The Checker Maven

Holidays Ahead! A Beacon Cafe Story


The Christmas and New Year's holidays were coming, and this would be the last meeting of the Coffee and Cake Checker Club until after the two week break.

Everyone was gathered in the big booth at the back of the Beacon Cafe, which was situated in the Provident Life Building in Bismarck, North Dakota. The year was 1955 and the club was informally led by Sal Westerman, a very accomplished but very modest elderly gentleman.

Old Frank

Several of the "boys" (all of whom but one were over 50 years of age) were on hand. Young Blaine had put in an appearance, as well as regulars Dan, Mike, Wayne, Larry, and Louie the Flash. The group was rounded out by Old Frank, who only was seen on occasion.

It was cold, clear, and crisp outside. The temperature at 1 PM, the club's meeting time, was hovering just above zero (Fahrenheit, of course) and would likely drop well below zero by the time the club adjourned just before the cafe closed at 5.

The cafe was gaily decorated for the season and the chatter was about what everyone would be doing over the holidays. Several of the boys were going back to their family farm in various locations around the state, to celebrate with relatives. Young Blaine would spend the holiday with his parents up in Minot. Sal and a couple others would have a quiet holiday at home.

Young Blaine

Now, young Blaine was a busy fellow and only could make it to the club once in a while. Today, he was coming in for some serious but good natured teasing from the older members--- which was everyone else, actually.


"So young Blaine, you finally going to propose to Moira?" Dan asked. Moira was young Blaine's girlfriend of some five years. "I'm sure a big sparkly ring would make a great Christmas gift for her."

"Well, I was actually thinking of maybe a nice bottle of perfume," young Blaine replied, turning a bit red as he did.

"No, no," Sal said, "I tried that one Valentine's Day and trying to choose perfume for a young lady, or a lady of any age for that matter, is just a way to get yourself into hot water. Come now, young Blaine, she's been waiting for how long now? The bird could fly the coop, you know."


"Aw, she wouldn't ... would she?" Blaine said.

"Happened to lots of guys," Old Frank put in. "Why, I remember back in ... "

"Things have changed a bit since the Civil War!" Mike said, and everyone laughed.


But before young Blaine could make a reply, Deana, the proprietess and a championship baker, announced that today she had a special holiday treat, date nut bars with candied fruit. "Kind of a fruit cake except they're bars," she pointed out, and then couldn't help but add, "and you there, young Blaine, listen to a gal who knows the score. You better propose while the proposing's good."

"Well, then," Sal interrupted, adroitly changing the subject, "those bars sound very festive and I'll be sure to take a few home for my wife Sylvia. Of course you boys will be buying because you're not going to solve the problem I brought along today. So much as this discussion is interesting I think we'd best get down to business."

That elicited a chorus of "oh yeah" and "we'll see." But Sal had accomplished his goal. The boys were ready to turn to checkers, likely much to young Blaine's relief.

The long-standing tradition was for Sal to bring along a checker problem; if the boys solved it, Sal bought the treats but if they didn't win it, they would buy for Sal and Sylvia.

"Okay, Sal, put up or ... you know!" Wayne said playfully.

"You're on," Sal replied, and set up the following position on two of the waiting checkerboards.

White to Play and Win


"Hmm," young Blaine said, anxious not to have the conversation revert to his relationship with Moira. But, when presented with a nice checker problem, the boys weren't about to focus on anything else.

Sal, meanwhile, was looking in young Blaine's direction and smiling, if ever so slightly. He could still remember his days of youthful love. There was an intensity to it that was perhaps suitable only for the young. But there was another reason Sal had changed the subject and directed the conversation away from young Blaine. There were some bittersweet memories that at the moment Sal didn't want to revisit, but couldn't help doing.

Sal and Sylvia's Courting Days

He and Sylvia had recently celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary. They were married in 1914. Sal was 28 years old at the time. He had courted Sylvia for a good five years. She had turned 23 and was getting impatient. A young lady of 23, her parents told her, should have been married by now and starting a family.

But Sal was afraid. He was afraid to ask, for fear of being turned down. Until the day he was summoned to the Army, to fight in the Great War, which had just begun.


He was to report in 90 days, and there was no telling when he would be home again--- if ever. It looked like the war would go on for a while, and lives were already being lost. So he scraped together his savings, and went and bought the best ring he could afford. It wasn't much but it would have to do.

Then one evening that week when he and Sylvia had some precious time alone in the parlor of Sylvia's home, where she lived with her parents, all in practically a single breath he told Sylvia of his being called to go to war and then instantly bent a knee and asked her to marry him.


Sylvia looked into Sal's eyes and wept. Finally she said, "Sal, I don't know what to say. I've been waiting so long for you to ask me I was on the verge of telling you we would have to break off our relationship. In fact, I was prepared to do that tonight."

Sal's expression turned from nervous to crestfallen. "So," he said, "you won't accept?"

"You're asking me to marry you and at the same time telling me perhaps I'll become a young widow. Five years of courting, why couldn't you ask me before it came to this?"

Sal didn't respond, didn't know how to respond. Silent, he stayed on one knee, waiting for Sylvia to say more.

