It was Saturday, May 21, 1955, and for Sal Westerman of Bismarck, North Dakota, it was a bittersweet spring day. His beloved group of checkerists, The Coffee and Cake Checker Club, would meet today as they did every Saturday, at one o'clock at the Beacon Cafe in the Provident Life Building.
Sal was always happy to have Saturday come around, and spend some good checker time with the "boys" (all of them over 50) who made up the club. Yet it was the Saturday before Memorial Day, which this year fell on a Monday and made for a long weekend. That meant this was the last meeting of the club until the Saturday after Labor Day--- more than three months away.
Summer in North Dakota was short, and pretty much all regular activity, outside of work and church, ceased. There were no dance groups, no crafts classes, no book clubs ... and no checkers at the Beacon.
There was a good turnout for the closing meeting of the season. Wayne, Tom, Dan, Louie, Sam, Delmer, and even infrequently seen Ted were all there. That made eight, counting Sal, and they overflowed into a second booth adjacent to the large booth in the back that they always occupied.
Deana, the proprietress, would miss the club as well. They brought her some good business on slow Saturdays. In fact, she would even close on Saturdays from mid-June through mid-August. Today, though, she had baked a large tray of one of her all-time favorites: chocolate chip almond bars. She charged a little extra for them--- they were twenty cents a serving instead of fifteen cents--- but no one complained.
When everyone was settled in with mugs of Deana's coffee, Sal announced that he had a problem from Ed in Pennsylvania, one that Ed said would go well with next week's Indianapolis 500 auto race. "Ed calls it 'Photo Finish'," Sal remarked. "He originally had in mind the Kentucky Derby, but you'll see when you solve it." Sal paused and chuckled. "If you solve it, that is." Sal turned and looked over at the baked goods case. "Those bars look really fine."
That got a smile out of Deana. "Sure are," she said. "A real deal, too."
Sal laid out the problem setting, once in the big booth and then again on another board in the adjacent booth.
"How long should I give you boys?" he asked, and then answering his own question, said, "Twenty minutes. After that, one of you buys the bars. And more coffee, too."
At first there was silence as the boys examined the position. Then there was discussion, starting with a few suggestions but becoming more and more lively as time passed. Delmer was arguing with Wayne, Sam was getting impatient with Louie, and Dan, Ted, and Tom were trying to solve as a trio.
Finally, it was Ted who spoke up. Over eighteen minutes had passed and Sal was closely watching the clock.
"I have the answer," Ted said, but his voice didn't sound confident at all.
"Glad to hear that, Ted," Sal said. Was there a tiny note of sarcasm? "Let's see it."
"Uh, sure," Ted said, and started to move the pieces.
It's the last chance until September to win some of Deana's famous bars. Can you do it? Do you think infrequent player Ted has found the solution?
You can take your time--- there's no need to race to the finish--- and when you're set, click on Read More for the solution and the conclusion of the story.
Ted played out the following moves.
14-18 21-25 White wins.
Here Ted had played 16-12.
"Nope, not right," said Sal.
"What do you mean?" Ted says. "Look, if ... oh." Ted now saw what he had missed: 7. ... 16-12 8. 26-30 12-8 9. 29-25 8-4 10. 25-22 4-8 11. 14-18 Drawn.
Sal just smiled. "Here's the right way, he said. "It's all about stopping the black man from crowning." He corrected Ted's move to 16-11, and continued play
14-18 21-17 22-13 15-22 White Wins.
"Really clever," Ted said, "I completely missed that. It definitely is a photo finish, isn't it?"
Sal looked up from the board. Admiration for a fine problem setting was written on all of the boys' faces. Then Sal said, "Okay, I think Ted ought to buy, right?"
There was enthusiastic agreement.
"But ... " Ted began, and then stopped. "Okay, sure."
All of the boys had two of Deana's chocolate chip almond bars, and Wayne even thought about having a third, but then decided it would be just too hard to explain to his wife, Pam, why he didn't want much for dinner.
Everyone played skittles until about four thirty, when it was finally time to head out. "See you in September," Sal said, a bit wistfully, as he went out into the street to walk back home. "It's been fun, boys."
Our thanks to Ed Atkinson for this outstanding problem setting, solution, and lettered notes.