Sal Westerman knew it was inevitable. The day had to come when he couldn't put it off any longer. He would have to go to Dickinson with his wife Sylvia to visit her sister Phoebe.
Sal had on a number of occasions been able to get away with driving Sylvia to Dickinson, where he would stay just long enough for an unpleasant dinner and then drive home, even though it would be pretty late when he got back to Bismarck. A week or two later he'd go back out to pick Sylvia up and bring her home.
It was more difficult when Phoebe came to Bismarck to visit Sylvia. Fortunately this was only a couple of times a year, and Sal could escape to the library or to the Beacon Cafe to get at least some relief.
However, it was summer. Sal's club, the Coffee and Cake Checker Club, wouldn't meet again at the Beacon until after Labor Day, and Sylvia had told Sal that this time he had to stay in Dickinson for nine days, from Friday night through the week to the following Sunday morning.
There was one bright spot. It would be the week of the Western North Dakota Summer Checkers Tournament, a fairly important event which would draw some of the top players from North and South Dakota, Montana, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and even a few from Minnesota. The tournament was hosted each year in a different city or town in the western part of the state, and this time it would be in Dickinson.
Now, regular readers know from previous stories that Phoebe and Sal didn't get along. Phoebe thought Sal was wasting time on checkers, when he could be doing useful things like painting the house, cleaning the basement, or at the very least washing the windows (inside and out, of course).
The day came and Sal and Sylvia made the several hour drive to Dickinson. On their arrival, Phoebe greeted them in her driveway, gave Sylvia a big hug, and then pointedly looked at Sal and said, "I hope you've come prepared."
Sal, thinking Phoebe was (surprisingly) referring to the tournament, which started on Monday, replied, "Yes, I've been preparing ... "
Phoebe gave him a quizzical look. "Preparing? What's to prepare? My house needs to be painted, there's some cranky plumbing to fix or replace, and my furnace needs to be cleaned out. You already know how to do those things and you've got more than a week to get them done. Even a lazy fellow could finish that little bit of work in a week."
"Paint your house? I don't think ... "
"Well, you'll need to scrape the old paint first. But you can get it all done in a couple of days. Leaves you lots of time for the other work. You can start first thing in the morning. I'll let you have off this afternoon seeing as how I'm feeling kind of in a good mood now that Sylvia's here."
"Phoebe, look, I can work on a few things over the weekend, but on Monday I'm playing in the big checker tournament and I'll be busy right through Friday."
"Oh, I think I read about that in the paper. Bunch of silliness if you ask me. Grown men pushing those checkers around when they should be doing an honest day's work. Well, forget that, there'll be no tournament for you."
Sal looked over at Sylvia. Sylvia mouthed silently, "I'll take care of it."
Sal was up early on Saturday morning. He started in on the plumbing as he wanted to get that done while the shops were open. He did get everything fixed up by evening, although Phoebe and Sylvia had dinner without him, Phoebe pronouncing him a slow worker who could eat cold leftovers later.
On Sunday Sal took on the furnace cleaning. It was hard and dirty work, but he got that done in time for dinner with the ladies, although Phoebe accused him of rushing and probably doing a shoddy job.
Tournament registration was on Monday at eight. Sal had breakfast at seven and got ready to depart.
"Where do you think you're going?" Phoebe asked, as Sal headed for the door. "You've got to start on house painting today. No more easy jobs for you, you'd better get that scraper working right now or you won't get done by dinner."
"Sal's too old for that kind of work," Sylvia said.
"Too old? He's only 74. Plenty of men ... "
"No, Phoebe," Sylvia replied, and the discussion went on as Sal slipped out the door and drove off as fast as he could.
Sal had a great time on the opening day of the tournament. He saw many old checker friends from around the region, and managed to win all 8 of his games, as there were two rounds in the morning and two in the afternoon.
Of course on his return to Phoebe's she gave him quite a cold reception.
"Sylvia tells me you'll be wasting away your days all week."
"Yes, the tournament runs through Friday ... "
"Then when do you propose to paint the house? That will only leave you Saturday and the likes of you can't work fast enough to do it in one day. Well, maybe you can work evenings. It's light until almost 10 in June. I can see Sylvia won't be able to talk any sense into you, so maybe that's the answer."
