In Bismarck, North Dakota, the snow season starts around October and runs well through April. Some of the heaviest snowfalls can occur later in the season.
So, on a March Saturday in 1955, there was the feeling of snow in the air. It's familiar to anyone who lives in a northerly climate. You didn't need a weather forecast to know that it was going to start snowing later that day, and probably quite a lot.
But the threat of bad weather didn't stop Sal Westerman from walking over to the Beacon Cafe at 1 PM for the regular Saturday session of the Coffee and Cake Checker Club. There would be plenty of Deana's hot coffee and some freshly-baked treats. Deana ran the Beacon and her baked goods had no match for miles around.
Turnout was a little less than usual. Just three of the boys (who were all over 50) were there: Dan, Wayne, and Mike, who, like Sal, showed up just about every single week.
"Too bad the others aren't here," Sal said, "for I've got a nice one from Brian this week." Brian, in St. Louis, was one of Sal's checker pen pals.
"Maybe they were scared off," Wayne said. "Brian's problems can be pretty tough."
"Oh, it's just the weather," Sal said. "But I want to know what kind of treats you boys will be buying me when you can't win this one."
Deana, stationed behind her counter and ever alert, piped up, "Fresh pecan bars. Just the right thing to make you feel warm and comfy on a snowy day." She smiled, knowing she'd be selling quite a few servings before the afternoon was out.
"Well, there you go," Sal said. "I just love pecan bars. Might even let you buy me two."
Dan laughed. "We'll see about that," he said. "Now set 'em up and let's have a look."
The first few snowflakes were starting to fall outside as Sal set up the problem. But none of the boys noticed, as they were immediately engrossed in the following position.
Sometimes Sal only gave the boys five or ten minutes to solve a problem. But problems from Brian or Ed (Sal's Pennsylvania pen pal) were tougher, and although Sal liked to win, he was always fair about things.
After about an hour, Deana said, "It's snowing pretty hard now. Might have to close up early. I live over in Mandan and driving is going to be tough." Mandan was a smaller town just across the Missouri River from Bismarck.
But no one heard her. Concentration was too deep. And then, Dan spoke up. "It's kind of hard to find., but I've got it."
"Is that right?" Sal said. "Show me."
Is Dan about to win pecan bars for all of the boys? How would you do? Hopefully you're not in the middle of a snowstorm, and can give today's problem a good effort. Don't flake out or drift away; plow ahead and when you're ready, click on Read More to see the solution and the conclusion of our story.[Read More]
Many of us in the checker community are older and may have underlying health issues that put us at higher risk from the current virus epidemic, so we need to stay at home. Many others are under mandate to do the same. But no matter who we are or where we are, it's a good idea.
That gives us a lot of potentially unoccupied time. Correspondent Brian Hinkle suggested that this would be a good moment for checker fans to attempt deep and difficult checker problems.
Hence this special edition, in which we present one of Brian's own compositions, one which he considers to be challenging indeed. We won't be publishing the solution for two weeks in order to give you a chance to really dig into it.
Even if you're closer to novice than expert, this problem is worth your while. Maybe you'll solve it, maybe you won't, but you'll likely pass quite some time with good checker entertainment, and perhaps be distracted a little when you need it the most.
Here's the position, without further commentary. Good luck!
Be safe and well, checker fans, wherever you are.
Today (March 21, 2020) marks the start of Bill Salot's 50th Unofficial World Championship Checker Problem Composing Contest, which can be found on the American Checker Federation website.
Mr. Salot has long been an inspiration to us (and is indirectly responsible for our decision to continue publishing The Checker Maven beyond our initial 15 year run). He has reached age 90 without skipping a beat or seeming to slow down in the slightest.
Mr. Salot's eight-year long series of competitions has brought us a wealth of modern checker problems of amazing depth and quality. Each contest is eagerly anticipated by solvers and composers alike. Mr. Salot was kind enough to grant us an interview on the occasion of this milestone 50th event.
What gave you the idea for these contests in the first place?
It developed over a long period of time.
During my teen age years, in the 1940s in Detroit, I learned that tournament play was hard work while composing problems was fun. The latter became my primary hobby.
By the 1960s, I was corresponding with great composers. We freely shared many original problems, and published our best in the checker journals of the day. Occasionally our problems appeared side-by-side, and I found myself comparing them to determine which impressed me most.
