Saturday, November 29, 2008

Richard L. Fortman, a Champion at Checkers, Dies at 93

Published: November 29, 2008

Richard L. Fortman, an internationally known authority on checkers, the sport of men and kings, died on Nov. 8 in Springfield, Ill. He was 93 and a lifelong resident of Springfield.

His daughter, Cindy Ponder, confirmed the death.

For seven decades Mr. Fortman was considered one of the game’s foremost players, analysts and authors. He was almost certainly the last living link to the heyday of checkers in the era before television, when men passed the time playing in barbershops and firehouses and city parks, and when high-pressure tournaments took place in smoke-filled rooms where the prevailing hush was broken only by a rhythmic click-click-clicking.

A specialist in the slow, ruminative art of checkers by mail, Mr. Fortman was a former world postal checkers champion. His series of handbooks, “Basic Checkers,” published privately in seven volumes in the 1970s and ’80’s, is widely considered the Hoyle of checkers, required reading for students of the game.

In the hands of a master checkers is no child’s play, and Mr. Fortman was quite literally a master. (Like chess players, checkers players are ranked internationally, the most extraordinary becoming masters and grandmasters.) In his prime Mr. Fortman was one of the top players in the world. He could play blindfolded. He could play 100 games at once. He won most of them.

Like chess, checkers is played on a board of 64 squares. Unlike chess, it is played only on the black, the F sharp major of the gaming world. Pieces, or “men,” as they are known, move on the diagonal. It is a game of relentless, incremental forward motion: only when a piece reaches the farthest row and becomes a king may it move in reverse. These tight restrictions on allowable moves, players say, make checkers in many respects more difficult than chess.

There are about 500 billion billion possible positions on a checkerboard — visualize a 5 with 20 zeros after it — and players study historical openings and endgames with the fervor of initiates to priestly ritual. The hold checkers exerts on the faithful can border on obsession; at its most tenacious, adherents say, it has been the ruin of more than one man. Happily, Mr. Fortman, by all accounts a solid citizen who earned his living as a warehouseman, was not among them.

Richard Lee Fortman was born in Springfield on Feb. 8, 1915. His father, Richard Clarence, was a railroad telegrapher, and late at night, when few trains came, he and his co-workers along the line played checkers by telegraph. They could not betray themselves by keeping checkerboards in the stations, so the games played out entirely in their heads.

At home, father and son passed long winter evenings at the board. With years of telegraphy under his belt, the father routinely trounced the son. When the son was about 15, his father, an intuitive player, suggested he consult books on checkers in the local library. Young Mr. Fortman did so, and after about a year began thrashing his father. The father revised his position on checkers books.

In 1933, at 18, Mr. Fortman entered his first state tournament and placed third. (Between 1950 and 1978, he was Illinois state champion six times.) After Army service in Italy and North Africa in World War II, he joined the Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Company, becoming a warehouse foreman there.

Mr. Fortman married Faye Nichols in 1950. Their home was awash in checkers, with games in various states of play scattered throughout the house. When his children were young and dangerous, Mr. Fortman set up his boards in the basement of his parents’ home, located conveniently next door.

In correspondence checkers, Mr. Fortman’s particular passion, a player has perhaps 72 hours to plot and ponder before writing his next move on a postcard and sending it to his opponent. A game unfolds over many months, sometimes almost a year. Mr. Fortman won the world postal championship in 1986 and again in 1990.

Besides his wife and daughter, both of Springfield, Mr. Fortman is survived by a son, Mark, of Westmont, Ill.; a sister, June Russell of Springfield; and four grandchildren.

In recent years the computer has made checkers by mail a bygone art. Mr. Fortman adapted, and to the end of his life, his daughter said, he spent hours each day playing, and winning, games online. Last month members of the checkers world suspected that Mr. Fortman’s health was declining after he failed, highly uncharacteristically, to submit his return moves in time.

A version of this article appeared in print on November 30, 2008, on page A47 of the New York edition. Also reported in Member of the Sun-Times News Group  - Dec 1, 2008 
Richard L. Fortman: Crowned state checkers champion 6 times
Checkers champion and lifelong Springfield resident Richard L. Fortman has died at the age of 93.


12/20/2008 - "Checker's best-known strategist passes away"

Sunday, November 30, 2008 - - "Checkers champion Fortman dead at 93"

Wednesday, November 26, 2008 - The London Times - TIMES ONLINE - Richard Fortman: draughts master

Monday, November 10, 2008 - The State Journal-Register - Richard Fortman Obituary