Columns - Jay Ashley

Tuesday, May 13, 2009 - Burlington - "As for checkers, I retired undefeated"

May 15, 2009 - 10:18 PM
By Jay Ashley/Times-News

As for Checkers, I retired undefeated

I don't remember at what point I stopped playing checkers. It could have been during my Sophisticated Period when I read Kant, smoked a Dunhill pipe and tried to master chess. Maybe it was during my Hippie Period when I read Hunter Thompson, smoked banana peels and tried to master chicks.Jay Ashley.jpg (7729 bytes)

The state Open Checkers Championship was held in Oxford Friday and Saturday. It was the 119th Open, where the best players in the state convened to strut their stuff and try for the title. Do your math and 1890 will be revealed as the year H.C. McNair of Maxton beat A.F. Bowen of Raleigh to win the first state championship. McNair subsequently held the title for 23 consecutive years from 1895 to 1917.

Now that's some serious checker playing and title-holding.

We never took checkers quite so seriously at Grandpa Barnwell's house. The rules at his house were that if you had a jump and didn't take it, the opponent would pick up the offending checker, blow on it, and take it off the board. Maybe that's why checkers are called "drafts" (spelled "draughts") in England. I loved my Grandpa Barnwell but he would never beat me. I would beg him to play seriously, but he would always let me win. The only time I won is when we played "give-away." 

There was a checkerboard at J.J. Ashley's Gen. Merch. store and from time to time a match would be set up and a crowd would gather. There would be low chatter, but there was little trash talk. Trash talk back then would be a conversation about garbage or landfills. Fellows would whisper to one another and give each other knowing winks and nods if someone made a great move or a really dumb move. There would be plenty of second-guessing when a game was over. The board would be set up again, there would be matching for Pepsis, pipes and cigarettes would be lit and another game would get under way. If a customer showed up, daddy would move to assist him. I might be dispatched to load some bags of fertilizer or grind some corn or fetch some other commodity that took me away from the game.

On a rare occasion, daddy would play a game with me. He was the polar opposite of Grandpa Barnwell. It's impossible for me to recall any time he ever took more than five or six seconds to make a move. He might hold his hand over the board for a few heartbeats, but when he moved, he moved with dedication, a certain knowledge, a certain confidence that he was making the right move. I was in awe of how he could look more than one move ahead. I never mastered that, neither with checkers nor chess nor life itself. I am like the dog who lives in the moment. It's why I'll probably end up at the county poorhouse, too.

Checkers are like socks. Invariably one goes missing. Maybe a chair got wobbly and a checker makes a decent enough shim. If a checker went missing, you could always use a substitute. Bottle caps seemed to be the substitute of choice. I have seen whole games played with bottle caps. One fellow had all the Pepsi caps and the other guy had all the Coke caps. The drawback to bottle cap checkers is crowning. They just don't stack right. Nuts and washers work OK, plus they stack well.

Checker board sets made good gifts. If you went to a birthday party, you'd give the honoree a checkboard and box of pieces. I have owned as many as a dozen new checkerboards.

And on the back of every checkerboard was backgammon. Did anyone you know ever actually play backgammon? The first backgammon game I ever played was when I was 33 years old. Crazy Ken Hamilton the skydiver taught me to play, then challenged me to a game and won $10 off me. I am a walking mark and chalked that one up as a learning lesson.

What with work and family and life, most of my existence has been checkerless. When computer games began to invade, I once bought a pool game. I played a lot of pool at the time and was not half bad. The computer game however was rudimentary and not quite what I expected. In other words, I wasn't any good at it. As I browsed the game, I discovered I could also play darts or checkers against the computer. I was no better at darts on the computer as I am in real life.

I played the checker game. The computer also removed my checker when I did not take a jump, just like Grandpa Barnwell. And I had always thought that was just one of his made-up rules.

It took me a few games to get the hang of things but after a few hundred games on "moron" level, I finally won. It was the first and only time I have beaten a computer at anything beyond SpellCheck. Because of this landmark victory, I did not venture past that level, opting instead to retire undefeated.

Jay Ashley is managing editor of the Times-News. You can king him by e-mail at

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