Learning Checkers

wherein is contained & revealed

THE SECRET TO CHECKERS SUCCESS

being a new & innovative modern method

for the rapid improvement of the tyro

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THIS ARTICLE IS OBSOLETE!

It will be rewritten as time is available (unfortunately not soon).

(The impatient should jump ahead to section 4.1).

1. What's Out There Already

There are many great internet sites loaded with information about checkers and links to learning material. I'll just mention two of them here:

Jim Loy's site: http://www.jimloy.com/checkers/checkers.htm

and

The American Checker Federation: http://www.usacheckers.com

Jim Loy's site is truly amazing, while the ACF site has tutorials and much more.

2. A Simple Approach

I don't wish to duplicate what's already available, and in any case I'm not a very skilled player at all. But I'm improving rather rapidly, and I'd like to tell you how I'm doing so. The best approach for you may be different; you'll have to be the judge.

It's simple. There are two components to learning:

  • Study (of the right type)
  • Play a lot. (Many-time Tour-de-France bicycle race winner Greg LeMonde was asked how to become a great cyclist, and his simple reply was "Ride lots." Same principle here.)

It's as basic as that, so let's look at how to go about these two learning tasks.

3. Study

To do some real study, you'll need a physical checkers set (see my companion article, Buying A Regulation Checkers Set , and Appendix E below). Set this up somewhere in a place where it can be left undisturbed, but where it will call out to you each time you pass it by. I prefer a set a bit smaller than regulation size for study purposes. One other possibility for limited space environments is a magnetic set that can be put on a shelf or the top of the cabinet without disturbing the position of the pieces. There are lots and lots of these available on-line so I'll leave that part up to you. Also consider one of the really little portables; more about that later.

You'll also need some good study material. A considerable amount can be found on-line through the web sites mentioned; you can even get a whole book by Derek Oldbury, and it's a rather good one. Oldbury's book is the only really conceptual book that I've seen which is comprehensible to beginners such as I. It's called Move Over and it's free. I offer it here in PDF format, carefully re-typeset by a talented German professor:

http://www.bobnewell.net/checkers/obpdf.zip

(I have withdrawn the ASCII, LaserJet, and PostScript versions, as the PDF version is now of good quality.)

In addition, you'll likely need to patronize either your favorite local full-service bookseller, or an on-line source. There are four books commonly found; I have all of them:

  1. Millard Hopper, Win at Checkers
  2. Fred Reinfeld, How to Win at Checkers
  3. Robert Pike, Play Winning Checkers
  4. Richard Pask, Starting Out in Checkers

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First buy the Hopper book. It is not particularly complete but it touches on everything, is very easy to read, and will get you going with learning basic tactics, endings, and so on. If you are an absolute beginner there is no better place to start; and even if you have some experience of the kid or geezer variety, start here. Work through the whole book cover to cover and see if you don't play a lot better than you used to.

Then get the Reinfeld book. This book seemingly gets no respect from the in-crowd, but in fact is the most complete single volume I've yet to find, in or out of print. There is coverage of tricks, traps, and shots; coverage at least to some degree of all the major opening lines; and very good endgame coverage. I haven't found many other books that cover winning with four kings against three, for example. The book packs a lot into every page, so you'll have to pay attention and work through all the variants. This is the best ten dollars you'll ever spend on checkers. (There are some unfortunate errors in the section on opening traps.)

The next book to get is Pask. This is something like a more advanced and much more complete version of Hopper. There is much on tactics and strategy, organized coverage of endgames, and some nice problems at the right level of difficulty. This is a really excellent book, probably tops of all in terms of presentation and quality, but very skimpy on openings.

Combine your detailed work in the Reinfeld book, your conceptual work in the free Oldbury book, and the organized course that Pask presents, and you have enough material for weeks if not months of study.

Don't bother with the Pike book. While definitely a book to pique your interest in checkers, it's just too incomplete and terribly disorganized, with problems that are way too hard for beginners.

