanneries still operate.
“These tanneries are wonderful places. They are so interesting and there are all different leathers from around the world. The guys who supply me also supply companies like Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands. I decided calfskin was the best leather for my boards. It is durable enough to keep its looks after many a game has been played, pliable enough to work with and when dyed gives a rich colour.”
Numerous dice were also sourced from as far afield as Greece, Italy and America before Andrew found the right cube to match his boards, the doubling cubes are manufactured locally and made from polished nickel and inlaid with leather, while the counters are also encircled with nickel to give them a look of luxury and a substantive weight.
Tools and machines also had to be found. A journey to the south coast to meet a bookbinder who was retiring resulted in the purchase of equipment to thin or skive leather. Andrew also spent many an evening perfecting the art of paring leather – that is joining the material so there is one seamless cover.
“It’s been a journey but that’s all part of starting a business – you have to sit back and enjoy it.” When I met Andrew he was working on an order for two custom-made boards for a collector in Anchorage, Alaska who is also a member of the US Backgammon Confederation.
“The beauty of this business is there is a worldwide market for backgammon. The game is played in Egypt and the wider Middle East, Russia, the States, and throughout Asia and Europe. It has a bit of everything – it’s quick compared to chess, but it’s also a mathematical game. It has a good tempo, there’s lots going on but you still socialise while you are playing. That’s why it is so popular around the world.”
Andrew’s boards start at £2,800 and are aimed at collectors, keen players, and as a gifts.
“It’s a luxury item but unlike an antique that you might leave sitting on display, owners will find themselves using my boards a lot. Backgammon is a very tactile game, where you use your hands a great deal, coming into contact with the leather, rolling the dice and sliding the counters.” And what about Andrew, is he a keen player?
“I am but it’s difficult to find people to play. Most of the time I end up playing on my phone.”
Backgammon is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) up to 5,000 years ago, making it as least as old as chess. It was popular in ancient Egypt and Rome was known as Tables when played by the Crusaders in medieval times. It became known as backgammon in the 16th Century – a word derived from the Welsh for ‘wee battle’. The church in England considered backgammon a frivolous game and tried to ban it – Cardinal Wolsey even ordered all boards to be burnt. The folding board is believed to have been used by clandestine players who disguised them as books.