by Albert Steg
Vintage bakelite checkers are currently in high demand among players looking to put together their ideal backgammon set. Bakelite is a broadly generic term for a novel, highly durable synthetic material developed in the early 20th century, made from phenol and formaldehyde. In 1927 the American Catalin Company began adding new color processes to the formula in order to produce the bright, dazzling species of bakelite that became popular in Jazz-age jewelry and various household items. By coincidence, backgammon enjoyed a major American boom at just that time, and the result was a lot of dazzling checker sets being produced from 1927 until the 1940’s, by which time bakelite began to be superseded by other varieties of synthetic plastics.
What makes bakelite so desirable? It’s not just the vivid colors, the lustrous beauty and variety of swirling textures, or the added visual interest that a carved pattern might bring to your table: it’s also the unusual density of the material that gives them a satisfying weight in your hand. Pick up a few of them with one hand and an equal number of modern synthetic checkers with the other, and you’ll feel a difference as you jostle them around in your palm. You’ll hear a difference too — the sound of bakelite checkers in play, tapping against each other or on the hard rails of a board frame adds a further dimension of sensual pleasure to the game. Plastic clicks; bakelite clacks.
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Color & Carving
There is great variety of colors in bakelite, but also a family resemblance in its depth and brilliance. The “Blue Moon” color is particularly rare and highly prized by collectors. Carving styles can add further visual and tactile appeal, and, along with color swirling, can help checkers stand out against similar-colored fields or points. However, uncarved checkers have the most weight, and provide a more blocky, heavy feel that many find appealing. Checkers range in size from tiny .75″ travel pieces to hefty 2″ goliaths.
It’s worth noticing too how your checkers look from the side, as they rest in your checker tray. The distinctive edge patterns of swirled bakelite checkers is easy to spot and often a clear indicator that you’re seeing the genuine material in auction pictures. Carved edges are very rare and sought after by collectors.
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Variations Within Sets
Variations from checker to checker within a set are part of the bakelite allure. While it’s normal even for checker sets with fairly uniform pieces to have some variation in shade, certain sets have such exquisitely distinct color stylings that each checker seems gem-like. The green checkers pictured here are exceptional even among bakelite sets.
Cracks & Discoloration
Bakelite checkers and doubling cubes sometimes develop hairline cracks that admit air to the interior, resulting in discoloration. It’s a matter of taste whether you find these flaws unappealing, but you needn’t worry that a checker will break in two along one of these fault lines.
The surrounding images illustrate some of the salient features and distinctive details that make bakelite checker sets so highly prized.
When purchasing checkers for practical use, you should aim to buy a matched set of 30 checkers. It can be very difficult to marry two sets of 15 checkers acquired from different sources due to seemingly minor differences in dimensions or style that turn out to be significant.
Catalin introduced translucent options along with the wide variety of colors in the late 1920’s. Under normal playing conditions you won’t tend to notice much, but on closer view you’re able to see into some checkers. The image here was taken on a lightbox.
Is It Bakelite?
Searching for “bakelite backgammon” on eBay will turn up plenty of bakelite, but also a ton of more modern plastics. Some sellers have no idea what bakelite is and are just copying the wording from successful auctions, while others knowingly misrepresent items hoping to get top “collectible” prices for more commonplace items. One of the most common misrepresentations is of later Crisloid checkers, as you see in the trio of checkers on the left in this picture. That chalky white color is foreign to vintage bakelite, which in rare cases might remain a creamy ivory. (White bakelite took on a yellowy warmth soon after manufacture). There’s nothing wrong with modern acrylic or plastic checkers — but you shouldn’t pay bakelite prices for them.
There are several popular tests to ascertain whether an item is genuine bakelite. The most dependable is probably the ‘Simichrome Test.’ Just dab a bit on a Q-Tip or cloth and rub the surface of your item (make sure it’s clean first). If it’s bakelite the pink Simichrome should turn yellowy. Oddly, black bakelite does not always respond to this test.
An artisan named Nick Peterson at Save The Gammon is hand-crafting doubling cubes with a modern resin that approximates the colors and variations of classic bakelite cubes, with impressive results. As you can see, his yellow cube does not produce the discoloring of simichrome polish that the green one does.
The aforementioned density of bakelite is also reflected in the fact that this 1.5″ green bakelite cube weighs 64 grams, compared to the 52 gram weight of the similar sized modern cube – a difference of 23% that you can feel in your hand.
Test your judgment on these seven items harvested from an eBay search.
Is It bakelite?
No. Attache style Backgammon sets with fabric surfaces and checker trays are typical of the 1970’s BG heyday. With rare exceptions, bakelite checkers came in sets with cork playing fields. Anytime you see a set like this, the checkers will be an unremarkable modern plastic. $289 is a very optimistic price for a 1970’s-era set with small plastic checkers — even a quite nice-looking one like this. You might expect to spend $25 – $75 for a board like this.
Is It bakelite?
Yes! The swirled emerald green and yellowy-ivory checkers certainly appear to be bakelite, and in the description this seller provides plenty of evidence that this set dates to the 1930’s, bakelite’s heyday. Is it worth $5000? Well, it has an interesting provenance and the polo motif is extremely unusual. Unique sets are worth whatever you can get for them — and it’s not as though you can find a similar one more cheaply elsewhere.
Is It bakelite?
This seller may believe these chalky white pieces are bakelite, but they’re not, and it’s not worth arguing about. If you want the table, buy it — just don’t factor bakelite checkers into the price you’re willing to pay. These Crisloid checkers date to the 80’s-90’s and should sell for perhaps $50.00 on their own — you can order newer, nicer Crisloids for $65.00.
