Jigsaw puzzles have received the lion’s share of the attention, but they aren’t the only old-school game that’s experienced a renaissance during the pandemic self-isolation period. Board games such as chess and backgammon have jumped in popularity. Even as lockdowns lift, fans are investing for the long-term, surfing the web to splash out on pricey vintage sets, rather than plastic stopgaps.
Take the surge in online business reported by London-based Luke Honey, one of the world’s foremost collectibles dealers. Honey tells Pursuits that he sold four high-priced vintage chess sets in the last week alone; he estimates that his unit sales in such games is up by a third over the same period in 2019. Honey isn’t an outlier: Online antique marketplace 1stdibs has seen a similar uptick. According to data supplied by the firm, page views for vintage chess and backgammon sets were up 67% in April vs. a year earlier, and the posting of comparable sets for sale rose 180%.
Honey explains that these seemingly similar games appeal to distinct markets. “You’re most likely to get a well-connected hedge funder buying a backgammon board, and a Silicon Valley computer guy buying a chess set,” he says. When backgammon was invented, it wasn’t for gambling, but the introduction of the doubling cube in the U.S. in the 1920s made wagers viable. (This is a numbered die that allows players to increase the point value of a game.) The doubling cube transformed the audience for backgammon, making it a high-stakes game players can win or lose quickly. Anyone gifted at math and comfortable with risk will be a natural at backgammon, which explains demand among Wall Streeters. Honey says many of his middle-aged buyers refer to memories of childhood in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when backgammon was the purview of playboys and Playboy. They recall how Roger Moore’s incarnation of James Bond is memorably defeated at a game by Octopussy villain Kamal Khan. Honey also points to the ads touting Hefner’s clubs, which showed a backgammon player surrounded by bunnies. “The idea was simple: The man who reads Playboy is the man who wins at backgammon,” he laughs.
Vintage chess sets hold an entirely different appeal. Traditionally, they have been targeted by collectors who accrue dozens, perhaps hundreds, of boards. (Backgammon buyers usually opt for one.) Playing chess is more a mental than a math challenge, so it’s long held brainfood-like appeal for Ivy League Silicon Valley types. They’re all keen to buy old games produced by a now-defunct British manufacturer: Jaques (pronounced Jakes), a games maker that also helped popularize croquet and table tennis.
Starting in 1849, Jaques began producing what are now called Staunton sets. Named after a chess master of the era, they were noteworthy for standardizing design. Until then, chess sets had varied from country to country, but the Industrial Revolution quickly encouraged the adoption of Jaques’s design as a global standard. “With the invention of the [cable] wire and more communication between countries, you start to get international chess matches where the moves are conveyed by telegraph,” Honey says. The classic among these face-offs came in the 1890s, when a five-person team from the U.S. Congress faced off against a five-strong squad from Britain’s House of Commons. Dubbed the Parliamentary Cable Match, it yielded a disappointing draw; a plan to replay it the following year as a decider was scuppered when three of the American players lost their seats in an election.
Staunton established a profile for pieces that remains consistent today. It featured a magpie-like design instinct, borrowing such elements as the Masonic compass and ball (pawns) and the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum (knights). Jaques continued producing high-end chess sets until World War II, tweaking its design over time. The shapes and styles of each piece allow experts such as Honey to accurately date them for collectors who love their unique attributes.
So if you’re stuck at home and inspired like so many others to test your chess or backgammon skills, we’ve collected some standout vintage pieces to consider, as well as one new, made-to-order, luxury option.
Staunton Chess Sets, 1870-85 vs. 1920s and ‘30s
These two sets show how collectors use the shapes of Staunton pieces to date them, as Honey explains. First, consider the knights, which were hand-carved as opposed to produced with a template on a lathe; the profile changes subtly over the years. “Look at the 1920s set: The knight is quite chunky and robust, with almost a touch of art deco to it,” he says. “In the 1870 one, the knight is more angular and thinner in the face.” Prices: £1,100 ($1,374) and £1,550
Selenus Chess Set
This set from Germany in the early 19th century shows how game pieces looked prior’s to the Staunton-induced global standard. It uses what’s called the Selenus pattern, then popular in Eastern Europe. Though many such sets were made from ivory—and are therefore, illegal to sell stateside now—this is made of cow bone, probably from southern Germany near Nuremberg, which was a center for all kinds of carving. Price: £850
Gucci Backgammon Game
Alessandro Michele’s current incarnation of Gucci is an explicit nod to its 1970s heyday, when the jet set’s favorite brand produced playboy-targeted portable backgammon sets such as this one. The travel case features the brand’s signature webbing and gold-tone horse bit; the interior has a tricolor board and logo checkers featuring interlocking Gs. Price: $6,500
Jaques “In Statu Quo” Traveling Chess Set
The newfound popularity in chess of the mid-19th century coincided with the creation of the modern commuter. For the first time, a man could live in the suburbs of a city such as London and use the newly invented railway to travel to and from work each day. He needed some distractions on the journey, and travel-friendly chess sets became commonplace; they had never been viable because horse-and-carriage journeys were too bumpy on rough roads. This hinged mahogany set features a button on each side so players can freeze the game at the end of one journey and pick it up on a later train, right where they left off. Price: £1,200
Alain Delon for Maison Jansen, Backgammon Table and Chairs
Smoldering French film hunk Alain Delon, a heartthrob in the 1960s and ‘70s, had an unlikely second career as a furniture maker. He dabbled in design in partnership with a Parisian firm, Maison Jansen, on everything from tables to armchairs. No sophisticate of his ilk and era would overlook backgammon as part of the collection, and these chinoiserie-inflected chairs and table are a standout from 1972. Price: $25,000
Berluti Leather Backgammon Set or Chess Set
Berluti is known for its bespoke leather goodies. It now produces games by special order, painstakingly assembled them by hand, using traditional techniques. Choose between a handmade backgammon set, made from patinated leather, ebony, and buffalo horn, or a leather and brushed stainless steel chess set. (Look for them in boutiques; they’re currently they’re sold out online.) Prices: $10,400 for backgammon, $7,000 for chess.
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)