Later on, and by no means does it have to be right away, you'll want some other books. For these you'll have to go through used book sources; more about this later. You can also consult my companion page on checker books at checkerbooks.html . The book to get next is Chernev's The Compleat Draughts Player. This book provides a great deal on opening traps, on tactics, and on endgame positions, and it has in quantity that the books above do not: Annotated complete games. The problem sections are also very good.

As you approach the intermediate skill level, get Lees' Guide to the Game of Draughts or Checkers. Get the newest edition you can find, as the later editions have important corrections. This book has everything about just about every opening variant, with illustrative complete games. At the intermediate stage this book is important, but at the earlier stages, it will provide more confusion than illumination, so don't be in a hurry.

If you have the five books I have recommended so far (three in print and two out of print) you will have a very good checkers library which will cover virtually everything you will need right through the intermediate stages of skill (and maybe even further).

When you get even further along, look for Ben Boland's books, such as Familiar Themes and Famous Positions. But as wonderful as these books are you won't need them for a while.

Now that you have your set ready, and some books at hand, the first thing to do is to learn the move notation. This is well described in the books and on the internet, so I won't repeat it. I'll just add my own view: While you can number your study board with little stickies and the like, I think it's worth taking the time to master the square numbers. This takes a little time and concentration but is worth the effort, and allows you to visualize moves and sequences away from your board and in other environments when those little stickies won't be there.

Here's what you do. Working from one of those books, play through some of the sequences or games in them. Stop to count out the square numbers, referring back to a numbered diagram only when necessary. Play through the moves. You will inevitably make some mistakes; that's OK. Just go back and start over. The repetition will help. Then turn the board around and play over the same game or sequence from the other side. Get used to the square numbers from both orientations.

I've found that about a week or so of this, while admittedly frustrating at times, pays great dividends and soon "11-15" will have instant recognition for you. You'll be able to clearly picture the move in your mind and on the board.

So then, what do you study? I'd say just work straight through the books you choose (but see below). Make sure you play plenty of games in-between study sessions, and don't worry about losing; you're learning. As you play more games and have more questions, go to the relevant sections of the books and work there. Work a lot on tactics. A player such as myself loses quickly through blunders. Studying various shots and traps help you recognize dangerous situations and avoid some of the worst errors.

Work on endgames will help you learn a lot about how pieces work together. Learn how two kings defeat one. (I watched an on-line game recently in which a fairly high-rated player could not solve this elementary ending.) Learn how three kings defeat two. Learn the basic endgame positions. Work through them over and over until you really know them. (I'm not there yet either.)

Get into the openings, at least the basics (see Appendix D below for more discussion of this controversial question). Even if you've learned to avoid blunders, an expert player will get you into a losing opening line and it's all downhill from there. Learn something about the major opening lines and replies. After you've played a game and gotten into trouble, go back and look up that opening and gain a little more understanding.

Playing through main-lines and variations can be confusing. A second set, such as the small magnetic set described below, is helpful. Keep the main-line on the main board, and play through the variations on the small set.

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4. Play

Derek Oldbury said it best, "If you don't want to lose, don't play."

There are several forms of play: Internet play against live opponents, face to face play against live opponents, correspondence play, etc.; and play against a computer.

I'm going to reveal the Secret to Checkers Success in the next few paragraphs, so pay attention.

4.1 Play Against the Computer

Get yourself a good computer checkers program. Check Jim Loy's page or Triplejump for many references. You can get a free one such as CheckerBoard and add a strong engine such as KingsRow, or use the supplied San Souci engine; you can get shareware such as Sage 9000 (remarkably inexpensive); or you can go upscale, but get a strong program and make sure it has move review features.

And now I shall reveal all.

When I first got on-line I got destroyed in live games. I had no idea what I was doing. I blundered games away before they could even be won by my opponent through superior play.

But this has changed.

Although I still don't consider myself a good player (mostly because I'm not), my rating is rising and I am winning games from players who I thought by rights would wipe me off the board.

It's because I started playing computer games, and playing them in a certain way, and combining this with a certain type of book study.

