We often celebrate Checker Maven publication anniversaries with an original work of checker fiction. For our seventh anniversary, we're proud to present a new short story called "The Old Checkerist." It's somewhat on the long side at about 4,800 words, so if you haven't got the time or the inclination to read it all, you can just skip down (way down) to the diagram and try to solve the problem (it's not easy). Of course, we do hope you'll read and hopefully enjoy the story.
He awoke just after dawn to the sound of the chickens in the neighbor's yard, a warm damp breeze carrying the sounds through his tattered screen window, along with the promise of another suffocatingly hot Mississippi day.
He wanted to just lay in bed and sleep away the day, or as much of it as he could. But it was impossible. He was already sweating, laying atop his sheets, knowing that growing discomfort would keep the much-wanted oblivion of sleep away from him. And so, with a mutter and a curse, he arose, grabbed hold of an old shirt, and pulled it over his head as he made his way to the tiny kitchen to boil some water and seek out a clean cup in which to brew some instant coffee.
It was about six in the morning. No use heading out to the park at the town square until at least ten; there wouldn't be much of anyone there before then. Maybe he could wash up, shave, clean up the place a little.
He knew he wouldn't. He would end up, as always, spending the time in front of the television, or, if he was really in a good mood, reading a copy of yesterday's newspaper that he had brought back from the park. The television usually won out.
He was getting old. No, he already was old, somewhere past seventy; he didn't really keep track any longer, and he didn't really care about it.
On days when it didn't rain, he played checkers in the little park in the town square. Five bucks a game; it wasn't exactly legal, but everybody knew about it and the sheriff looked the other way. He almost always won, some days bringing in as much as thirty dollars, giving him a little something to live on besides his Social Security. The town people didn't play him all that often, as they knew that losing their money was all but a foregone conclusion. Still, once in a while someone, usually after a couple of beers, would get an idea that they might beat the old man and they'd go down to the park and risk a few games. They nearly always came home empty-handed.
But they'd make sure to steer the tourists and passers-by his way. You ought to go down and play checkers with old Ned, they'd suggest, five bucks and you can say you played the best, the former honest to goodness Mississippi state cham-peen. It was an easy sell, and the tourists didn't even mind walking away ten or fifteen bucks lighter in the wallet.
Ned would sit for hours in front of his scuffed old board, looking at the just-as-scuffed old red and white wooden checkers, waiting for a game, lost in his own thoughts, getting up only to visit the restroom or drink from the water fountain. It was what passed for his life these days.
When it rained too much or it was on the cold side and no one would be out, old Ned had to stay home, keeping his own company. He thought about trying to get people to come and play at his cottage but in the end he decided he didn't want visitors dropping in any time they felt like it. So he just moped around the cottage, watching more television or trying to sleep.
This morning, at least, looked like a nice one, and when noon rolled around Ned was on his way to the town square, board and checkers in hand, reading to take his seat at the stone tables in front of the War Memorial monument. His legs hurt a little more than usual--- arthritis, nothing really to be done about it, the doc would say--- and it took a little longer than usual for him to arrive and get settled in.
Jack Henderson, the insurance agent, turned up after fifteen minutes or so. Jack, somewhere in his mid forties, was an avid checker player but knew better than to risk his cash with Nick. But he'd come over to the town square from his nearby office sometimes during lunch hour and eat his sandwich while talking checkers with Nick. Nick enjoyed his company--- something he couldn't say about very many others--- and knew that Jack would quickly move aside if a paying customer came along.
Today was Monday and Jack was all abuzz about the big tournament that had taken place in nearby Natchez over the weekend.
"Quite the contest," he was saying. "A couple of Yankees from up there in New York showed up and thought they were pretty hot merchandise. Well, our boys gave 'em a pretty good lickin', leastwise all but one of 'em. That fella Ryman was one tough character, and he finished first. 'Course, Clayman is still State Champ on account of the Champ can't be no New Yorker. But Ryman finished Clayman off in the last round. It was a sad sight, but you gotta admit, Ryman is darn good."
Ned made a sound as if clearing his throat. "Hah. I should of been there. It'd been a little different story. Ain't no Yankee gonna win off me."
"Aw, c'mon Ned, you know you ain't played a tournament since you retired back in '49. You're good, you're dang good, but you ain't no match for the likes a Ryman, 'least not no more you ain't."
