By George Stahl
Checkers. What just went flying through your mind? For one, Checkers was the name of Richard Nixon’s daughter’s dog, and he used him in a speech he made while he was vice president under President Eisenhower. Well, I am not writing about that.
Checker is the name of a taxi cab manufacturing company started in Chicago, Illinois by a guy named Morris Mankin in the late 1920s early 1930s. Eventually they became the staple taxi cab in not only Chicago but in New York City as well. This column is not about that either.
It is about the game called Checkers. The All-American game, right? In short, no. Checkers and America had nothing in common until thousands of years after the game was invented.
It was around the year 3000 B.C. way over in what is now Iraq, in the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia; that people were playing around with a board, painted squares on it, and used rocks to fill the squares.
They began moving the rocks around, knocking their opponents’ rocks off, and eventually one was the conquering hero. People back then, especially men, loved to be the dominant ones in town; so this game that required minimal skill, some memory and very little patience became very popular.
The game survived and evolved over the years. Egypt’s pharaohs prided themselves in being champions at the game they called Alquerque. Checkers. If it was good enough for the gods of Egypt, it was good enough to be played in the marketplace.
By the time the game reached the islands of Great Britain, it was called Draughts (pronounced drafts) and was played during the Middle Ages by the royals. To this day it is still called Draughts.
The Greeks of 1600 B.C.E. also found the game an amusing way to pass the time, next to astronomy and philosophizing about the woes of the world.
The writers Plato and Homer even used the game in some of their stories.
The Greeks, since they had such an insightful sense of the human condition, did not require that opponents seize their enemy’s pieces, but they were allowed to show mercy.
Moving forward in history, this contingency stayed with the game until 1100 in France, when they played Les Dames.
Here the rules reverted back to before the Greeks, and it was again a requirement that enemy pieces be captured and kept until they were needed to ‘King’ (stack on top of an invading checker) the players as they reached the opposite sides of the board.
The last one standing was declared the winner, and the pieces were either reset on the board for another battle or simply put back in the box in which they were stored.
The entire time the game has been played — throughout the years; in many countries; and by kings, princes, noblemen and common folk — it was never called Checkers. That’s where America comes in.
In every corner of the colonies; then, in every town of the new United States and in every general store across the 50 states; a checker board with black and red squares and 24 pieces, 12 for each player, and a small table to hold the board — or in the case of the general store, a pickle barrel — the game was called Checkers. Two chairs set up for two players; and a pot belly stove for those cold, winter days; rounded out the setting for a game.
No more space than a five-foot-square piece of floor was needed to have a game. No field, no court and no gym.
In those general stores, while two men played the game, a few onlookers, managed to understand the nation’s problems day after day; and actually, on occasion, even solve a few of them.
Second only to the deals and solutions reached on the golf courses of the nation, checkers has become an essential part of Americana.
From its humble beginnings in Mesopotamia, throughout its illustrious career on its journey through time, those 24 little pieces of wood and plastic have made a huge impact on the life of the world.
The next time you take that box containing your personal set of checkers down from the closet shelf, before you open it, reflect for a moment on what you are about to do. Think for that moment of the men who came before you to play the game.
Let the words of German philosopher, chess champion and prolific checker’s player Emanuel Lasker ring in your ears, “When you see a good move, look for a better one.”
Or, simply disregard all of this, open the box on the kitchen table, yell out which color you want to be — black or red — and start playing the game to pass the time in quarantine. After all, it’s just checkers… right?