It was a fine fall afternoon on a Saturday in October, 1955. The place was Bismarck, North Dakota, and for Sal Westerman, that meant an afternoon visit to the Beacon Cafe, where his Coffee and Cake Checker Club met weekly between Labor Day and Memorial Day.
Sal left home around 12:45 PM in order to arrive by the nominal 1 PM start time. He enjoyed the walk in the brisk autumn air under a cloudless blue prairie sky. However, something was troubling him--- an unusual situation for one of his beloved Saturday club days.
He had gotten a letter early the previous week from a certain Simon S. Sinistra, postmarked Washington, D.C. The letter said that Mr. Sinistra was coming to Bismarck for a couple of weeks as a representative of the Department of Agriculture to lend help to the North Dakota department of the same name. The letter said that he understood things were "not well run" in Bismarck and that Washington would provide Federal "guidance" to "improve" things.
That would have been enough in and of itself, but then Mr. Sinistra went on to say that he had read about the Coffee and Cake Checker Club in All Checkers Digest, and, as he himself was a member of the District of Columbia Federal Employees' Checker Association, he was looking forward to visiting the Coffee and Cake Club to give them guidance on how to run a proper checker association.
"As a small-time club in a small-time podunk town in a small-time podunk state in a small-time podunk region of the country, undoubtedly you will be grateful for my advice and will follow it without question. You should be most appreciative that I kindly am providing my services without a fee, as I understand North Dakota to be a poor state, limited not only in culture and sophistication, but in material resources" Mr. Sinistra had said in his letter.
Sal found himself hoping that this Sinistra fellow wouldn't show his face at the Beacon. But he supposed he had to be prepared for the worst.
Now, the "boys" who made up the club--- all but one of them over the age of 50--- indeed were an unsophisticated lot, not schooled in the ways of big city culture. But they were honest, hard-working, and decent. They loved their country and they took care of their families. Most of them were Sunday churchgoers. In short, they were old-fashioned, upright, loyal, patriotic, and caring. They were also, as it turned out, quite good checker players.
What they didn't have was a lot of tolerance for pretension, snobbery, and condescension.
Sal arrived at the Beacon at just before one o'clock, greeted Deana, the proprietress (who was a championship baker) and said hello to the "boys" who had already arrived. There was Dan, Wayne, Mike, Larry, and Louie the Flash. Soon afterwards Tom and Ron came in, making a group of eight along with Sal. It was a nice turnout.
They all visited for a few minutes over coffee before Wayne asked the inevitable question. "What have you got for us today, Sal?"
The tradition was that Sal brought along a checker problem and if the boys could solve it, Sal would buy treats for the crowd. If they couldn't solve it, the boys would buy their own treats and some for Sal, including an extra serving or two for Sal to take home to his wife, Sylvia.
"Here's one from Ed in Pennsylvania," Sal said. Ed was one of Sal's checker pen pals and was a grandmaster problem composer. Sal went ahead and set up the problem on two different checkerboards in the big booths at the back of the cafe.
As per usual, Deana, never missing a marketing opportunity, announced, "Rhubarb crumble today, with vanilla ice cream!"
But just as she finished her announcement and the boys started to settle down to tackle the problem, the door to the cafe slammed open and in came a figure dressed in an expensive black suit. The man looked around the cafe and frowned. But before he could speak, Deana said, "Hey, pal, take it easy with that door! You break it you pay for it!"
"Are you addressing me in that tone of voice?" the man said. "Do you, a menial cafe worker, dare threaten a representative of the United States Government?"
"You better watch yourself, bud ... " Deana began, but Sal stood up and said, "Mr. Sinistra, I presume? Welcome to the Coffee and Cake Checker Club. I'm Sal Westerman, the organizer."
"Not today you aren't," Sinistra said. "I'm here to show you how it's done outside of Podunk. I'll be in charge today. Now, I suppose we'll have to make do with meeting here, but it will be the last time you gather in a sordid cafe. Surely there are better places, even in this cow town. Mr. Westerman, you are assigned to locate suitable meeting space. I will expect this to be accomplished no later than Tuesday. Do I make myself clear, or are you all as stupid as I'd expect?"