You want to play against such a strong program that you have no chance. You really do.

When playing the computer, take time with your moves, really think about them, and learn to avoid game-costing blunders (throwing away a piece, missing a simple shot, etc.). That's one thing about computer play; there is no one to keep waiting on the other end and you can take twenty minutes on a move if you wish. Your practice games against the computer should be hard games. If you do the typical click-click-whatever and don't think and calculate, then go play solitaire instead, as you're wasting your tme.

Inevitably, you will fall into a position where you lose a piece or the computer gets you in some sort of shot. That's OK. Now, using the move review features, back up the game and try to see where you started to get into trouble. Often it's just a move or two back; you set yourself up for a trivial two for one shot or exposed a piece fatally. Sometimes you have to go further back, but figure out what went wrong and what a better move might have been. Then make the better move and see how things go.

You are not "cheating" as this is not a game played for a win; it's a game played to learn.

Every time you get into trouble, back up the game and look for something better. Eventually, of course, you'll reach an irredeemable situation. Now it's time to go back to the beginning of the game to work through it, looking for moves that weakened your position in such a way that you reached a loss. This is easier than it sounds, even for an inexperienced player.

Of course this doesn't always work, and at times you need to go back to your books and review the opening line that you pursued. (Programs which show their opening book as the game progresses are helpful for this.) Often you have subtly gone wrong dozens of moves back and it's hard to correct that. But you still can see the type of weaknesses and the losing position that eventually arises and that will be very valuable when playing a mere mortal.

I'll say it again: these games are hard work. If they are not hard work, you need to work harder! It's worth repeating: take time with each move. Don't just click around. Think, think, think some more.

Play a lot of computer games in this manner, and I can guarantee you will "see" things much, much more effectively when you are playing live opponents. You will blunder far less often (not never) and fall for far fewer traps. Eventually you will gain an understanding of weak and strong positions (the light is starting to go on for me now, I just have to learn to avoid all those weak ones!).

This is by far the most effective means of improving your checkers skill I can imagine, at least at the beginner level. I have never seen this method published before, so here it is! Your mileage will vary, but I'll bet it works for you too.

There are inherent limitations in what I suggest. But right now I'm playing at a rather modest 1350 or so rating level, and I'm benefiting immensely from computer play.

The major limitation will be that while you are learning how to avoid loss, how to avoid bad moves and bad formations, you really aren't aren't learning a lot about winning (except to the extent that you can profit from the other guy's bad position in live play, a bad position which you have learned to recognize from the losing side). Plenty of live play needs to go along with your computer play.

An additional note: I feel there is limited use in playing against the computer with the computer set at such a low level that you might win. At low levels the computer just makes plain old dumb moves. While this might make you feel better, it won't really show you how to take advantage of mistakes or weaknesses of the type that you would usually encounter in a live game.

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Why does this method pay back so richly? Because at the beginner level games are almost always lost instead of won. You must learn how not to lose by throwing away men carelessly, by failing to see the simple shots, by being unware of what's going on. Playing the computer, and replaying moves that lose, will show you clearly and at once what you've done wrong or what you've missed in terms of simple blunders or sheer unawareness.

My method also seems to work at a further stage of development, as you start to approach "advanced" beginner. Now you're (mostly) not losing by dumb mistakes, but (mostly) ending up somewhere in the middle game with a losing position. Again, backing up and replaying almost always shows you something. How did that bad formation arise? Why did you run out of moves?

4.2 Live Play

Get on Yahoo, Playsite or Microsoft, or any of several others (see my companion page for ideas), and play a lot of live games. Try to find an area free of annoying kids who just want to chat, or in the other extreme, useless and damaging one-minute speed games. There is a terrible tendency to play too fast on-line, throwing pieces around and not thinking about your moves. You may have to look around, but there are many good games out there to be found.

After a game, I like to go back and book in hand take a look at the opening line (some computer programs help with this too). What line did you play? How did you play it? What other ideas are there? If you lost where did you go wrong?