Everyone knew that Ned was a pretty grumpy old guy, and generally kind of irritable, but he seldom got made, least of all at his friend Jack. But Jack had perhaps gone a little too far, and the fire was building in Ned's eyes.
"I retired 'cause a my arthritis and you know it!" he growled at Jack. "That don't mean some dang Yankee that can beat Clayman could beat me! And I don't need your fool opinion if that's what you think!"
"Whoa, whoa there, Ned!" replied Jack. "No need to fly off the handle! Just hold your horses and let me tell you the rest a the story."
Jack settled down a little but still didn't look to pleased. "Well, go on then," he grumbled.
"Well then," Jack went on, "seems like this Ryman heard a you and was askin' around like he was hopin' to find you at the tournament. 'Course, the guys, they told him that you don't play tournaments no more an' that it ain't so easy for you to get around. So they was sayin' as how you lived down here an' played a few games in the square..."
"So what?" Ned interrupted. "What, did this Yankee think I'd go up to Natchez just to play him a couple a games? What does he think, he's some kind a movie star?"
"No, no, Ned," Jack replied. "He said as how he might come down here hisself!"
Jack had to get back to the office and left Ned sitting and stewing in his seat at the bench. Ned knew about Ryman, of course; everyone who knew anything about checkers did. Ryman wasn't originally a New Yorker but it hadn't taken him long to develop a New Yorker's ego and sense of superiority. He was brash and bold, but for better or worse, he was really good.
But all of this left Ned wondering. An afternoon breeze carried off the worst of the humidity as Ned continued to stew. It looked like no one was going to show up to play today, but he'd sit there until four or five in the afternoon. There was little else to do in any case.
The big tournament had finished yesterday. Most of the players would have gone home last night, or at the latest, this morning. The out-of-state players would be on an early train heading to various other Southern cities, or in Ryman's case, probably back to New York. Why would he spend another day--- probably two, when you considered the extra travel time--- to come down to this little town? He was just blowing smoke, just talk. And why would he bother with an old man who even his friends, like Jack, thought was past his prime? It didn't add up.
Besides all of that, Ned didn't want to admit to himself that the idea of Ryman really showing up was a little frightening, despite the way he had reacted when Jack told him that Ryman was too tough for him. Ned and Clayman had always been pretty close when Ned was Champ and Clayman was an up-and-comer. Clayman was in his prime right now, and if Ryman was able to beat him, he must be every bit as good as the checker magazines said he was. They were saying that he'd be World Champ in a few years, that he'd take on Longge pretty soon and have a real chance at the biggest checker crown of them all.
But it didn't really matter. He would likely never meet Ryman in any case.
Before Ned knew it, it was six o'clock and the Plaza was empty. Everyone had already gone home. Perhaps he had dozed off a little; the afternoon seemed to have passed quickly, and as expected no one had come along to offer him a game. With a sigh Ned rose, packed up his board and pieces, and started his slow walk back to his cottage.
Tuesday morning started off pretty much the same as Monday, or any other day for that matter. The same chickens clucking, the same stiffness, the same heavy humidity. Ned was in his kitchen. It was about seven in the morning and he was halfway through his first cup of coffee when he heard an insistent knocking at the front door.
He got up out of his chair and walked to the front of the cottage. Hardly anyone ever came here any longer. Who could it possibly be, and at this hour of the morning? He threw the door open. It was Jack. Before Ned could speak, Jack was already saying, "Ned, Ned, come quick! Come right away!"
"Come where? What in the dickens are you talking about?" Ned growled, obviously not very pleased to see his friend. His coffee would be getting cold out in the kitchen.
"To the Plaza! Come on, he's here, he's looking for you! He just got off the early train!"
"Just hold on, Jack! It's seven thirty in the mornin', I'm still drinkin' my coffee, and you're tellin' me to run to the Plaza for what?"
But then he paused, as if frozen in place. Suddenly, he knew who was there, he knew who was looking for him.
Jack saw the look on Ned's face. "Yep, Ned, it's Ryman. He's waitin' in the Plaza for you to come down there and play a little match with him."
It took Ned a little while to get going. Was he starting to have doubts about all this? Could his hands be trembling as he buttoned up his shirt in his room, while Jack waited impatiently outside?
Well, there wasn't much choice, was there? If he didn't show, even if he made up an excuse such as illness, it would be a huge insult to Ryman, and Ryman would make sure it got into the checker magazines. "Ex Mississippi champ won't play Ryman" the story would read, and his checker legacy would be one of cowardice instead of that of a champion.