"Hey, careful what you say! Besides, we like it here!" said Dan. "We don't need another place. The food is good, the coffee is good, and it's friendly--- like us. There's rhubarb crumble today, you should try it."
"Rhubarb? Are you serious?" He looked over at Deana. "I imagine you run this ... place?"
Deana, slowly turning red, nodded.
"Well, where are the French pastries? The croissants? The Viennese tortes? At our club in Washington, we have only the best. Speaking of which, I'd like a cappucino with extra foam, two sugar cubes on the side. Cane sugar, please, not beet sugar, which I understand is common around here."
"You can have a cup of coffee, pal," Deana said, "if you pay in advance." Her tone had become quite unfriendly.
"Put it on my tab," Sinistra replied as he strode to the back of the cafe. "Now, what is this?" he asked, looking at the checkerboards.
"We always start out with a problem that I provide," Sal began to explain, "and then ... "
"Not any longer," Sinistra said, and then he picked up the checkerboards one by one and shook the pieces off of them. The boys grumbled but Sinistra went on, "We usually start with a lecture on technique by a qualified individual, such as myself. But I think the first thing we need to do is lay down the new rules for the this club." He turned to the serving counter, "And where's my coffee?" he demanded.
"Where's your ten cents?" Deana replied curtly.
Sinistra glared. "Do these yokels pay in advance?" he asked. "The answer had better be 'yes' or I'll bring the wrath of government down on this pitiful little cafe."
Deana stood up straight. "That's it," she said. She came around from the back of her counter. "You're leaving. Now. And you're banned. You're trespassed. You ever come back here the "podunk" police will throw you in our "podunk" jail. And as for the wrath of goverment or whatever nonsense you're spouting, I know my rights. This is my cafe and we do things my way."
"And this is our club and we do things our way," Louie the Flash said.
All the boys were now also standing, making a wall in front of Sinistra. "It would be best if you listened to Deana," Sal said gently. "She's right. The Beacon Cafe is not the place for you, and the Coffee and Cake Checker Club is not the place for you, either. I'm sorry. But this isn't Washington D.C."
"And thank heaven for that!" Tom exclaimed.
Sinistra looked as if he were about to say something, but then simply turned on his heels and went to the door. He made sure to slam it on the way out.
"Dan, can you check that door for me?" Deana asked. "I wouldn't at all mind having that puffed up city boy run in for vandalism.
Dan checked the door carefully. "No damage, Deana," he said, "more's the pity."
"Boys, time's a wasting!" Sal said. "I'll set up today's problem again and you can see how it goes."
Everyone gave their quick assent, and soon the boys were deep into contemplation. Sal gave them an hour, allowing enough time for things to settle down.
"Got it!" Dan exclaimed after the hour had passed, adding, "Wonder if that big shot could have done it?"
We certainly hope no one like Mr. Sinistra will ever make an appearance in your favorite checker venue. Now, we actually don't know if Mr. Sinistra could have solved today's problem; the question is, can you? Give it a whirl and then click on Read More to see the solution.
Solution and Conclusion
Dan demonstrated the following play.
23-26---A,2 10-3 17-14---1 9-25 26-30 13-17 30-14 White Wins.
A---Not 7-3 29-25 23-18 9-14 18-9 25-18 Drawn.
1---The computer prefers 26-30 and Black loses every piece one by one.
2---Lloyd Gordon and Brian Hinkle both found a dual solution: 23-18 10-3 17-14 29-25 14-5 to a routine man up White win.
"Well done, boys! Treats are on me! No fancy French stuff, just Deana's down-home baking. I'll take that any day!" Sal said.
The boys enjoyed their rhubarb crumble and vanilla ice cream, and another couple hours of checker fun before Deana closed up and they all headed home.
On Monday morning, the State Department of Agriculture, expecting a visit from Mr. Sinistra, noted that he never showed up. Further investigation revealed that he had checked out of his hotel around 3 PM on Saturday and caught the first flight headed east. He was never seen again in North Dakota.
Today's problem is by the late grandmaster problemist, Ed Atkinson, who notes that (with his solution) this is the "Captive Cossacks" theme as articulated by Ben Boland. Ed named the problem "Dark Shadow." We have a very few more of Ed's fine compositions in reserve, but alas, after that, there will be no more.