The Checker Maven

Showdown in West Texas

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The small group crowded around the table in the rear of the saloon backed away a few steps, still watching, but now wary.

It had all started around an hour ago. Old Billy Matson came into the saloon around one in the afternoon, as he did nearly every day, and took his usual seat at his usual table, back to the wall, a clear view through the length of the saloon all the way to the swinging doors in the front. Not that there was generally much danger, but you never could tell, and Billy didn't get to be "Old Billy" by being careless.

He set up his checkerboard, again just like always. The folding board was getting a little tattered and the checker pieces were pretty grimy, but he didn't care and the few who said anything received the merest of shrugs by way of reply. Appearances and aesthetics weren't what it was all about.

It would surprise no one that the main concern was money: stakes won and, much less often, lost by Billy; wagers among the spectators as to who would win, although if you were going to bet against Billy you'd better get long odds, because Billy didn't lose that much. He dropped just enough games to keep the marks coming. It wouldn't have done to win every single game and make taking him on seem hopeless.

But today, things weren't going the way they usually did. A stranger had come into town, riding a Palomino and wearing a six-shooter low on his hip. The first thing he did after he hitched his horse was to ask one of the townsfolk where he could find Old Billy.

"Whatcha looking for Billy for? He don't never do nothin' but play checkers in the saloon," the townsman replied. It was Chet Johnson, the farrier.

The stranger gave Chet a look that made Chet step back involuntarily. "I ain't gotta give you no reason," the stranger said. "Answer my question. Where's Old Billy?"

"The ... the saloon, like I said," Chet replied, and then lit off as fast as he could.

The saloon was easy to spot; it was the biggest building along Main Street. The stranger went on over and pushed through the swinging doors, letting them flap behind him. The barkeep raised his head as if to say something, but one look at the stranger made him change his mind. "Old Billy. He here?" the stranger demanded.

"In the back," the barkeep said, and then tried to look really busy polishing glasses.

The stranger walked to the back, his spurs clicking against the wood floor. When he reached Billy's table, he leaned his arms on it and bent forward, his face mere inches from Billy's.

"You Billy Matson?" he asked.

"Yep, that's me." Billy had met swaggering challengers before and he knew enough to keep his cool and not get stared down or intimidated. "Who's askin'?"

The stranger leaned back, then pulled out a chair and sat down on the other side of the checkerboard. "I'm Danny Douglas, and I hear you're good at checkers."

"Some say that I am," Billy said.

"Well, you ain't as good as me and I'm gonna prove it. I'm the best. The best with a gun and the best with checkers."

"I figure you're here to show me your checker skill, not your gunfighting skill?"

Danny laughed. "You're a funny one, ain't cha. Either way, old man, I can take you either way."

"Then I suggest we stay with checkers."

"Sure," Danny said, "that suits me fine. A hundred a game?"

That was a really big stake, enough to make even Billy think twice, and besides, he wasn't sure if he could come up with the cash if he lost. But he'd been in this kind of situation before, and he hadn't ever backed down. Doggoned if he'd do it now, especially with a cocky gunslinger who thought he could play checkers.

"You're on," Billy said. "First one to win two games collects a hundred bucks."

Danny just nodded and, since the Black pieces were facing him, made the first move.

A few people had overheard the conversation and started to take an interest. A couple of side bets were made.

Half an hour passed, and Danny won the first game.

The buzz among the spectators increased. Someone ran outside and must have told some others, for a few minutes later he came back followed by at least a half a dozen townsfolk, all of whom went straight to the back of the saloon to watch the action.

Billy wasn't sure what had happened in that first game. Danny was good, real good; there was no denying it. Billy knew he'd have to buckle down. This was no easy mark.

Billy won the second game. The gunslinger swore a few times but then stopped himself. "All right, old man," he said. "You're as good as I heard you were. But you ain't gonna win the next game, and then I'll be livin' high on that hundred you'll owe me."

Billy didn't reply.

The crowd of onlookers was in a real state. They had never seen anything like this. No one had ever put up a real contest with Billy, not like this one. Money was changing hands and some large wagers were made on the third and final game.

Both players were very cautious, taking their time with their moves. Slowly but surely, it looked like Danny was getting a little bit of an advantage. He pressed hard, and though Billy fought back, Danny's advantage increased. Finally, the position was like this. Billy had White and it was his turn to move.

BLACK
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WHITE
White to Play and Draw

W:WK32,26,10,K7,6:BK31,K25,21,19,14.

It looked pretty bad. Billy was going to go a man down and there wasn't anything he could do about it. Danny knew it and was sitting back in his chair, his thumbs hooked in his gun belt, a smirk on his face.

Billy was looking for a way out, but in the back of his mind was the frightening thought that he'd end up owing a hundred bucks to this gunslinger, with no way to pay it. That wouldn't be good. Maybe the Sheriff could intervene; he'd get likely get word of the goings-on at the saloon and come to check up on things. Billy could only hope for something like that.

Unless ... suddenly, Billy saw a line of play that he hadn't considered before. Yes ... there was only one move that could save things ... if he moved there, Danny would have to choose between ... yes. That was it!

He raised his head from the board and looked over at the still-smirking Danny. Billy smiled at him, then let the smile vanish from his face, replaced by a serious, deadly look.

"Draw!" he said suddenly and loudly.

There was an explosion and Billy fell back in his chair, a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead, Danny's smoking gun pointed right at him, no more than a foot away.

"Drop it!" That was the Sheriff. He had come in just as the shot was fired. He was holding his gun in both hands, keeping it steady on Danny.

Danny knew better than to try anything. He slowly lowered his six-shooter and placed it gently on the table. He was careful not to disturb the checkerboard.

"You're under arrest for the murder of Billy Matson!" the Sheriff declared.

Still careful not to make a sudden move, Danny said, "Murder! What do you mean! He challenged me!"

"Ain't the way I saw it," said one of the braver bystanders. "You drew down on him an' plugged him, and he didn't do nothin' afore you killed 'im."

"Draw!" Danny said. "He said draw, so I did! He woulda killed me if I hadn't."

The bystander started to laugh. He probably felt safe with the Sheriff keeping his gun on Danny. "Ha ha! That's a good one! Billy don't even carry no gun! When he said 'draw' he meant the game was a draw. Cain't cha see that? I thought you was some kind a good player but I guess you ain't, and now you're gonna swing for it!"

Danny Douglas did hang for the murder of Old Billy Matson, but the town was never the same, and no one would play checkers again in the back of the saloon.


In the diagram above, White does have a draw but it will take a "star" move to make it happen. Can you do it? Solve the problem and then draw your mouse over to Read More to check your solution. Just be careful what you say and how you say it in a West Texas saloon!20050904-symbol.gif



Solution

BLACK
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WHITE
White to Play and Draw

W:WK32,26,10,K7,6:BK31,K25,21,19,14.

7-11 31x22 11-15 19-24 6-2 25-30 2-7 21-25 10-6 30-26 15-19 24-28 6-2 25-30 2-6 14-18 7-10 30-25 19-15 18-23 15-19 25-29 10-15 22-25 19-24 26-30 6-10 25-22 15-19 22-26 etc. Drawn.

Variations on the above play are of course possible, but note the dynamics. Black can't win despite being a man up. Why? He's got a man in the dog hole (square 28) and the man on 23 can't advance and has to be protected. The king on 29 can't be brought into play as White can always hold it back (a form of the 'opposition' concept). It's a fascinating and instructive position.

A big 'mahalo' to Russ Rader of Livonia, Michigan, for pointing out an error in our originally published solution.

08/09/14 - Category: Problems - Printer friendly version
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