Alexander Auer writes:
“Backgammon is not just a game. It is very extraordinary. It’s art!” – Volker Wenzlaff, CEO of “Gammoner”
Philip Vischjager, world champion (2006); Frank Simon, Giant of Backgammon; Masayuki Mochizuki (Mochy), world champion (2009) and Super Grand Master; Mike Svobodny, world champion (1984); Paul Weaver, Giant of Backgammon; Robert E. Stoller, USBGF historian and board collector; Julie Hillies, New Zealand master (2017); Volker Sonnabend, Denby Pettitt, Serge Engelhardt and and and… What do all these people have in common?
They all chose “Gammoner”!
At the beginning of the new year my wife Doris and I visited our friend Volker Wenzlaff, CEO of “Gammoner Boards”, in Münster, Germany. For decades “Gammoner” has been an established brand of the highest quality Backgammon boards, where everything is perfectly handcrafted. I’m sure you all can imagine that I felt like a child in a candy shop…
Alexander: Volker, we are very pleased to be able to visit you.
Volker: I am glad to have you here. Pleasure is all mine.
Alexander: Your boards are known all over the world (finally also in New Zealand), and a whole bunch of giants and professional players have chosen your boards. Doesn’t that make you very proud?
Volker: Oh yes, of course, it fills me with pride. It proves to me that it was and is right not to make any compromises. No compromises in the choice of materials, the processing, the final inspection and no compromises in service after the purchase of a board.
Alexander: Please tell us about the choice of materials. What makes a Gammoner board?
Volker: Let’s start with the wooden interior. I use beech, in the form of multi-layered plywood. It is lightweight and yet offers maximum stability. It doesn’t warp, even after years. Already here I use the best material that I cut and assemble myself. The playing surface of a Gammoner is made of very high quality woollen felt, which is at least 3 mm thick. The playing field is perfectly cut out by laser. I cut the pips one by one by hand and insert them carefully. The tips of the pips are easily woven individually with the base to ensure perfect fit, no matter how often a checker is passed over this tip.
Alexander: The passionate collector Mr. Robert E. Stoller once told me about your boards: “The industrial grade Merino woollen felt of a Gammoner gives great action for the dice, is quiet as a mouse, and the checkers literally zip over the playing surface.”
Volker: I have to agree with him. The checkers together with the playing field are a perfect combination of materials.
Alexander: I see here an immense selection of colours, do you have them all in stock?
Volker: In fact yes, look here, this is my warehouse (Volker shows us the shelves with felt rolls in almost every colour).
Alexander: Do you advise your customers on the choice of colours?
Volker: Sometimes, if necessary (laughing…) Some customers have very clear and tasteful ideas, and they know that the choice of colour is meant to please the eye even after hours of viewing. Some people are looking for the eye-catcher, and I like to point out the practical aspects of a board. (Volker shows us his supplies of hides and leathers) For a Gammoner board I need a complete animal hide. Here only the very best quality is considered. The leather is an optical experience, but also a haptic experience, and last but not least an olfactory one. The leather must be robust, the tanning must be excellent, lightfast… Here I use only the best German quality. Also all my boards are padded underneath the leather, I use a special foam rubber. (he shows us a hide that was already completely adapted to a board and was removed again…)
Look here, when I was adapting the leather, I noticed this little scar. That’s a no go, not on a Gammoner board. I had to remove the leather completely and choose a new skin.
Alexander: You are a perfectionist, Volker. These small compartments on the sides of a board are very practical.
Volker: Yes, they are magnetically locked, so the contents won’t fall out when you open your board. Everything is covered with genuine leather and the “Gammoner” logotype is made by a laser.
Alexander: Nobody makes such beautiful handles as you do. Is this also handwork?
Volker: Oh yes, the haptic experience is in the foreground here too, especially on the handle. I cover the handle by hand with the same leather as the board. This is very complex, but it looks high quality, feels great and rounds off the picture of a “Gammoner”.
Alexander: Let’s talk about the size of a “Gammoner”. You offer boards for 50 mm and 45 mm checkers?
Volker: Yes, a “King size Gammoner” is designed for 50mm checkers and you can stack 12 checkers vertically. The dimensions are 39 cm x 63 cm x 9 cm (closed) and 78 cm x 63 cm x 4,5 cm (open). I also offer a size I call Traveller. The board is also designed for 50mm checkers, but a little bit smaller, so here you can stack only 11 checkers vertically. You save space and weight, so it is easier to transport. The dimensions are 39 cm x 58 cm x 9 cm (closed) and 78 cm x 58 cm x 4,5 cm (open). This size is supposed to warn you: Unstack your checkers! (laughing…) The smallest size is built around 45 mm checkers. The dimensions are 35 cm x 57 cm x 8 cm (closed) and 71 cm x 57 cm x 4 cm (opened) This size is ideal for tournament play where space limitations preclude the use of the King Size board. This is also the easiest size to carry on public transportation.
