Mid-afternoon on a weekday was usually quiet at Benny's Bar, a long, lazy lull when lunch was over and the factories had not yet let out the crowds of workers seeking a beer or two before taking the streetcar home.
The atomic bombs had fallen on Japan last year; the war was over and times were good in Newark, as the economy returned to a peacetime footing. Though Benny was getting older, and feeling it more each day, he enjoyed running his bar, conversing with his customers, and keeping the place tidy; but above all, Benny enjoyed his checkers. Through the hard times of the '30s, the even darker years of the war, and now into a new era of peace and prosperity, Benny would take on anyone, sitting at his corner table and putting as much as five or ten dollars on the line, winner take all.
Benny sipped his Ballantine's, idly moving the checkers around the board, waiting, as he often did at this time of day, for a customer to come in, and not being in a particular rush for that to happen. He was thinking about an endgame study he had seen in the Roseville Citizen, trying to absorb the play, when the front door of the bar opened and in came a dapper, 40-ish man, dressed neatly in a suit, sporting a trim moustache and slicked-back hair.
“I'm looking for a beer,” the man called. “Anyone here?”
“Back here,” replied Benny from the corner. “You like a Ballantine's on draught? I'll get it for you.”
“Sure, a Ballie's is fine,” said the man, glancing back into the corner from which Benny's voice emanated. “So you're the barkeep...” and just then the man noticed the checkerboard on Benny's table.
“You play?” the man asked Benny. “I'm here in Newark for a few days, and we're between rounds over at the ...”
“I play a little,” Benny replied as he made his way behind the bar and drew a glass of beer from the row of taps along the top of the bar. It was Benny's usual come-on. “Care for a quick game while you drink your beer?”
“Well, sure,” the man replied, “but you ought to know...”
“Couple of bucks on the game?” Benny interrupted. “Just to give things a little more life; this afternoon's been pretty quiet.”
“Well, like I was saying,” the man resumed, “you really should know that....”
“OK, maybe five bucks then? You look like a real sport!”
The man seemed a bit annoyed at Benny's interruptions, and his face took on rather a different look. “How about a sawbuck?” he said in a determined voice. “That would sure liven things up for you if you're bored.”
Benny didn't hesitate. He never did. “Ten bucks it is!” he said. “Come on over to the table. Tell you what. It's nearly an hour 'til the factories let out their first shift and it starts to fill up in here. I'm a sport, too. You go ahead and take the blacks first, and we can play until someone wins.”
“That might not be so long,” the man mumbled, more or less to himself, as he took the glass of beer from Benny and went over to the checkerboard, where Benny joined him after refilling his own glass.
“Ah, the Roseville Citizen,” the man said, noticing Benny's newspaper. “You know I do some writing myself...”
“Yeah,” said Benny, getting impatient to start play, “I'm sure you send a lot of postcards, but how about let's play our game now.”
The man squared his shoulders and simply said, “I tried to warn you; now, have it your way.” And with that, he made his first move and the game began.
There was no further discussion as play went on, the two of them alternately making a move on the board and taking sips of beer from their glasses. Benny was taking his time on each move; his opponent was playing a sharp game, well above the level of play Benny usually encountered. He was secretly wondering if he had made a mistake in taking on this evidently skilled stranger.
The stranger, on the other hand, showed visible impatience, making his own moves rather quickly and with seemingly minimal reflection, as if Benny wasn't a player who needed to be taken very seriously.
The game went on for a good fifty minutes, when Annie, Benny's portly wife and a second bartender during busy hours, came through the back door. “Hey Benny, where are ya?” she said in a loud voice. “We'll be getting busy around here in a few ...”
“Ssh! Quiet hon, I'm in the middle of a tough one here,” Benny said in a vexed tone. “Let us be!” A cross look came over Annie, then she just shrugged her shoulders, put on her apron, and went behind the bar. A couple of factory workers had already made their appearance, expecting to be served their Ballantine's and Shaefer's.
The contestants exchanged a few more moves. Factory workers continued to stream in and some of them started to watch the game. There was surprisingly little banter; somehow, they sensed from Benny that he had a real contest on his hands and didn't want any disturbance or interruption. The stranger made another move. Benny looked at the board, then looked again, a puzzled expression on his face. Some few minutes passed. The dapper, suited man, growing more and more impatient, growled in exasperation, “Will you play already! I haven't got all....”
The man fell silent. He too stared intently at the board, his countenance changing by degrees from unsure to grim. Finally, Benny looked up from the board and said, “You're good, mister, real good, but you shoulda been more careful.” Then, with a surprisingly firm hand, Benny made his move.
For the conclusion of our story, the solution to the problem, and story credits, please click on Read More.
Solution and Conclusion
The game went on as follows:
30-25---A 14-18 21-17 18-23 3. 25-22 9-13---B 17-14 23-26---C 22-17!
"What the..." said one of the workers, but he was quickly quieted by his companions.
13x22 19-15 11x18 14x30
Benny took his hand off his piece, and sat back at the table without saying another word. The dapper stranger vexedly pushed back his chair and stood up quickly. “You win!” he said in evident anger, taking out his wallet, tossing a ten dollar bill on the table, and making a hasty path to the front door of the bar, through which he disappeared into the Newark streets.
The factory workers around the table were cheering and clapping Benny on the back. Behind the bar, even Annie took a minute to smile in his direction before turning back to her taps and her glasses. One of the workers, a checker enthusiast himself, said, “Benny? Do you have any idea who that was? Do you know who you just beat?”
“He did look kinda familiar,” Benny replied, “was that really...”
“It sure was!” the worker said. “And you beat him, fair and square right there on the checkerboard!”
Benny was smiling quietly as the workers jostled for the privilege of bringing him another Ballantine's. Sure, I'm getting older, he thought, but I'm still pretty darn good.
A---Other moves, such as 30-26, allow a draw via 14-18.
B---The only way to save the piece.
C---23-27 loses the same way.
Editor's Note: Benny Newell was a real person, and he indeed tended bar and played checkers in the golden era of both Newark, New Jersey, and the game of checkers. Legend has it that one afternoon, he did in fact defeat a champion player, picking up a goodly sum of money by so doing. We don't know the truth behind the legend, but we thought it would make a good story, and in fact we're contemplating additional stories about Benny and Old Newark. Newark was once a great and proud city; but at about the same time that the game of checkers began to fade in popularity, Newark too was fading and falling into hard times that would last for decades. Today, Newark is rebuilding toward a hopeful future, and it is our fond wish that the game of checkers will do the same.
The Checker Maven wishes to thank L. Craig Schoonmaker, webmaster of the wonderful Resurgence City: Newark USA web site, for putting us in touch with Julius J. Spohn of The Old Newark Web Group, who in turn furnished many of the extraordinary photos used in the story; and to B. Chappel, who gave Craig an additional photo for our use. We kept editing and retouching of the photos to the minimum needed for use in our story. Our hats are off to these gentlemen, who care enough about Newark to preserve its glory days, pointing the way to what Newark might some day be once again.