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Home Opinion Oden: Checkers is much more than a game of 'king me'

Oden: Checkers is much more than a game of ‘king me’

Checkers is a board game that some upper-crust, highly educated elites denigrate when compared to chess, “The Game of Kings.” But in Appalachia, the Ozarks and western U.S., veteran checkers players know that what appears to be a simple game of moving 12 colored pieces per side over 64 alternating black or red squares is, in fact, extremely complex.

Most children in rural America learn to play checkers at an early age. Thus, many of us have a soft spot for the game but wrongly assume we outgrew it, not vice versa. The reality is that it’s easy to learn the basic concept of checkers – diagonal moves across the board with the goal of capturing (“jumping”) your opponent’s pieces – but hard to master the strategy for consistently winning.

The game has been around since “draughts” was invented and played in Merry Old England many centuries ago. Only in the 21st Century did we realize the true complexity of checkers. In 2007, researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada announced the results of powerful computer analysis focused on all the moves possible in checkers. Using a program code-named “Chinook,” they determined that out of a possible 500 billion board positions, every game would end in a draw if each side played perfectly.

Ponder this for a moment. The ultimate goal of checkers is to play to a draw. With perfect play by each opponent, the game cannot be won or lost. But oh, what fun, drama and emotion are in those imperfect moves!

For a period of 50 years in the little corner of the world around Oden Ridge, some of the best checkers players challenged one another to battle on homemade wooden boards with hand-carved pieces. Many of the competitors could not read or write, but their brains whirred like automated calculators, using math abilities they scarcely acknowledged, to become champions.

Like in the era long ago of knights who gained honor for their noble houses in jousting tournaments, families and communities boasted their own champions. Thus, Oden Ridge and Lawrence’s Cove would arrange to have their respective masters meet across the board whenever possible. Families had their own best players, too.

Reunions, picnics, brush arbor meetings, singings, barn-buildings and other gatherings often featured checkers tournaments: the best against the best. In our family, one name – Harvey Douglas Oden – struck fear into the hearts of checkers players. He had learned at the knee of Paul Latham, a wizard, who drilled him on the importance of the first two moves. Games were won or lost at the beginning, not the end.

“I never beat him. In all those years, I never beat Doug Oden,” recalls an 80-year-old, college-educated family member. “That says something about a man with a sixth-grade education.”

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Even today, when folks gather at the volunteer fire hall or senior center for community dinners, the name of our family’s champion checker player is repeated with awe. Witnesses recount memorable tournaments in which he waded through the field of challengers, his brilliant moves suddenly becoming clear to the spectators when he had boxed in the opponent and destroyed his will to play.

I had seen Doug play casual checkers at Christmas gatherings and reunions. He took time to joke with the nieces and nephews (me included) about their moves, pointing out mistakes and faulty strategy. And he always won, easily.

But when he was in his 60s, there began a fall tradition at my father’s hunting camp in Greasy Cove. We gathered for an annual squirrel hunt, perhaps a dozen or more friends and relatives. A lot more guests appeared for meals when we barbecued venison, grilled dove breasts wrapped in bacon, and fried quail in cast-iron skillets on an open fire.

Everyone waited for the arrival of Leon McKee, an old man in threadbare overalls wearing an oily, dirt-smeared ball cap on his bald head. He was 20 years Doug’s senior and a master checkers player himself.

Leon hauled an antique board from behind the seat of his rattletrap pickup truck. The squares were painted green and red; the wooden discs, tan and black. The board was carefully placed on a pine stump that had been chain-sawed perfectly level. Two old-fashioned milking stools stood on opposite sides. Arced around were lawn chairs and trucks backed up so people could sit on the tailgates and look down on the competitors.

For several hours, the two masters waged war. Four-out-of-five games determined the winner, according to Oden Ridge rules. They carried on a constant banter while playing, criticizing the other’s moves, joking about how the current game was going to end, betting on the final outcome.

This was when I finally realized that checkers is a deep pool of calculation and strategy. Simple only on the surface, the game that we see in the present is the result of predictive thinking allowing the eventual winner to see into the future.

Another epiphany was that games often were concluded with half or more of the pieces still on the board, and that certain arrangements of pieces on offense or defense had names. (Leon once looked down at a play and commented, “Possum’s in the log.” He conceded the game immediately.)

I came to realize that checkers was less action and more a thinking man’s pastime. As a child, I thought it was all about jumping and “King me!”

The popularity of checkers continues today. Sanctioned state, national and world championships determine the best of the best. Certainly, these matches are a far cry from the pine stump by a camp fire where Leon McKee and Doug Oden demonstrated their mastery. But the game is unchanged, the rules fundamentally the same.

Note – The 2017 Dan Lafferty Memorial National Checkers Tournament is set July 24-27 in Lebanon, TN, at the Comfort Suites.

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Steve Oden
Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama. His column, "Appalachian Notebook," appears in the Independent Herald bi-weekly.
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