It was the end of January in Bismarck, North Dakota, the coldest time of the year in a place known for its intemperately cold weather.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and at about quarter to one the temperature was still 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and that would be the highest the mercury reached that day. And to top it all off, the wind was blowing at 20 miles per hour. Of course the sun was out, but that wasn't of much help.
Sal Westerman was undaunted. At one o'clock his Coffee and Cake Checker Club would meet as it did every week at the Beacon Cafe, normally a ten minute walk from Sal's home.
Sal was bundling up under the direction of his wife, Sylvia, who had even gone so far as to suggest that Sal stay home. But there was very little that could keep Sal from his beloved club, and cold weather didn't deter him.
So, as warmly dressed as a person could possibly be, Sal made his way to the club. The wind was biting and the cold wicked, and it took him longer than usual. It was nearly ten after one when Sal entered the Cafe, but as he passed through the door, he didn't feel the blast of heat that one usually felt when going from 20 below zero outside to 70 above zero inside.
Then he noticed that there were only four other people in the cafe, all of them still dressed in their winter clothes, gloves, wool caps, and all. Club members Wayne, Dan, and Louie the Flash were sitting in the usual booth at the back, while Deana, the proprietess, was behind her counter, similarly bundled up. She had an electric heater rigged up and blowing on the only shelf that had anything on it, a tray of coconut chocolate chip bars. There was a big coffee urn plugged in, and that was it.
"What's going on?" Sal asked.
"The gas heat for the building went out during the night," Deana said. "I have a couple of electric heaters running but it's still only 28 degrees in here. The gas company men were working on it but they said it'll be Monday until they can get the heat going again. They need a part from Minneapolis or something," Deana said.
"How come you don't close up?" Sal asked.
"Aw, I know how much you boys like your checkers," Deana replied. "Lucky I had a tray of bars I could go home and get. But I'm going to close early. It's just too darn cold in here."
"Yeah, it's cold even for checkers," Dan said. All of the boys (who were over 50) had big mugs of coffee in front of them. There was just a single checker board set up.
Sal got himself some coffee and went over to the booth. "Tell you what," he said. "I did bring along a problem from Ed. How about you boys try that while I go ahead and buy some bars. After that, we'll go home. What do you say?"
Everyone, including Deana, nodded agreement.
Sal laid out a position on the checker board. "Okay, here you go," he said. "Maybe make it quick as you can!"
But the boys knew a problem from Ed was seldom a quick solve.
"Bars on me today," Deana said. "They're a day old."
In between sips of hot coffee the boys were working away at Ed's problem.
Hopefully, wherever you are, you're somewhere warm, and if you're in a cold climate, we hope the heating is working as it should. One thing for sure is that you'll warm up to Ed Atkinson's fine problem. See how you do and then give your mouse a heated click on Read More to see the solution.
An hour went by, and finally Wayne said, "Hey Sal, it's just too cold."
"Yep," Deana said. "I just checked. It's down to 25 below outside and 20 above inside."
"Show us the solution, Sal," said Louie.
While the boys were working on the problem, Sal had been walking around the Cafe trying to warm himself. He was going to study an issue of All Checkers Digest but he couldn't turn the pages with his gloves on.
"Here you go," Sal said, and quickly demonstrated the following solution.
32-27 22-26---1 31-22 2-7 1-6 7-11 6-10 11-16 27-24! 20-27 10-15 19-24---A 28-19 16-23 15-19 23-26 19-23 Drawn.
A---19-23 15-19 23-26 19-23 Drawn.
1---White threatens a 2 for 1 with 27-24 and Black has no choice but to allow it, or give up a man directly (Ed.)
"Nice one," Dan said, "but I think we better get going before it gets colder out --- or in."
Deana had already put everything away and shut off the electric heaters. She was ready to leave, too.
"Get home safe, boys," she said as the all made their way outside. It was only two-thirty in the afternoon. It had been the shortest meeting of the Coffee and Cake Checker Club ever. But at least they had managed an hour or so of checker fun together. Checker players are a hardy lot.
Editor's Note: The picture at the top of today's column refers to Frank Loesser's 1944 song, Baby It's Cold Outside. In today's era of political correctness, the song is considered controversial and has even been banned by numerous media outlets. We think this is another example of things being carried too far, based on what is at best a misunderstanding of the song's lyrics and at worst a deliberate misrepresentation. Accordingly, while we hope you are not offended by our use of this theme, we offer no apologies.