It was the Saturday after Valentine's Day, 1955, and the weather was wet in Bismarck, North Dakota. Snow mixed with rain was falling, and it was certain that after dark the roads and sidewalks would freeze over, making for dangerous driving and walking conditions.
But Saturday was the day the Coffee and Cake Checker Club met at the Beacon Cafe in the Provident Life Building, and Sal Westerman, the club's informal leader, wasn't about to miss his afternoon of checkers.
Oh, his wife, Sylvia, urged him to stay home so he wouldn't have to return on slippery sidewalks. Sal, after all, was over 70 now, and if he took a tumble it wouldn't be a good thing. But Sal was determined. He put on his winter jacket, rubber overshoes and some warm gloves and set out at about 12:45 PM. The club met at one o'clock and he didn't want to be late.
The skies were gray and Sal pulled up his hood to ward off the chilling rain. But he didn't live far from the Beacon and he was there in about fifteen minutes, his trip taking just a little longer than usual.
Some of the "boys" (all of whom were over fifty) were already there. Sam, Wayne, Dan, Delmer and Tom were seated in the big booth in the back. They waved to Sal as he came back to join them. Deana, the proprietress and an award winning baker, gave Sal a friendly greeting, too.
Then Louie (also known as "Louie the Flash") and Kevin (also known as "Spooler") came in. It was quite a gathering and it made Sal smile and forget the weather.
"Cherry muffins today," Deana said. "I got a shipment of really nice canned cherries and you're going to love these."
"We sure will," Sal said, "especially when the boys are buying."
That elicted groans and laughter from the boys. "Sure, Sal, whatever you say," Spooler said. The long-standing tradition was that Sal would set up a checker problem. If the boys could solve it, Sal bought, while if they couldn't, the boys bought.
"We'll see who laughs last," Sal replied. "I have a nice one from Ed."
Ed was Sal's checker pen pal in Pennsylvania, and his problems always were clever and always a challenge.
"Have a look at this," Sal said, and set up the following position on one of the checkerboards. "I'll give you an hour, and I think I'd better get you all some more coffee." Deana, never missing an opportunity, was already at the booth with a fresh pot ready to pour.
The boys focused on the problem. From time to time Sal took a look outside. By about two-thirty, when the hour Sal had alloted was up, the roads were indeed freezing over.
"Can't get it," Delmer said. "We tried, but ... "
Deana arrived at just that moment with a tray of cherry muffins. "Who's buying?" she asked with a smile. Delmer slowly raised his hand. "My turn," he said sheepishly. "Now, Sal, how about you show us how to do this one?"
Will you have better luck than "the boys"? Or will you be the one to buy the muffins? At least you won't have to go home on frozen roads (well, we hope not). Give this a try and then cherry-pick the solution by clicking on Read More.
Sal showed the boys the following play.
7-2---A 6-9 2-6 9-14---B 6-9 14-17---C 25-21 17-22 21-17 22-26 17-22 26-31 9-6 31-27D 22-26 23-30 16-32 White Wins.
A---If 7-10, then 15-11 draws.
B---9-13 25-22 19-24 16-19 23-16 12-28 White Wins.
C---15-18 25-22 18-25 9-27 White Wins.
D---Or 19-24 16-19 23-16 12-28 White Wins.
"NIce one," Spooler remarked. "Ed always has good ones for us." And then, to everyone's surprise, he added, "Okay, I'll buy today."
It was now just after three o'clock and the boys dug into the tray of muffins Spooler bought. Then they played skittles for a little while. But at about four thirty, to everyone's surprise, who walked into the Cafe but Sal's wife Sylvia!
She nodded to Deana and walked straight to the back, where Sal was playing a closely fought game with Delmer. "That's it," Sylvia announced. "I drove over to pick you up, and we need to leave right away, before it gets completely dark out. You are not walking home on the ice."
Sal looked up. "Okay," he said, "just as soon as I finish this game ... "
"Now, Sal," Sylvia said, and Sal knew there would be no argument.
"Sylvia's right," Dan said, "and maybe we should all be on our way. We can play some more next Saturday."
Goodbyes were said as everyone took their leave. Sylvia grasped Sal firmly by his elbow as Sal was taking one last lingering look around the Cafe.
Once in a while, even checkers has to give way to other priorities.
Our thanks to Grandmaster Composer Ed Atkinson for his fine problem, Foursight.