Finally he was ready to go. They went in Jack's car, to save time Jack said, even though Ned made an effort to say he would walk instead.
Jack pulled into his parking place in front of his insurance office at the side of the Plaza. Ned got out of the car. It wasn't hard to miss Ryman, pacing around the grassed area at the center of the Plaza, smoking a cigarette, wearing his trademark cheap suit, worn to a shine from years of travel from tournament to tournament, eking out the impossibly narrow living of a professional checkerist. Without a word, Ned walked over to the stone table and began to set up his board and pieces.
Ryman saw him at once, of course, and hurried over, extending his hand for a weak and sweaty handshake. "Of course you're old Ned!" he exclaimed. "Couldn't hardly be anyone else!"
"Yes, I'm Ned," Ned replied, leaving out the "old" adjective. "And you're surely young Ryman."
"Indeed, indeed, one and the same, the one and only Will Ryman, next checker Champion of the world!"
"Modest fella, ain't you?" Ned said. "So what brings you to our little town? Would have thought you'd a been on your way back to New York by now."
"Wouldn't miss a chance to challenge old Ned to a match, now, would I? Just a little train ride down here from Natchez, anyways, and I figure on winning back my train fare ... no offense, you know, but you haven't played for a little while ... still, I figure it an honor to meet an old-time champion and play a few games, even if I do win them."
Ned knew about Ryman's brashness and ego, but this was getting to be a little too much. Meanwhile, a bit of a small crowd was starting to gather. Not a whole lot went on in the little village, and Ryman's arrival promised a little excitement even for people who didn't know anything about checkers.
"Well, then, Mr. Ryman, exactly what did you have in mind?" Ned asked calmly, though he was anything but calm by this time.
"A little stakes match," Ryman said.
"Just how little?"
"A hundred dollars, and it goes to the first player to win two games."
A hundred dollars! Ned seldom made that much in a couple of weeks of playing checkers, and it was a good chunk of his Social Security check. It was a stake he couldn't afford to lose.
"That's quite an amount, Mr. Ryman," Ned said. "It's more than the prize money you took at the Natchez tournament this past weekend. You must be feeling pretty confident."
"Well, Old Ned, if you're not so confident, and I guess you have got some reason to be doubtful, given who you'll be playing and all that, we could say maybe fifty instead?"
Ned had had enough, but fifty dollars sounded more reasonable despite the insult. "Listen here, you young Yankee, put up that fifty bucks and let's get going!"
There was a little more banter back and forth, but finally the terms were set. A member of the local checker club who was standing by would be the referee. The standard five minutes per move rule would apply. The full stake would go to the first player to win two games. Ryman, as the visitor, would play Black in the first game and colors would alternate each game thereafter. There would be a one hour lunch break at noon, and if a winner had not been declared by five o'clock in the afternoon, the match would go to the player with the highest current score. In case of an even score the match would be declared a draw.
Ned and Ryman shook hands and play began in the growing heat of the Mississippi morning.
They felt each other out for the first few games, neither player taking much in the way of risks. Finally around ten o'clock, Ryman pulled one of his "horseradish" moves, but Ned was on to it. Still, Ryman recovered and the game ended in a draw. Lunchtime came along and neither player had yet scored a win.
Ned was feeling pretty tired as he went with Jack to Jack's office to get inside for a while and eat of couple of the sandwiches that Jack brought over from the cafe down the street.
"You look a bit peaked, Ned," Jack said as he chewed on a ham and cheese, his feet up on the large walnut desk which filled up a good part of his little office.
"Now, Jack, you ain't gonna start that 'Old Ned' business, I hope," Ned said.
"No, no, but I ...."
"Sure, I'm tired. But I'm holdin' my own out there."
"Ned, can't you see what he's doin'? He's just wearin' you down, waitin' for you to slip up. He's younger and he can stand it longer, and he knows it. You know it too. You gotta start mixin' it up a little more ..."
"I know how to play, Jack, and that includes knowin' how to play against impertinent Yankees!"
But the truth was that Ned really didn't know what to do. Jack was right. Ryman would wear him down, playing draw after draw until Ned was just too tired and made a mistake. And then Ryman would win. Ned would have to try something different. What could it be?
Ned had stopped talking, and Jack, realizing that his friend wanted to rest for the remainder of the lunch hour, didn't say much more either.