Track your progress. This doesn't mean you should fall in love with, or worry about, your rating on sites that give you numerical ratings. Play a lot and see if you feel better about your play. If your rating is 2500, cool. If it's 1050, so what. It's supposed to be fun. Always ask these two questions:

  1. Did I learn anything?
  2. Did I enjoy the game?

If you can't answer "yes" to both of these, especially the second question, you've missed the point.

If you are interspersing serious computer play and study, you will find your live play improving. I certainly am seeing that. (But don't get overconfident. After defeating a 1500 rated player, which I couldn't believe I did, I quickly got knocked off by a 14 year old who really wanted a chat session instead of a game. A little humility is often a good thing.)

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4.3 Correspondence-Style Play

In contrast to the type of head-to-head, live on-line or in-person play described above (also called "over the board" play), correspondence play is modeled after the old and venerable post-card method. The way this used to be done (and in some circles still is) is that you write your move on a postcard, put it in the mail (snail mail), and wait for your opponent to send a reply in the same manner. You'd keep a board or boards handy with each of your correspondence games set up.

Today, numerous internet sites (see my separate article about game sites) offer a modern and I think much improved option. Unless you live in the darkest heart of darkness, with no internet access, it's the way to go. The on-line sites track your games, e-mail you when it's your turn to move, and provide generally useful displays and tools for play. What you need to keep in mind is that this style of play is very different than face-to-face.

In fact, I'd suggest you wait until you're at least out of the beginning beginner stage to tackle this play style. The reason is that in this type of play, use of reference books is allowed, and many hours can be spent on a single move. (Some highly advanced players take up to 8 hours of study for each move!) Use of computers is generally not permitted, on the honor system, and I think that's a good thing, so please don't cheat; it's pointless.

So, if you're not at a stage in your development where poring through opening books (and you'll need to have them) is something with which you have a level of comfort, you might want to delay your correspondence checkers debut for a little while. But when you're ready, this type of play is also a great skill-builder, as you'll be doing serious study and reflection for each of your moves.

Appendix A: Problem Solving

In addition to the problems found in your other books, I'd have to recommend Robert Pikes' Little Giant Encyclopedia of Checkers Puzzles. It contains about 370 problems and it will take you a long time to work through these. He is also the author of 101 Checker Puzzles. This latter book classes problems by game stage (early, middle, late) and presents the problems in order of difficulty.

A great thing about some checker problems is that you can work on them mentally, away from the board. The Little Giant Encylopedia is pocket size and is great for down time such as the interminable wait for a doctor's appointment. Of course, other problems and studies will require a board and pieces; you might want to consider the portable set I mention below.

Whatever you do or whichever book you use, don't short-change yourself by looking up the solution too quickly. Work through the problem, look at the variations, and only after a rather long time (hours) of not finding the solution should you resort to the back of the book.

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Appendix B: Book-Buying

There are only a few books in print about checkers. Compare this to the hundreds, maybe thousands of books available about Chess or Go, and it's a sorry situation.

You will have to haunt the used book markets. Again, read through the material and follow the links on Jim Loy's site and Triplejump to find out about some good books. You can also consult my companion page on checker books at checkerbooks.html .

But then you will have to find them, and they will likely not be cheap.

B.1 On-Line Sources

I always go to Bookfinder at http://www.bookfinder.com , and I generally find what I'm looking for. You can sometimes find checkers books on E-Bay but the prices can run higher than Bookfinder at times, so be cautious.

There is a really excellent source as well in Great Britain, from whom I have bought some books: the Barrie Ellen Book Shop at

http://ukbookworld.com/members/bellen

This merchant specializes in out-of-print chess and draughts books, and provides excellent service. (I receive most books in ten days or less.)

But again, choose your books carefully, because you are going to find this a pretty expensive proposition. Expect to pay about thirty dollars on average for a used checkers book.

B.2 Mail-Order Sources

Another very interesting source of supply is the Estate of Don Goodwin, who has a rambling and extensive catalog of attractively priced items (many being photocopies of older books, but that's certainly a nice option.)

