The Checker Maven

Beacon Cafe: Challenge Returned


"They solved it," Sal Westerman said, with obvious distaste. "They solved Ed's 'Kaleidoscope' problem. Now they say we owe them, and not only that, they sent us one in return."

Sal Westerman

It was a Saturday afternoon in February, 1955, and the "boys" (who were all over 50 years old) were gathering as they always did in the Beacon Cafe in Bismarck, North Dakota. It was a blustery day, snow mixed with rain and an iron-gray sky, and Sal thought the weather suited his mood.

Sal was the unofficial leader of the Coffee and Cake Checker Club, which had been meeting at the Beacon for years. Recently, what Sal referred to as an "upstart" club had sprung up in Fargo (see previous Checker Maven story). They called themselves "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee, Let's Have Another Piece of Pie" and they had challenged Sal's club to a checker problem solving contest. Sal sent them his Pennsylvania pen-pal's "Kaleidoscope" composition, and Don Steam, the Fargo club leader and a professor at North Dakota State University, soon afterwards sent Sal a letter in reply.

Don Steam

"Listen to what this character told me," Sal said. He was waving Professor Steam's letter around. "'Send us something challenging next time. Something worthy of our skills. The solution to your trivial problem is below, along with one for your club to solve. Which you won't, because you haven't got the chops."

There were mutterings around the table in the big booth at the back of the Cafe. Larry, Dan, Wayne, Delmer, and Louie were on hand today. "Pretty rude and arrogant," Delmer said.

"And not only that," Sal exclaimed, "they sent us a problem composed by Brian in St. Louis! I thought Brian was my pen-pal, but he's been two-timing us!"

"Easy now, Sal," Larry said. "Brian is a nationally famous grandmaster problemist. He probably corresponds with lots of people."

Sal shuffled a little in his seat. "I suppose," he said, "but does it have to be that bunch of scoundrels?"

"Let's see it," Wayne said. "We better get it. We all ready owe them for one round of coffee and pie."

"Yes, and this Steam character told me to send him five bucks," Sal said. "Imagine!"


There was a low whistle from behind Deana's counter. Deana was the proprietor and a championship baker. She sold coffee for ten cents and her bars were two for a quarter. "Five bucks! Are there forty of them or something?" she asked. "But hey, I've got cherry granola bars today!"


"Sure thing," Sal said. "I'll buy a dozen. The boys need to be fueled up so they can crack this one."

"Thanks, Sal!" Wayne said, and the others added their agreement. "Now let's get at it!"

Sal laid out the following position on one of the checkerboards.

White to Play and Win


"No time limit today, boys," he said. "We just have to solve it."

A large platter of bars and a fresh pot of coffee arrived at the table. The boys dug in while talking over the problem.

Would you be able to handle Professor Steam's--- or should we really say Brian's--- challenging problem? Another fiver is on the line, and in 1955 that represented a significant amount (almost $50 in today's terms). You too can take as long as you want and indulge in your favorite snack. When you're ready, click on Read More to see the solution and the rest of the story.

Solution and Conclusion

Over two hours went by, and it was approaching four in the afternoon. The plate of bars was finished and the boys had gone through two pots of coffee. But there were smiles all around.

"That should do it," Sal said. "Nice work, boys! Let's go over it one last time just to be sure."

Sal played out the following solution---1.

16-19*!---A 3x12 13-9* 5x14 20-16* 14-17 29-25 22x29 19-24 12x19 24x13 29-25 13-17 25-30 17-22…white wins.

A---8-4? ... This natural move misses the win, believe it or not! Continue 18-23* 16-19---B 23x16 20x11 22-18 29-25 18-23 25-21 23-18*! 21-17 18-22* 17-14---C 3-8 11-7 22-17 4x11 17x3. White has the move and can crown the piece on 13 but it is only a draw.

B---16-12 22-18 4-8 18-15 29-25 23-18 25-21 18-14 32-27 28-32 27-23 32-28 8-4 14-10…draws.

C---32-27 28-32 27-23 5-9* 13x6 22x13 23-18 13-9* 6-1 32-27. Black’s active kings have the move on White’s active kings so this will draw.

1---Solution and notes are by the real-life composer, Brian Hinkle.

"Looks good," Dan said, "and I've got it all written down for you."

Sal grinned. "Wait until you see the letter I'm going to write to this Steam character," he said.

"Ah, Sal, go easy on him," Delmer said. "Treat him with kindness. Tell him gently that the five bucks he asked for is now canceled out. Unlike them we don't have to brag and boast and be rude."

Sal pondered a moment. "You know, you're right, and that's just how I'll play it," he said. "And then we'll challenge him again!"

The boys all laughed. By then it was just about time to head on home. One by one they said their farewells and made their way out into the wintry late afternoon.

02/20/21 - Category: Fiction - Printer friendly version
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