The Last Laugh: The Endless Checkers Tournament

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Our correspondent recounts the exceptional staying power of the two finalists in a winter checkers tournament.

“Anybody can win . . . unless there happens to be a second entry.”
George Ade

“There may come a time when the lion and the lamb lie down together, but I’m betting on the lion. “
Josh Billings

Well sir, what with the out-of-doors bein’ so cold hereabouts thet the wind splits a lip ev’ry time it starts in whistlin’, folks in Plumtree Crossin’ have pretty much stayed holed up of late. An’ seein’ as how winter figures to set a spell afore takin’ its leave, lots of people have been turnin’ to indoor entertainments to make the hours (an’ days) pass a tad faster.

O’course, some folks seem to be able to amuse theyselves by jist flickin’ on their telly-vision sets (an’ half of them people git so danged caught up in whatever they’re watchin’ thet they’d be hard pressed to know what season it were, ennyway). The ol’ coots over to the Gen’ral Store ain’t partic’larly partial to the boob tube, howev’r, an’ it weren’t long into the first big blizzard till them fellers hit on the notion of havin’ a checkers tournament!

The boys wasn’t content to lay out enny little one-afternoon’s-fun-an’-thank-you-kindly competition, neither. No sir, the cold an’ snow were a sure bet to be around fer a spell, an’ the ol’ loafers planned to use up as much of the inhospitable season as possible . . . by organizin’ a real granddaddy of a match. They set theyselves up a no-foolin’ double elimination tournyment . . . with one of them “who beat who” wall chartsmade up of little name boxes an’ connectin’ lines–what appeared to be nigh as tall as last year’s town-square Christmas tree!

Now as you kin well imagine, the competition didn’t attract enny big city sportscasters er nothin’ (Cleedy McCannon did claim he’d seen thet Howard Cosell feller in town, but most folks figured Cleedy’d actually jist caught a glimpse of the last part of Lafe Higgins’s horse as thet critter were disappearin’ ’round a corner). The fact is thet, at the beginnin’ of the tournyment, nobody but the players theyselves gave more’n a hoot in hell jist what were goin’ on!

As the days went by, howev’r, an’ stories about the ongoin’ games begun to git spread around, folks started to show an interest. An’, by the time it’d become clear thet the whole shootin’ match were gonna come down to a toe-to-toe battle betwixt Ott Bartlett an’ Newt Blanchard (two of the stubbornest an’ orn’riest cusses ennyone ev’r laid eyes on), why, they wasn’t a man er woman in Barren County who wasn’t ripe fer wagerin’ on the outcome.

The back room of the Gen’ral Store was cleaned out fer the match . . . an’ Sadie McCannon chiseled a passel of lawn chairs free from the snow to accommodate the audience. They was a real carnyval mood to the gatherin’, too. Cleedy McCannon had set hisself up with a nail-keg table an’ was coordinatin’ the crowd’s last-minute wagers . . . an’, whilst Purvis Jacobs weren’t perzackly vendin’ his jugs of corn-squeezed handicapper, he sure was passin’ ’em out an’ acceptin’ a fair number of long-term loans in return!

Ott were the first competitor to show up . . . wearin’ a bonyfide green eyeshade what he’d purchased–fer the princely sum of 39¢–over at the Salvation Army Store in Lick Skillet specially fer the event. Ol’ Newt strolled in soon thereafter, dandied up in his best red suspenders an’ a matchin’ felt hat. They was one last mad rush of wagerin’ as the of boys nodded “howdy” to each other . . . an’ then the room went real quiet whilst Ott an’ Newt set up the board.

Let me tell you, it were somethin’ to watch them fellers commence to playin’. They begun by sacrificin’ a few checkers apiece . . . jist developin’ strategies an’ fer all intents an’ purposes-circlin’ ’round each other like two blue tick hounds thet was both aimin’ to eat the same ham bone.