Alexander: Volker, I love your dice cups. They are especially pleasant to touch and very robust.
Volker: Oh yes, they are. The “Gammoner” dice cups are hand stitched. They are made from 5 mm full grain leather. I offer different colours.
Alexander: With every board the buyer gets two reserve checkers, that’s awesome.
Volker: Yes, it’s so hard to find a suitable checker if you lose one.
Alexander: Volker, you’ve experienced a lot as a backgammon player but also as a board manufacturer. Tell me about your wild years…
Volker: (laughing…) I remember 1992, I’ve been playing for about two years, and like every inexperienced young player, I thought I knew everything about the game anyway. I just had to deal with love sorrow, and so I went to the Monaco world championships with two friends. We had just enough money for a place to stay far outside, $40 a night each. Oh my God, it was incredible. Of course, I didn’t really had a chance, but to meet all the excellent players…. It was great. I was amazed how Bill Robertie sat completely calmly with his upper body, but his feet were wriggling like a fish on a fishing rod. With money games besides the tourney, I was able to make enough money to buy my first really great board back home, a “Dresen board” (a German brand that no longer exists). That was the best board in the world back then. Not much later I had the crazy idea that I could build such a board for a friend. And so my career as a board maker began… I couldn’t have guessed that later I would be back there in Monte Carlo as a board maker many times, and the world’s best players would buy my boards.
Alexander: You once told me about crazy customers. What was that again?
Volker: Oh the backgammon world was full of crazy people back then. I exhibited my boards in Monte Carlo, it was 2012 and after the event, I just put my remaining boards in my car. Then a very well-known player came running to me on the parking lot. He was upset and excited and loud, and said “Sell me a board, sell me a board… quickly…”. I asked him what was going on. He said hastily: “I’m playing money games with someone very wealthy, and after I’ve won a lot of money, this wealthy gambler doesn’t want to continue playing on my board. He’s somehow superstitious. Come on, quick, give me a board…” He grabbed the next best board, gave me a bunch of banknotes and was gone…. Another well-known Swiss player was on tour all over the world with my “Gammoner” boards, playing money games for a living. A high stake roller. He played always at least for $3,000 a point. And he had enough customers… Whenever he had won at least 10 points against a person, he left the board to the opponent as a souvenir and ordered a new board from me. He must have been very successful, because he ordered often. And don’t forget the two teenagers from Israel, I guess 16 years old. I think that was in Monte Carlo 2007. Near my exhibition they asked a professional female player what the best boards are. She just said: “Gammoner!” and was pointing at me. Within a few minutes they picked out several boards. “Our chauffeur will come and pick up the boards and pay for them…” I was amazed, but five minutes later the driver came, payed for the boards and took them with him…
Alexander: I love your stories, exciting experiences! As a player, is there a great story to tell?
Volker: I took part in an international tournament. I started well, and at this one match my 6-1 lead in 7 …(laughing)…I lost the match at DMP, in second chance I lost at DMP, and also at consolation I lost at DMP by one pip. We all know such days…
Alexander: You seem to enjoy creating the perfect board together with a customer. Let us hear a nice story…
Volker: There are many, but I love to remember the collaboration with Robert E. Stoller. He is a collector, a great player, and also a co-founder of the Anchorage Backgammon club. Together we designed an Alaska-themed doubling cube. It was made in 50 mm translucent dark blue with golden yellow numerals, except that in place of the “64” digits, there is a rendition of the constellation “Big Dipper” with North Star, which is the emblem of the State of Alaska Flag. It’s fantastic when a customer is so in love with details.
Alexander: You are a Backgammon aficionado, for sure. I love to see the shine in your eyes when you talk about Backgammon. May the reason for your perfection come from the fact that you started as a player?
Volker: I am sure of it. When I build a board, I first see all practical aspects. But then I immediately see all aesthetic aspects. I want to ensure that every Gammoner board is as special, beautiful and high-quality as the game itself. I want the owner to sit at his or her board, and see and feel that he or she is doing something special. Backgammon is not just a game. It is very extraordinary. It’s art!
Alexander: The Backgammon board collector Robert E. Stoller once said in an interview with Phil Simborg: “In my opinion, the best sets I own for serious, practical play were made to my specifications by Volker Wenzlaff, “Gammoner”, Germany. There’s nothing to add to that. Dear Volker, thank you very much for your time, for a great day. All the best for your future projects.
Visit “Gammoner” here: As a token of celebration for everyone reading this article, Volker Wenzlaff is giving a 5% discount to any player ordering a regular size Gammoner board and 10% discount if a player orders a king-sized board.