On a cold winter night at home, with the fire roaring, fine cigars clipped and single-malt Scotch making the rounds, backgammon provides a snazzy diversion. The game, typically played with dice and checkers on a velvet-and-leather board, is social, strategic, elegantly codified and as competitive as you want it to be. Break out the doubling cube, raise the stakes and things can get serious. Eliminate cash from the equation and backgammon becomes compelling fun. Easy rules paired with complex strategies turn it into a deceptively simple game that can be played at myriad levels.
Backgammon’s roots trace back to the Byzantine-era Greeks, making it the oldest two-person game in existence. During the golden age of Hollywood, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers and Fred Astaire counted themselves among those seduced by backgammon’s subtleties. During his high-flying era in the 1970s, Hugh Hefner loved the game so much that he moved a female pro (and her teenage son—lucky kid) into the Playboy Mansion. More recently, Leonardo DiCaprio, Toby Maguire and Keira Knightley have been spotted rolling dice and mulling moves. For some of the world’s sharpest poker players—such guys as Gus Hansen, Abe Mosseri and Erik Seidel—backgammon not only served as the foundations for their gambling prowess, but also helped create the formidable bankrolls that got them going.
That said, you do not need to compete for big money in order to play in big style. London-based designer Alexandra Llewellyn, a lifelong supporter of the game, has come out with an ultra-luxe, bespoke backgammon set. Semiprecious stones make up each of the checkers, the hand-painted board can be customized with everything from bright blue butterflies to stylized skulls—though we’re partial to the version that displays smoke-emitting cigars (pictured). The whole thing comes encased in polished wood with a simple monogram. Plato, who philosophized on an early form of backgammon, would surely find himself pleased.