You can reach this source at 16 Romac Drive, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M1C 4V6; the phone number is 1-416-287-9616. If you write for a catalog or for information, do what I failed to do and send a couple of dollars for the catalog and for postage. Don's executor, Evelyn Micallef, runs the business. An on-line list of available books can be found on Jim Loy's site.

Appendix C: On-line Sources of Study Material

In addition to books there is great help available on-line.

Jim Loy's site, mentioned above, http://www.jimloy.com/checkers/checkers.htm , has a lot of great material all in one place. Jim has a brief compendium of opening play (good for quick reference or if you don't have or want to dive into the detailed books).

Another place to look is the home site of the American Checker Federation, http://www.usacheckers.com . There are some nice tutorials available including great advice for beginners, and a complete new Richard Pask book on go-as-you-please openings.

And, when you really get into openings in detail, see http://home.clara.net/davey , the home page of the English Draughts Association, which has all of Fortman's 3-move guide on line.

Appendix D: Should a Beginner Study Openings?

Most of the advice I read from people who know what they are doing (including the present World Champion) recommend that beginners don't study openings; in fact some of them say beginners should not be allowed to even touch an opening book!

Now, I think I understand the reasons behind these statements, and I, with little skill and no stature, should not presume to challenge the masters. But let me offer a little different point of view.

The problem with studying openings at an early stage is in trying to learn by rote, without understanding reasons and whys and wherefores. Grabbing an opening book and mechanically playing through a number of lines will be confusing and time not well spent. Memorizing lines will prove fatal once your opponent makes the "wrong" move and you're then on your own in uncharted territory. So, I must agree with the authorities, that opening books can cause a lot of harm or at best much wasted time.

But my alternative view stems from this: those same masters will say that most games are lost in the opening! So what is the poor beginner to do?

I think the answer is not so difficult, and it relates to the method of play against the computer that I recommended above. Certainly, you don't grab Lee's Guide and start at page one and work forward. But you need at least a clue. Hopper's book describes a few openings in terms of general principles. Jim Loy's web pages talk about weaknesses again in terms of principles. And Reinfeld's book provides some detail, but not so much as to be terribly confusing. Lisle Cormier, on the American Checker Federation Site, describes a very useful manner in which a beginner, after some experience, can and should write their own opening book! (This idea, which is essence is that a beginner should as far as possible always play the same opening, is a good one and helps make a large topic much more manageable. For instance, someone recommended to me that I always play 11-16 as Red, simply because it's conceptually simpler and far less complex than 11-15. Similarly, I may always play White 23-18 in response to Red 11-15. I think you get the picture: simple and minimal.)

I think a beginner should work through Hopper, learning some principles, and then do the following: for live games (or even computer games), play through the game over the board as always. Then, you can go back and try to understand the opening line. What are the results? Did you get cramped or in some kind of bind? Did you lose men due to a trap or shot? What isn't clear to you? At that point, getting out an opening book or guide will be helpful rather than harmful. Where does "normal" play deviate from what you did, and most importantly, why?

Now, you don't just memorize the "normal" line at this point. Your job is to try to figure out why the "normal" moves are better than the ones you chose. Attempt to work out the reasons and principles behind the moves. Reinfeld's book is actually pretty good for this; it has a little bit of everything, without many, many unexplained variations and options. Jim Loy's material can fill in some of the gaps in Reinfeld. Lee's Guide is great but can lead you into murky depths.

Am I right about my approach? I think overall you must learn at least something about openings, but if you approach it from the standpoint of "What are the principles" and "Where did I go wrong" you will get maximum benefit and avoid the downsides that the masters warn about.

Let me close with a specific example, which you can readily ignore if you've not yet learned move notation. I played Red in an online game and opened with 11-15. The reply was 20-24, the "Ayrshire Lassie" opening. The game continued with 8-11, 28-24, 4-8, 22-17.

So far so good, but after this somehow I managed to get my single corner completely tied down. I'll spare you the details, but I should have lost and it was just luck that I didn't. A glance at an opening book quickly showed me where I went wrong. I learned the principle rather than memorizing the moves.