"We don't even have time to get married," she said. "You leave so soon." She paused. "I have to think about this. Give me a day or two, would you?"

Sal stood. His voice trembling, he said, "Of course. Whatever you wish." But his heart was about to break.

"I think you had better go now," Sylvia said. "Come back in two nights and I'll give you my decision. Don't get in touch with me or my parents until then."


Sal nodded his head and quietly made his way to the front door. It was a long, cold walk home, but not as long as the ensuing two days would be.

When the 2nd evening came, Sal, his heart skipping beats, willing himself not to shake, made his way back to Sylvia's. She answered the door herself.


"Come in, Sal," she said quietly. She walked with Sal into the parlor and pointed to the sofa. "Have a seat," she said. Sal sat as directed but Sylvia made no move to join him. Instead, she stood in the middle of the room with her arms crossed over her chest.

"I've decided to accept," she said. Sal started to smile and looked as if to speak, but Sylvia didn't give him the opportunity. "I've discussed this with my parents," she went on, 'and they agreed, but they and I are imposing a condition."

"Anything, dear, anything," Sal said but Sylvia had already gone on.

"You must marry me before you report for duty," she said. "That doesn't give us much time, and we'll only be able to have a small wedding with just a few guests and a reception here at the house. We'll go for the marriage license tomorrow."

Then she smiled. "Now, where's the ring?"


They were married just a few days before Sal went off to boot camp. Sal didn't return until the war was over. But he did return.

Sal's reverie was interrupted by young Blaine. "You look like you're somewhere else, Sal," young Blaine said. "But look, we've solved this one."

Sal looked at the clock. An hour had passed. "Show me," Sal said.

We can't say if you're in a situation in which you're thinking of proposing to a girl- or boyfriend over the holidays; we suspect that would apply to a rather small number of our readers. But perhaps some of you can recall a past year, whether near or distant in time, when that was the case. No matter. There's a nice sparkly checker problem for you to try. Young Blaine seems to have the solution in hand, and we "propose" that you see if you can match the boys on this one. It's a bit long and a bit difficult but we're sure you can "engage" with it, and then click on Read More to check up on your "proposed" solution and read the conclusion of our story.20050904-symbol.gif


White to Play and Win


Young Blaine demonstrated the following solution.

1. ... 30-25

21-30 also wins; the order of jumps doesn't matter.

2. 10-26 7-2
3. 21-30 18-15
4. 19-10 2-6
5. 12-19 6-22
6. 1-6 ...

13-17 now or later also loses.

6. ... 20-24
7. 6-9 24-19
8. 9-14 19-23
9. 14-17 23-27
10. 17-26 27-31

A position known as Captive Cossacks.

11. 13-17 31-13

Now an early phase of First Position, an old standard shown in many books.

12. 30-26 13-17
13. 26-23 17-14
14. 23-19 14-18
15. 19-24 18-15
16. 24-28 15-19
17. 28-32 3-7
18. 32-28 ...

It is good strategy to hold back the piece on 4 as long as possible. See Note E.

18. ... 7-11
19. 28-32 11-16
20. 32-27 16-20
21. 27-32 20-24
22. 32-28 24-27
23. 28-32 19-23
24. 32-28 27-32
25. 28-24 32-28
26. 24-20 24-19

Watch out for 23-18 20-16 28-24 16-12 Drawn.

27. 20-24 19-15
28. 24-27 15-18
29. 27-32 18-23
30. 4-8 28-24
31. 32-28 24-19
32. 28-32 19-16
33. 8-12 16-19
34. 32-28 23-27
35. 28-32 19-23
36. 32-28 27-32
37. 28-24 23-18
38. 24-28 ...

All moves lose. This defense plays for one last trick.

38. ... 18-15
39. 12-16 15-11

The key move. 15-18 allows a draw by 16-19 32-27 19-23 (not 28-32 27-24 19-28 18-23 White Wins) Drawn.

40. 16-19 32-27
41. 28-32 27-31
42. 32-28 11-16
43. 19-24 16-19

White Wins.

"Very good," Sal said, and couldn't resist adding, "you solved the checker problem. That just leaves you one other more personal problem to solve, and you have two weeks to do it!"

Everyone laughed and young Blaine joined in, even if he had become a bit red in the face. Sal went over to Deana's counter to buy the treats. On his arrival, Deana whispered, "I think he's going to do it."


"I do too," said Sal, "and it will make for a wonderful Christmas for both of them."

The boys played skittles and talked checkers, and left young Blaine alone, at least mostly, until Deana was ready to close and it was time to go home. Warm holiday greetings were exchanged all around and everyone departed in a cheerful and festive mood.


Brian Hinkle wrote to tell us of an alternate solution, a man-down win which he thinks master players would be more likely to find:

22-17 13x22 7-2 10x17 18-15 19x10 2-6 12x19 6x31 White Wins.

Today's problem, main solution, and notes are by the late grandmaster composer Ed Atkinson, who called it "A Piece of Cake." Ed once told me his favorite Checker Maven columns were the Beacon Cafe stories. We've only got a few more of Ed's problems left, and sad to say, there will be no more after that. Happy Holidays, Ed, and safe journey, wherever you are.

12/16/23 - Category: Fiction -Printer friendly version-
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