A little later, Jack shook Ned gently. "Time to go back, my friend," Jack said. Nick awoke from a light, troubled slumber, and the two of them made their way back out to the stone table in the middle of the Plaza.
About an hour later, after another drawn game, Ned got a break. The play wandered into a sharp and tricky line of play. Ned hung on and then Ryman got flustered, taking himself off into a losing variant. Ned brought home the win.
But Ryman was a professional and refused to be rattled. The win had cost Ned a lot of precious energy, and two games later Ryman evened the score when Nick made a blunder.
Another couple of draws followed, Nick hanging on as best he could. It was now well after four o'clock. The referee announced that there was time for just one more game, which would start after a five minute break.
Nick was exhausted. He was dizzy and sweating, and there was a sharp pain in his chest. But he just had to hang on for one more game. He wanted a win and wanted to take the match, but if he could get a draw, the match would be a tie and at least he wouldn't lose his money.
The worst of the heat of the day had evaporated. That was a blessing, but the afternoon breezes had died down and the day was drawing to a close in the shadowy stillness of late afternoon. Ned mopped perspiration from his face and neck with his handkerchief and took a long drink from the water fountain. It hurt so much in his chest as he walked back to the stone table and sat down to the final game. Ryman was looking as fresh as he had in the morning, his suit still neat, his collar buttoned, and his tie nicely knotted.
The crowd of onlookers, which had waned during working hours, had built up again as the working day came to an end. Word had spread that Ned was holding out against Ryman and that it was all down to a final game. Could Ned hold out? Did he have any tricks left up his sleeve? Would Ryman's obvious strategy of wearing the older player down result in a last-minute victory?
One thing they all agreed on. Ned didn't look very well. His friend Jack even went up to him and asked if he really would be able to finish the match, but Ned waved him away angrily, his face flushing even redder. Yet, despite all the water he drank, he couldn't stop sweating. His shirt was soaked at the underarms and even his hands were wet. And the pain wouldn't stop.
He had to set all of that aside. It was time for the final game to begin.
Ned had the White pieces this time, not that it made a lot of difference. Ryman, all smiles and confidence, looked Ned straight in the eye and played 12-16.
That caught Ned by surprise, and the shock of it was almost visible on his face. Ryman almost always played 11-15, widely considered by experts to be the strongest opening move. 12-16, which was called "The Dundee" was near the bottom of the list. Had Ryman being saving up one of his tricky "horseradish" lines for the critical game of the match?
Well, Ned thought, I've played the Dundee before. Nothing to worry about, and I know a trick or two. He played the unusual reply 21-17, trying to steer the game into a direction that would avoid Ryman's "horseradish." Ned attempted to stare back at Ryman, but the pain in his left side was too much and he couldn't quite manage more than an extended glance. Ryman quickly played 9-13. It was the "Dundee Switcher" and Ned was on familiar ground. Perhaps, he hoped, Ryman was not.
Each player made a few more moves, the balance of the game seeming to stay even. The spectators started to mutter to each other about maybe the match ending in a draw after all.
Then Ned played 30-25 and suddenly everyone was paying attention. It was an unfamiliar move. Was Ned trying a bit of his own "horseradish" on Ryman? For his part, Ryman sat back on the stone bench, folded his arms, and frowned wordlessly.
Another few moves went by, and then Ryman played 8-11. The move looked natural enough, but Ned's mind started spinning. Ryman's move just didn't seem right.
Ned was sweating and pain was traveling up and down his left arm. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths, exhale slowly, and then just sit for a few moments trying to clear his mind. He knew the Dundee, surely knew it as well as anyone else, including probably Ryman. That meant that any move that was pretty far from book play was likely to be unsound. But if Ryman was playing it, the move would also be full of tricks and hard to figure out in a hurry. Ryman, of course, had likely put in hours of preparation at home, and would be ready to pounce on any mistake that Ned might make.
Ned kept trying to breathe regularly and block out the pain. His chest was starting to feel tight, but he focused now on the board and on finding the right move. He knew that one slip and it would all be over.
Suddenly he saw through it. There were two moves that Ned could make. The one that looked most likely wouldn't work. But the other move, that was the one.
Ned was pulled out of his thoughts by the sound of the referee calling "Time!" This meant that Ned had just one more minute to make his move, or he would forfeit the game. He reached out his right hand hesitantly. It shook as he extended it over the board. Surely Ryman would notice; he knew how to play the opponent as well as the board.