Is It bakelite?
You can see from the surfaces of these checkers that they are too soft to be bakelite, with various nicks and pits in the surface. Bakelite can be scratched or abraded (and, rarely, chipped), but not gouged. But it hardly matters whether these are bakelite or not — they don’t even look to be backgammon checkers, let alone the familiar Crisloid brand of them. Are they from the 1930’s? No reason to believe so. Oh, ebay.
Is It bakelite?
Some are, some aren’t. The browns and yellows should probably test as bakelite, while the translucent ones may be some other, newer plastic. But just because material is bakelite doesn’t make it precious. The colors here aren’t so dazzling, and the painted-on numerals tend to wear off. But they aren’t asking bakelite prices, either, so if you like ’em buy ’em! (But ask what size they are first – are the ones at upper left 1″ or 1.5″?)
Is It bakelite?
Oh Yeah. An avid Florida collector, ‘Backgammonista’ put together this terrific combination of matching carved bakelite checkers, cups, and 1.5″ cube with a brand-new Crisloid board and precision dice. While $1499 may seem steep, she might have done even better selling these items separately: the cube alone would likely fetch $350, and that particular carved checker set should go for more than $500 these days.
Is It bakelite?
By now you should be getting good at this: the yellow cube says yes, the chalk white says no. Crisloid did a nice job simulating the bakelite swirling style in that attractive red cup, but you could tell the difference between these cups and the ones in Item #6 with your eyes closed: bakelite cups are substantially heavier than the lightweight newer products. The cube looks to be bakelite . . . but clashes a little with the cups.
Is It bakelite?
Here’s one where you just can’t tell from a picture. There’s just enough off-white ivory warmth in the whites to suspect they may indeed be an unusual bakelite set, and the reds have a credible bakelite coloration. It’s a case where you really need to hold them in your hands to see whether they feel like bakelite. Before bidding, check the return policy, to make sure you can send them back if they turn out to be lightweight plastic. But if they fail a Simichrome bakelite test you’ll be able to return them in any case, as the item will have been misrepresented.
Buying Bakelite BG Equipment
Unlike bakelite bracelets, which, while expensive, were made in very large quantities and can be found in great variety from all sorts of dealers, backgammon equipment is very scarce, so you may have to look for several months to find the checker set or doubling cube you are looking for. By far the most likely place to look is eBay. The more craft-oriented site Etsy occasionally has items of interest, and you can also explore various local flea markets, antique dealers, and online estate auction sites too.
Auction Prices Of course prices will vary enormously depending not just on the quality or rarity of the specific item, but also, in an auction format, on who else happens to be interested in the item that day. When browsing auction listings, remember that sellers can list items for any price they choose, and that deep-pocketed, poorly informed buyers may pay outlandish prices. But here’s a rough guide to how things look lately (last updated April 2023).
Checker Sets (30 pieces):
- Smaller 1.5″: $100 – $200 depending on color, carving style.
- Standard 1.75″: $200-$300 for the more common colors (green, yellow, red, brown). Unusual colors, swirling patterns, or carvings can fetch $500 – $900+ at auction.
- Large 2″: Highly sought after in recent years, they typically go for $500 – $1000+ in any color. $1200+ for the rare ‘blue moon’ color.
Doubling Cubes / Devices
- Backgammon Matches: $75 – $150
- 1″ Doubling Cubes: $75-$125 for common colors, $150-$250 for unusual ones.
- 1.5″ Doubling Cubes: $350 – $800+ depending on unique qualities.
- 2″ Doubling Cubes & Octagons: $350 – $800 depending on unique qualities.
What about the playing boards themselves? Often the vintage cork boards are so worn or broken down that they don’t contribute much to the value of the pieces — but sets that have survived in nice playable condition are certainly collectible in themselves — but it’s impossible to generalize about them since so much depends on the pieces that come with them.
Bakelite Dealers There are a few individuals who often or occasionally have equipment available for purchase. Their prices will typically be at a premium to auction values as they go to substantial efforts to acquire their pieces and make them available ‘on demand’ – or perhaps because they don’t actually want to let their treasures go!
Albert Steg (New England Backgammon Club)
Albert is an NEBC organizer and the author of this website. A student of backgammon history, he occasionally has items to offer as his collection of equipment, books, and ephemera evolves. All the items pictured in the above sections of this page are from his collection and are not intended for sale. You can contact Albert by email at email@example.com.
Bradford Boards is the backgammon equipment site of Michigan aficionado Brad LaPratt, who frequently has for sale a variety of unusual high-end backgammon boards of the 1970’s as well as many of the more unusual bakelite checker sets, cubes and octagons you will see pictured in the images galleries below. You can contact Brad via his website, or call him at (517) 974-6327.
A resident of Sun City Center in Florida, Nancy has been offering eye-popping vintage backgammon equipment (like the set you see here!) on eBay for years, though she has abandoned the site due to new demands for banking information they are requiring of sellers. If you’d like to contact Nancy with your wish list or to ask what she has to offer, you can email her at Bronx61@aol.com.
Frank Echols lives in New Jersey and is an avid collector of all things backgammon and a frequent seller of bakelite pieces. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bakelite gallery: Doublers & Accessories
Bakelite gallery: Checkers
Bakelite gallery: Sets
1930’s backgammon boards employed very simple color schemes. A neutral tan cork field provided natural contrast with points in black & white or perhaps using just one of the checker colors as an accent — so at least one of the point colors is invariably black or white. A good color scheme provides a quiet stage for the checkers to dazzle, rather than competing with them for attention — so to show off your bakelite to best effect, you’re best off keeping the color scheme simple, and closely matching a single accent color to one of the checker colors.