"No, Phoebe, I need to rest up for the next day's games."
"Rest? You rest all day sitting in front of those little pieces of wood, acting like a child ... "
"I'm sorry, Phoebe, I can't paint the house. I fixed the plumbing and cleaned the furnace for you. Now please let me play in my tournament."
It went on that way all week. Friday rolled around. There were just three rounds that day, and when the results were in, Sal had tied for first with Jimmy Loyal, the Montana champion.
So there would be a fourth round, a playoff between Sal and Jimmy. The first game ended in a draw. As they prepared to play the second game, the referee pointed out that if this game should end in a draw, the two players would split first and second prizes. First prize was $100 and second prize, $50. (Remember it was 1955 and that was a lot of money.)
The last game was hard-fought and went as follows.
Jimmy, not realizing he had made a mistake, looked pretty confident. Sal's clock was running low. Sal was sure there something in the position but had to find it fast. Should he play by instinct, or risk losing on time and take a little longer to think things over?
Sal went with instinct, and made his move.
In today's story, Sal is under all sorts of pressure. He's had to deal with Phoebe, and he's got a chance for first place in the tournament but not much time to find the win. Fortunately, there's no pressure for you (at least we don't think so), and you can solve this one at your leisure (unless you have a house to paint). Can you also figure out what move Jimmy should have made?
When you're ready, click on Read More for the solution and the conclusion of our story.
Solution and Conclusion
Play continued as follows. (Jimmy should have played 15-18.)
Another possibility is the computer line 25. 1-5 6-2 26. 5-9 10-6 and Black loses a piece and the game. Chasing with the king, however, looks more natural and leads to a spectacular conclusion.
At this point 23-18 also wins easily and seems more natural: 23-18 12-16 24-19 16-23 18-27 White Wins (pointed out by Lloyd Gordon).
Jimmy looked over at Sal and smiled. "You win," he said in a friendly tone. "Amazing play! You truly deserve first place."
Sal and Jimmy shook hands as the gathered crowd cheered. The awards ceremony took place right away and Sal was presented with the traveling trophy and a crisp new $100 bill.
Then the players said their farewells.
Sal returned to Phoebe's place with a light heart. He wouldn't let her spoil things.
"Well then," she said as he entered, "I certainly hope you've got all of that checkers nonsense out of your system and can at least give me one decent day's work tomorrow."
"I can do better than that," Sal said. "You know, Phoebe, I won the tournament!"
"So? You mean to say you're proud of wasting the whole week when there were important things you should have been doing instead? Well, I've got a thing or two to tell you ... "
"I've got something to tell you, Phoebe."
Phoebe was startled by the interruption and for a moment she was speechless. Meanwhile Sylvia sat quietly at the kitchen table, waiting to hear what Sal had to say.
"You have a telephone book, Phoebe?"
"A phone book ... whatever for?"
"Please, let me see it."
Phoebe went to a side table and got out the slim Dickinson phone directory. She handed it to Sal.
Sal opened to the Yellow Pages. He soon found what he was looking for. Then he slipped something into the phone book and handed it back to Phoebe.
"Take a look."
Phoebe looked at the phone book. It was open to Painters and there was a $100 bill laying on top of the page.
"Those are my tournament winnings, and I want you to use them to hire a painter to take care of your house. It should be more than enough to cover everything. It's a kind of thank-you for your hospitality for the week." Sal knew he was exaggerating, but he felt it was all for the best.
Sal, out of the corner of his eye, saw Sylvia's big smile.
Phoebe remained speechless for as long a while as Sal could every recall.
Then she said, "Hmph. Just like you to try to buy your way out, and to take the lazy way again. Instead of doing some honest work you waste Sylvia's money to pay for someone to do what you could have done yourself. But I suppose it's hopeless, so I'll take the hundred dollars. Sylvia, I apologize. I know it's your money he's wasting but the house has to get painted, and despite how well I treat that good for nothing husband of yours, he won't do a stitch of work for me. No gratitude, none at all."
Phoebe went on for a while, and the only thing Sal said was in a quiet whisper to Sylvia. "I can win at checkers, but with your sister, there's just no winning."
Today's game was taken from a 1922 issue of The American Checker Monthly. Many thanks to Lloyd Gordon who did proofreading and additional analysis.