On any trip through the Arab markets in the old cities of Jerusalem, Jaffa, or Akko (Acre), you will find many inlaid wooden chess/backgammon boards for sale from the various vendors. They range in quality and price from moderate to downright cheap. With some looking, you can find a really nice one for not too many shekels.
After having seen literally hundreds of chess and backgammon boards, we were completely unprepared for what we found in Akko this January. While exploring this fascinating, living Crusader town, in the corner of a wood-carving and brass shop, we found the most amazing inlaid chess/backgammon board. We were mesmerized. We couldn’t walk away from it. With few words between ourselves, we knew this was the one for us. We drove a hard bargain with the merchant, and ended up with a full set of hand-carved chess pieces and a velvet storage case thrown in for practically nothing. It now resides on display in our living room and we enjoy playing sheshbesh (backgammon in Hebrew) from time to time.
It is a wood box, 54 x 27 x 12 cm that opens out to make a 54 cm (21") square chess or backgammon board. The outer surface of the box is chess, with backgammon on the inside. Every square centimeter of the box is covered with the most amazing inlaid pieces of colored wood and mother-of-pearl and abalone (among other natural items we aren’t sure of). Brent counted the number of inlaid pieces from one of the squares of the chess board: 27 pieces per square centimeter, 174 pieces per square inch. That works out to somewhere between 150,000 to 200,000 pieces on the entire box, if you consider some of the areas are less densely inlaid. It is an enormous amount of work that we can only imagine doing.
What makes for an outstanding piece, if you are looking for one and willing to pay the price for quality and craftsmanship, are the details in how it was put together and the quality of the materials used. The boards are made by carefully selecting small pieces of various woods and shell, usually abalone, and fitting them together into a precisely designed puzzle with interesting geometric patterns. The smaller the pieces, the harder to create, so these are often the most expensive. The pieces are glued together in a tight press fit with few if any gaps between the pieces. Fitting shell and wood together will cause gaps, especially under different weather and temperature conditions as the wood swells and dries, but these should be extremely small, barely visible to the eye when holding the piece at arm’s length. The wood should be similar in color and in grain, blending together into a whole instead of looking like patchwork. The geometric patterns should cover every bit of the surface area, including the sides, edges, and inside of the box’s playing area edges, and surfaces. Pay close attention to the hinges and latches as they will often use cheap metals for the hinges, which can separate from the wood, break, or not close right. And lastly, look for one that not only catches your eye but holds your interest with its design and construction. You will have years to examine it and treasure it, so make it a good one.
If you are considering buying one, and many are available through different outlets on the Internet, make sure you ask for the chess and backgammon pieces. Many times these are sold separately. The backgammon pieces are usually the cheapest looking and the least well made, but with some hard searching, you can find some that match the board with inlaid pieces. You don’t have to buy all of it at the same time, but buy from different places, searching to make the set completely right for you. We got our chess pieces from that store, but we are still searching for backgammon pieces, unhappy with their selection. It is part of the magic of the hunt for us.
Tel Aviv, Israel