I passed on to my composer correspondents the idea of side-by-side competition, and they liked it. A series of contests was born. We composers agreed to my publishing small groups of our confidential, original, unpublished problems along with requests for readers to rank the problems and mail me the results for publication.
Most , if not all, of the judges in a given contest ended up being the composers who did not happen to have a problem in that contest. They rotated between competing and judging. They included Ben Boland, Tom Wiswell, Joe Charles, Saul Cass, Milton Johnson, Floyd Brown, a young Melvyn Green, and others.
There were more than 30 such contests in the late 1960s and early 1970s. You can find them recorded in the ACF Bulletin and Elam's Checker Board, a few in the English Draughts Journal and a New Zealand publication.
The contests died out partly because of composer burnout and partly as a result of my parents' illnesses, together with a change in my responsibilities at work. I then dropped out of checkers for more than 35 years.
I woke up when a friend told me that nowadays chess and checkers are played on the internet. He gave me a couple of web sites. On the front page of the ACF site, previously published problems were periodically displayed. I thought, what a fine place that would be for a composer to display original, unpublished problems!
Later somebody posted, on the ACF Forum, a survey question complete with means to cast electronic votes. I saw that would be a great tool for reviving problem composing contests. Eventually Jason Solan set up a contest page and taught me how to administer it. The first contest then took place in January 2012.
How would you describe or characterize the way the contests have been received by the checker community? What sort of feedback have you gotten?
The number of returning visitors to and participants in each contest probably rivals the number of visitors and participants in most checker forums. In my infrequent ventures into tournaments, I get unsolicited positive comments and encouragement, never anything negative. The same is true for voting correspondents. So I would say the contests are generally well received by the checker community.
But composers tend to be more critical. They dislike problems that may be similar to published play, or seem undeserving of the votes they received, or are too unnatural in appearance, or too simple, or too laborious. Composers are sometimes sensitive to how problems are selected, or how solutions are presented, or how slow the contests are, or how few participate. I think all these criticisms are constructive, and the contests have improved as a result of them. I believe competing composers are generally loyal, have compositions to spare, want to win, and when they persist, eventually do win, while generally accepting losses along the way.
What do you see for the future of these contests? Do you plan to continue them indefinitely?
Yes, certainly continue them indefinitely! The backlog of original, unpublished problems has not run out. The contests should have some time left. After all, I am only 90. But eventually they will cease, unless and until somebody else wants to give them a try. So far there have been no applicants.
Problem composition is a true art. Have you seen this art develop over the course of the first 49 contests? How would you characterize today's problems compared with past history?
Problemists feel like artists, even when not recognized as such. But isnít that true of any avocation? Yes, the quality of the contests themselves have continuously improved, thanks to preliminary reviews, private discussions, computer-driven enhancements, and old-fashioned competitiveness. I canít emphasize enough the powerful influence of computers on todayís problems. They not only catch unsound analysis, they spring incredible surprises that seed new problems, many of which should be at least partially credited to the computer. The computer is the difference between historyís unsurpassed gems and masterpieces versus todayís new twists that would not exist without the computer. The computer is to problem composing what fracking is to natural gas production.
Any further thoughts or comments? Any stats you'd like to share?
Statistics are a boring waste of time unless they tell you something you didn't know before. Many stats on past problem contests (2012 - 2019) are posted at the web site. They are also in the annual Year in Review" articles on the ACF Forum.
Let me mention a few things that the contest statistics have taught me, or I should say humbled me.
1. One well-known player warned that the problem composing contests would not get off the ground, if previously published and flawed problems were not screened out beforehand by reviewers with huge databases. He was right. The first year, 7 of 30 problems entered (>23%) were disqualified, including the winners of 2 contests. A call went out for willing reviewers with large databases. A team was formed that is still intact. Only one problem was disqualified in 2013, one in 2014, one in 2016, one in 2017, and two in 2018. So 6 of 191 problems entered after 2012 (<3.2%) were disqualified. Thatís not perfect, but not bad.
2. Another well-known player recommended that the contests not include problems that were 4x4 or smaller. He warned that almost all ideas possible in positions that small have already been published. He apparently was mistaken. Of the 215 problems not disqualified in Contests 1 through 48, 66 (>30%) were 4x4 or smaller. Contest 10 was devoted entirely to 4x4s; Contests 40 and 50 have only 3x3s. Such problems apparently are not exhausted.