An’ as the game went on, the players got theyselves more an’ more concentrated. Ott an’ Newt both took to peerin’ hard at the board (iffen eye power coulda made them checkers move, there’da been red an’ black pieces flyin’ all over the place), each tryin’ to figure another play or two inta the future.

Ev’ry time a jump were made, there’d be a gasp from the assembled onlookers (many of ’em stood to gain or lose ennything from two bits to a week free of chores on the result of the match). Fer a while the game was pretty lively, too. But once both Ott an’ Newt had got theyselves pairs of kings an’ started tryin’ to sneak the rest of their checkers up opposin’ edges of the board, it became clear to all attendin’ thet the battle were about to commence in earnest.

Trouble was, the contestants knew mistakes wasn’t gonna come cheap from thet point on, too . . . an’ they took to studyin’ the lay of the board even more intently afore each move. At first the spectators judged the slowin’ of the game fer a sign thet the end were near, an’ watched ev’ry play real close . . . so as not to miss the comin’ masterstroke thet would decide who was champion.

The fact of the matter was, though, thet neither Ott nor Newt had enny intention of makin’ a fatal error . . . leastwise they was both determined not to lose the match by leapin’ afore they’d looked. As a consyquence, each play took longer to figure an’ plan than the one afore it.

‘Twern’t long till it were plain to one and all thet the game’d go on well inta the evenin’, so the onlookers up an’ decided to git a potluck supper together. It were short work to prop an old door across a pair of sawhorses, an’ after folks had made a few quick trips to their home pantries, thet makeshift table were stacked with as temptin’ an array of preserves an’ pickles as you’d find ennywhere. Some chicken was fried up, too, an’ a number of those present jist happened to have found freshbaked pies, bread, an’ cakes to bring along . . . so the sawhorses was fairly creakin’ by the time folks begun to fill up their plates.

In addition, Purvis Jacobs contributed a gallon of his 120-proof liquid neighborliness to the party, an’ Olive Carmichael even got inta the spirit of the occasion by chippin’ in a coupla bottles of her an’ August’s dandylion wine. So it were a natural thing–once the eatin’ an’ sippin’ were done–to continue the celebration by clearin’ enough floor space in the front part of the store to dance to Doc Thromberg’s fiddle playin’

All in all, thet evenin’ turned out to be one of the best shindigs ennyone could recall. An’ it weren’t till after the partyin’ had wound down an’ folks were puttin’ the store back to rights thet ennyone recollected the checker game!

Needless to say, ev’rybody was a mite embarrassed at havin’ fergot the original reason fer the gatherin’, an’–with Lafe Higgins in the lead–the crowd trooped into the back room to apologize.

“Well I’ll be dipped,” Lafe said, on enterin’ the room, “these fellers ain’t made a single move since afore dinner!

” “Now wait a minute,” Cleedy opined, “I do believe Ott’s king there has been pushed over a space.”

“Are you sure they’s even alive?” Olive Carmichael wanted to know. “I ain’t seen a one of ’em so much as blink an eyelid.”

It were soon determined thet both fellers was still breathin’, but considerin’ the lateness of the hour an’ the celebratin’ what had gone on, nobody could quite git interested in hangin’ on till the match were finished. So they jist left Ott an’ Newt a half-empty jug an’ a plate of chicken . . . an’ ev’rybody went on home.

Thet were a good two weeks ago. Since then the rest of the old liars has taken to droppin’ in on the contestants ev’ry day or so to leave ’em some vittles. An’, iffen the visitors notice thet a checker’s been moved, they phone the news in to the weekly Republican Courier over in Erosion Junction. Thet paper runs the news right up on the front page so’s ev’ryone kin keep track of the action.

O’course, nobody’s botherin’ to bet on who’ll win the game ennymore. Howev’r, I’ve heard they’s a fair number of folks who are willin’ to wager thet them fellers won’t finish the match afore springtime ….

“The . . . boredom, from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. . . [and] the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which those who are rich enough to choose their way of life suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom . . . a happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”
Bertrand Russell