The London Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From The Times

November 26, 2008


Richard Fortman: draughts master

Richard Fortman was the most prolific author in the history of draughts, as well as the game’s leading annotator since 1946, a world champion at postal play and a master player for 70 years. Bob Newell, the doyen of internet draughts editors, called him “the last of the legendary checkerists”.

Richard Lee Fortman, known as “RLF” to all enthusiasts, was born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1915. At the age of 15 he was introduced to draughts — called checkers in the US — by his father, a telegraph operator who used to play the game to keep himself awake during lengthy shifts.

For a year father beat son mercilessly, but once the teenager had acquired a book from the local library — Chess & Checkers, written by the chess master Edward Lasker — and studied it assiduously, the tables were turned for good. “Using dead men’s brains” was tantamount to cheating, according to Fortman Sr, and their playing sessions came to an abrupt halt.

At that time Springfield had a thriving chess and checkers club, and under the tutelage of Harland Richards, a state champion, Fortman made rapid strides. After coming third in his first Illinois state tournament, in 1933, he performed creditably in a practice session against Edwin Hunt, a world title contender, in 1934, and established his master status in 1938 by winning the Trans-Mississippi tournament.

Playing in all 26 Illinois state tournaments, he won six, the first in 1950 and the last in 1978, and invariably came in the top four. More significantly, he made creditable showings in the masters section of the 1948 and 1958 US national tournaments, and in 1973 and 1983 he was in serious contention for inclusion in the mighty US team that slaughtered the UK and Ireland contingent in the third and fourth international matches.

Despite these achievements, he was to find greater fame as a postal player. George Bass, a renowned exponent who regularly played as many as 500 games simultaneously, was the first to make Fortman aware of its esoteric charms, in 1934, and he quickly found it invaluable for developing his analytical powers and encouraging the exploration of original lines of attack and defence.

Disappointed by a 1-0-11 draws defeat in a match for the world postal championship with Alf Huggins in 1964, Fortman persisted, and in 1986 finally attained his goal. Demonstrating the tremendous scope of this branch of the game, in which players have 72 hours to formulate their replies and access to extensive libraries, in 1990 he heavily defeated Dennis Cayton, a most worthy challenger, 9-0 and 7 draws to retain the title.

Proving that success in one field does not invariably lead to success in another, he also defeated the world crossboard champion, Derek Oldbury, 5-3 and 16 draws in a series of postal matches played around this time.

Remarkably, it was as an annotator that he was to find his true niche. He made his first contribution to the literature in 1935, and followed it with a highly valued series of monthly articles in Wood’s Checker Player in 1938-39, he established himself at the forefront of this field with his annotations to the 11th American Checker Association tournament games in 1946.

He provided annotations for a host of national tournaments staged by the American Checker Federation, several world championships, at which he was often the referee, and many of the inter-district postal tournament booklets. In 1954, 1956 and 1958 he singlehandedly annotated the postal matches between the US and Great Britain, and in 1973, 1983 and 1995 he repeated the operation for the crossboard matches contested between the US and the UK and Ireland. He also made extensive contributions to all the leading magazines of the day, including Elam’s Checker Board, California Checker Chatter, Midwest Checkers, Keystone Checker Review, the 6th District Newsletter, The Square World and English Draughts Journal.

Developing a remarkable indexing system, he managed to attain the demanding standards expected of an annotator by Oldbury: “He must be combined historian, essayist, psychologist, philosopher and prophet — and it were well he could play draughts too.” Moreover, he blended all these talents with entertaining storytelling and a capacity for relevance.

A close friendship with the celebrated Dr Marion Tinsley, one of the leading mind-sport competitors of all time, had an integral part to play in Fortman’s life, and spanned the period from 1946 until Tinsley’s death in 1995. While Tinsley “mined gold nuggets” from Fortman’s vast collection of postal games and correspondence, he benefited enormously from their extended practice sessions. Soon after one particularly bruising encounter in 1981 he went on to win an important tournament in a breeze — “After Marion, anything’s easy,” he remarked.

Like many draughts players, Fortman had a more than passing interest in chess, playing at a competent level and acquiring a library of about 300 books, mainly dealing with the game’s history and great players. While granting the sister game complete respect, he was, however, quite willing to challenge any chess players who chose to pronounce inaccurately on draughts.

When one famous English chess writer suggested that losing a game of draughts did not involve the same sense of personal loss as losing a game of chess, Fortman was aghast. He pointed out that some of his losses were still painful 50 years on and, tongue somewhat in cheek, declared that he “played chess for fun and checkers for blood”.

At the first Computer Olympiad staged in London in 1989, Chinook, programmed by a team led by Jonathan Schaeffer, at the University of Alberta, arrived on the scene, and quickly gave notice of its great ability. It was evident to Fortman that the days of the analyst and postal player were numbered, but he was philosophical about it. Recognising that such programs were a vehicle for demonstrating the beauty and profundity of draughts to a completely new audience, and would guarantee its future as a game and intellectual art form, he took a keen interest in the short-lived man-machine contests, and accorded Chinook due credit for its achievements.

Interestingly, Fortman’s seminal opus, Basic Checkers, played a crucial role in the landmark match between Tinsley and Chinook, staged at the Park Lane Hotel in London in 1992. The seven books in this remarkable series marked Fortman out for immortality and won the praise of players of all standards. Naturally, it was not perfect, however, and a dubious variation found its way into Chinook’s opening database. Cue the opening victory for Tinsley in his crushing defeat of the silicon monster, and thunderous applause from the spectators.

As an interlocutor for the professional blindfold exhibitioners Newell Banks and William Ryan in the 1930s and 1940s, Fortman realised that any attempt to make a living at the game would be precarious at best. For him, it was a hobby, which he miraculously fitted in around his work — as a warehouse foreman for the Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Company in Illinois — and family commitments. He was essentially an amateur, requesting only expenses for his work; the beauty of the game was its own reward. “A good game of checkers is like a great building — every brick fits right into place and, when the architect has drawn his plans correctly, the finished product is something to admire and enjoy,” he said.

With the advent of the internet, Fortman’s voluminous letters gave way to e-mails, and in his last few years he confined his contests to cyberspace. Of master strength right up until his death, he was always a most dangerous opponent and, more importantly, regarded by the entire fraternity as one of the all-time greats.

He is survived by Faye, his wife of 58 years, and their son and daughter.

Richard Fortman, draughts master, was born on February 8, 1915. He died on November 8, 2008, aged 93

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