3. These contests included perhaps the rarest of all human competitions, the living versus the dead. Six times, living problemists were challenged by George H. Slocum, who died in 1914. Slocum is acknowledged as one of the greatest checker problem composers of all time. Jim Loy found a bunch of Slocum problems published in an obscure journal, unknown to our generation because they were never republished elsewhere. We entered six of them in contests, during 2016-2017, to see how they would fare against todayís talent. They all lost, which only means they probably were not among Slocumís best efforts. After the votes were counted, each of the six Slocum problems was disqualified due to their prior publication. These problems and disqualifications were not counted in item 1 above.
4. The three contests with the most votes by far were contests 2 (35 votes) and 3 (40 votes). They made us think that the contests had exploded in popularity. But that didnít make any sense. Those early contests had no publicity outside of the web site, and they did not run for six weeks as they do now. It turned out that a strange glitch in the voting program was resetting the voting button, implying that a vote was not accepted and needed to be cast again. The Web Master was unable to eliminate the glitch, but he did add an ďI already votedĒ button, which persuaded voters to not vote multiple times. After that, the voting settled into a normal average of 17 per contest.
5. After years of problem composing experience and correspondence with many great composers of yesteryear, I truly expected to dominate these contests at the outset. That was before I heard of the likes of Roy Little, who subsequently won or tied for first 19 times and won Problemist of the Year 4 times, and Ed Atkinson, who won or tied for first 14 times and won Problemist of the Year 3 times. They did it all without entering every contest. I am the only one who did. In contests that Roy and Ed entered, Jim Loy and I each won or tied for first only 7 times. Leo Springer did it 5 times in 5 tries. The sum of all those wins exceeds the number of contests because of the many ties. I am especially humbled by my 6 entries that received zero votes each.
6. I believe some of the clearest indications of the contest voting statistics apply to other aspects of human life, such as politics, religion, ethics, morals, etc. Different people simply look at the same problem and see something entirely different. They often, not just sometimes, draw diametrically opposite conclusions. In 32 of the first 48 contests, every problem received at least one vote for first place. In other words, two-thirds of the time, every problem, even the worst one, is voted best by somebody. If we cannot agree on the value of something as minor as a position on a checkerboard, is it any wonder that we canít consistently agree on real world issues?
The Checker Maven once again thanks Mr. Salot for his time in providing answers to our questions, and for the opportunity to give our readers an insight into his monumental, ongoing contributions to the game. Now, as a special treat (and it's special even if you've seen it before), here is a unique problem by Bill Salot, which he originally called Don't Ask--- as in, "don't ask" how the position arose!
This one is really something, and we're certain you'll enjoy solving it. But if you're not able to contest it, clicking on Read More will uncontestedly show you the solution.[Read More]
This woman is either brave and skilled, or courting disaster, risking a fatal squeeze from a huge, powerful snake.
Today in our Checker School series, we return to the adventures of Skittle and Nemo, as found in Andrew Banks' Checker Board Strategy. The title of our column is a big hint for the solution to the problem below, so we're not giving much more away when we note that Skittle warned Nemo, "Always look well before you squeeze a piece."
White has just blundered badly by playing 27-24. (White really should have won, so for extra credit, give a better move for White.)
This one is super easy and probably will be solved at once by players of any level above novice. (We like to have a balance in our columns; we don't want to squeeze anyone out by just publishing difficult positions.) When you've found the solution, check your work by squeezing the mouse button with the cursor on Read More.[Read More]
Many of our Checker Maven readers are on the older side (your editor certainly is), and some of us have underlying health issues, making the Coronavirus significantly more risky.
We highly value each and every one of our readers and want you all to stay well, safe, and healthy. And so we have a suggestion.
Of course, follow the dictates of your health and emergency officials. But if you're in a higher-risk group, you can always stay home and study checkers or play online. Hopefully that will increase your chances of avoiding infection, and occupy your mind with something other than unproductive worry.
This isn't a just a flippant recommendation, and it's exactly what we're going to do ourselves if the situation here in Hawai`i worsens, as it very well might.
Be safe and well, checker fans, wherever you are.
Looks like something didn't work out in the photo above. Maybe whoever is responsible needs to try again, or try a little harder in the first place.
This month's speed problem--- we'll call it that because it's on the easy side, if not quite in the 10 second category--- illustrates the concept. Not everything works out. If you can see what doesn't work out, you'll find the solution right away.