"There is a Certain Amount of Humor in Checkers"
But if you think this game is easy, you haven't met the Ayshire Lassie, the Black Doctor, the Goose Walk or the Canalejas Cannonball
By Tim Hensley
Checkers in America is a kind of Norman Rockwell icon, a symbol of good-natured competition and wholesome amusement. Because nearly everyone knows how to play, checkers is often viewed as a pastime for old men and children, on a par with tick-tack-toe or Go Fish. Not so, says Virginia-based author Tim Hensley. He should know: his grandfather is the Virginia state champion and onetime national champion.
Few people understand the game's actual depth, Hensley reports. Many players familiar with both games assert that it takes longer to learn to play checkers at the master level than it does chess. What checkers lacks in breadth, it makes up in precision and finality.
Games resembling checkers were popular as long ago as 1600 B.C. At Thebes, a wall painting apparently showed Ramses III playing an early form of checkers with a lady.
By the 17th century A.D., the game that we know today spread across western Europe. Somewhere along the line attitudes began to change about checkers.
Master checker players spend years analyzing favorite lines of play, developing "cooks" that will throw a wrench in an opponent's position. (The novice learns that it is possible to lose a game of checkers in just five moves — if you stumble into the 350-year-old Canalejas Cannonball.) Experts study classic "strokes," or long series of forced jumps, which include the Goose Walk, Wyllie's Switcher Winder, the Boomerang and Duffer's Delight.
This is not to say you have to be a genius to play checkers. Just that there is a vast difference between the "wood pusher" and the master player. The rewards of the game for all are immeasurable: elegance, balance, beauty, simplicity and, perhaps most important, the fraternity of those who have tasted the mysteries of checkers.
When the author congratulated his grandfather on winning a recent tournament, he replied with boyish delight, "Ah, we had a barrel of fun."
1999. Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.
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