Ned took another breath and made the move, then dropped his clammy right hand to his lap and sat back, waiting.
For the conclusion to the story and the answer to the problem, click on Read More.
Conclusion and Solution
A---6-9 would have drawn.
Ryman had a look on his face that was seldom seen; it was one of near despair. He hadn't expected Ned to come up with the right play. If Ned could get the rest of it right, Ryman knew that he was in a dire situation.
A few more moves were made, Ned just trying to maintain even respiration while Ryman got more and more fidgety and uncomfortable. He had opened his collar button and loosened his tie, and he too was beginning to sweat.
Ned was sure he had the game won, and prayed that it would finish quickly. He didn't think he could go on much longer. The pain in his chest was crushing and he was starting to be short of breath. But the crowd, so intent on the game, didn't really notice.
It was Ryman's move, and the referee had just called "Time." Ryman stood up, reached out over the board, and then drew his arm back. "Oh, you win!" he exclaimed. "The game is yours, I resign." So saying, he picked up his fedora from the bench and slammed it hard on the table. "Gol dang it, you win, Old Ned!"
B---One way for the game to continue would have been as follows: 10x17 21x14 8-12 25-21 20-24 23-18 11-16 19-15 16-20 15-10 7-11 10-7 11-16 7-3 16-19 18-15 1-5 3-8 2-6 8-11 12-16 14-9 5x14 15-10 6x15 11x9 24-28 9-14 20-24 14-18 16-20 18-23 White wins.
The crowd started to cheer and whistle, but all Ned wanted to do was to stand up, shake hands with Ryman, and ask for his fifty dollars. It was more than he could manage. He raised himself from his seat, trying to manage a smile, when a blinding, searing pain tore through his chest as everything went black. He fell back on the seat, slumped over, and dropped to the ground.
It took a few moments for everyone to realize what was happening. His friend Jack saw it first, running over to Ned and yelling for someone to hurry and call the ambulance. Ned was unconscious and breathing in shallow rasps. Jack tried to get him straightened out on the ground. In a couple of minutes the sound of an approaching siren could be heard, carried on the damp evening air as the ambulance approached the Plaza.
The shimmering haze started to clear up a little as Ned awoke to find himself in a soft, narrow bed with metal rails. He was lying on his back and there were tubes everywhere, in both of his arms and even in his nose. Three or four people were standing around the bed. He wasn't able to make out their faces very well, but one of them had to be Jack.
"You had a real big heart attack," Jack said in a soft, quiet voice. "We thought we was goin' to lose you. It took a while to get you to this here hospital an' the doc was sayin' as how we made it just in time ..."
"Did he pay?" Ned interjected. His voice was weak and feeble, but his words were clear enough.
"Pay? Don't know what your askin'. Anyhow, the doc was tellin' us you're gonna have to stay here a spell an' maybe not got back to your cottage for a while. They might put you in one a them nursin' homes 'til you're better."
"Did he pay?" Ned insisted and then started to cough. The sound brought over an intense-looking white-capped nurse who seemed most displeased. "You'll all have to leave now. Visiting hours are over and your friend needs his rest. He has no business trying to carry on a conversation. She ushered them to the door and then turned back to tend to Ned, who had already fallen back asleep.
There was a light rain falling as the visitors went out onto the street in front of the hospital. "Ah," said Jack, as much to himself as to the others, "I know what Ned was talkin' about! He's wantin' to know if young Ryman paid up his fifty bucks for losin' the match!"
"I ain't seen no cash," one of the others replied. "What with the ambulance an' all the excitement, I reckon' I never did see just what became a that Yankee fella."
"He didn't pay, after all, did he?" said Jack. "Why that miserable cuss ... I bet he done snuck away, takin' advantage of the commotion. Well, for sure he'll have left town afore we can get back an' catch him." Jack paused for a moment. "Danged though if I ain't sendin' a telegram to one a them New York newspapers. Ryman might a run away but he ain't gonna get away!"
He thought for another moment. "But look," he told the others. "Ned, he's been through a lot and it ain't hardly over yet. What do y'all say, let's put our wallets together an' come up with the fifty to give to Ned tomorrow? On top a all a this, he shouldn't get a big disappointment ...."
They all agreed. It was a lot of money, but seeing Ned's smile the next day would make up for all of it. Ned's life, which had nearly ended today, was starting a new chapter, and it would be a good one.