I think this subject is so important that I've put together this detailed example to further illustrate the point.

Appendix E: Some Nice Checker Sets for Study Purposes

There are two types of sets to be considered: Normal table sets and portable sets. There is a lot of ground to cover here so I'll just describe the sets I currently use. I won't repeat all the vendor information that is on my companion page about buying a regulation checkers set: checker-sets.html .

As I mentioned above, for a table set for study, I actually like something smaller than a regulation set. At the moment I'm using 1 1/4" red and white checkers and a "small" vinyl board with green and white squares (about 1 1/2" on a side) from It's Your Move Chess and Games. The total cost of these is about $22 plus shipping. (The photo below doesn't show the true green of the squares.)

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There are many magnetic sets, but I have yet to find a good large sized one. All of them seem to have terrible square coloring, with the black squares so dark you can barely use the set except in full sunlight. Instead, I'm using a small portable maybe a third larger than a CD case, from Kling Magnetics . The board and piece colors are funky, to say the least, but the set is highly usable; in fact you can set up a position, close the case, and expect to find the position still there when you return to it. This set is also something that is good for use during downtime such as waiting (where else) at the doctor's office. At $6.50 including shipping this is a remarkable bargain.

(Note: The board is rotated 90 degrees with a dark square at the right instead of a light square. The company says they will correct this next printing, but it really doesn't matter that much. As another aside, they sell a giant magnetic checkers wallboard and pieces, with proper orientation and colors, for a lot less than you would expect to pay. This would be suitable for clubs or classes.)

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Disclaimer.

You get what you pay for, and you know all about free advice. I am a beginner myself, and I have described books, equipment, and study techniques that I am finding useful. I do not claim or pretend to be an expert, and none of my remarks should be interpreted in that light. If you don't like what I have to say, don't agree, or have better ideas, by all means write.

I do not represent any company or specifically endorse or warranty any products described here. You must make your own evaluation in your own environment.

A Few Reflections.

A really long time ago I was a serious chess player of middling skill. But back then, if you wanted a game, you had to find a player. I played with the kids in the neighborhood and maybe Wednesday nights at the town's chess club. That was pretty much it; during the school year there was a high school club and so we all played each other a couple of days a week after school.

What is different today, and which changes things to an immense degree, is the availability of on-line play and the possibility of play against the computer. On-line play pretty much means a game whenever you want one, against a wide variety of styles and skills. And, the great utility of play against the computer has been discussed above.

The bottom line for me is that I think I've learned more checkers in the past month or two than the amount of chess I learned in a couple of years way back when. I've gotten to the 1350 or so checkers rating level in about two months; at chess I was maybe 1600 at my absolute best ever. (And I seem to be stuck at right aroung 1350, or even a little less, because my free time for playing has decreased very much. You can't learn if you don't play! But as I said above, the rating isn't the point. It's what you learn and how much enjoyment you get.)

The overall effect of this on checkers would seem to be two-fold. First, there should be many more checker players. Second, they should be of higher skill and should develop a lot faster.

Is this actually the case? I'm pretty sure that the second part, about higher skill and faster development, is true. I'm told that the first part, about more players, isn't necessarily true. I'm not so sure, though. At any given moment several dozen serious checker players seem to be on line. I find that impressive.

Further reflection: I think when I first wrote this article, I didn't stress "live" or on-line play quite enough; in fact, my main learning impediment at the moment is not lack of study so much as lack of enough time to play a lot of games against live opponents. I'd think half a dozen good games a day, every day, might be an ideal number, although for those with busy lives, perhaps hard to achieve. Any thoughts of your own?

See you on-line somewhere?

I used to advertise here for on-line games, but alas, my time for on-line play is all too limited these days. Still, if you see ChipsChap on one of those sites, that's me, and I'd be glad to have a game or two.

Comments? Reactions? Suggestions? Please write bnewell@bobnewell.net

Bob Newell, Santa Fe, New Mexico; last modified 5 March 2005.