October 1, 2005    Las Vegas Review-Journal - An article on the 8th International Match in Las Vegas, NV - "USA vs Great Brittan & Ireland"

Oct. 01, 2005
Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

Checkers, anyone?

International competition not for the faint of heart



F. Alan Millhone of the U.S. team picks a card from an official Friday at the International Checkers Championship at the Plaza. The card determined Millhone's first three moves in a checkers game against opponent Garrett Owens.
Photos by Clint Karlsen.

Each game in the competition is timed, adding to the pressure to make all the right moves.

Players move pieces during the International Checkers Championship at the Plaza Hotel, Friday morning. The United States team won the championship.

Enter a ballroom where two dozen international checkers stars are locked in competition and you will see -- well, not much.

The players sit motionless, staring at their checkerboards. They hardly twitch, except to make a move or take the inevitable bathroom break.

The only sound is the tick-tock of a dozen clocks timing each game, which can last a couple hours.

But onlookers shouldn't be fooled by the calm exteriors, according to the players, who were in Las Vegas for the 2005 International Checkers Match between the United States and the Great Britain-Ireland team at the Plaza.

"People think it's a quiet, peaceful game, but you should be wearing football helmets," said Harold Schneider, 75, who competes for the U.S. team.

Adding to the tension was the players' awareness that the competition at the Plaza is a place where legends are born and a chance at glory that probably won't come along for another decade. This is only the eighth time the teams have met in the tournament's 100-year history.

"Some doctors tell people to quit checkers because their blood pressure rises too high," said Florida state checkers champion Joe Schwartz, 70, a cigar dangling from his lips.

While players make no movements for minutes at a time, inside their brains brews a storm of strategies waiting to burst onto the board, players said.

"Checkers is an orgasm of the mind," said Schwartz, a former New Yorker. "Checkers is a game of ideas; every game has a story to tell."


While chess players have to think fewer than ten moves ahead, Schwartz said, checkers champions, many of whom are mathematicians or computer experts, memorize 30 to 40 moves ahead. With thousands of combinations to memorize, it can take a lifetime for players to reach their prime.

"There is no tougher game, despite what anyone tells you, than checkers. And that's a fact," Schneider said.

Sometimes the action does move beyond the bounds of brain and checkerboard.

Several years ago at a New York checkers tournament, Schwartz said, a New Jersey player became angry after forfeiting a game because he arrived too late.

His opponent, sensing vulnerability, chided and taunted the player who had forfeited until the checkers equivalent of an English soccer riot broke out.

"He got so mad that he started throwing checkers pieces across the room. He hit one lady in the eye and she started crying and had to leave," he said.

The occasional tantrum notwithstanding, competitors said the elegance and complexity of the game appeals to them.

Women's World Checkers Champion Patricia Breen of Ireland, who was one of two women at the tournament, said the game's allure lies in its difficulty.

"I like (traveling) for the competition, but it's stressful. It's a challenge," said Breen, 29, who reviews her every move each day at tournaments to gain an edge for the next day's games.

The irregularity of the international championship matches has often been for reasons beyond players' control, said Schwartz.

"We try to play every 10 years, but it has been occasionally interrupted by things like wars," he said.

The British-Irish team won the first match in 1905, but the Americans have won ever since, including this year's match at the Plaza.

The two teams, which had played from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily since Monday, finally crowned the American team champions at about 6 p.m. on Friday.

The Americans had amassed 71 points to the Great Britain-Ireland team's total of 18.

When asked to explain the Americans' continued dominance, Schwartz said, "We got more people than they got."

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