Rocky Mountain  August 27, 2007

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Griego: In checkers, only the board is square 

Tina Griego
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August 27, 2007

To hear John Cardie, of Westminster, tell it, the boy who his 9-year-old grandson, Colton, faced on July 22 in a ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas had been groomed in utero - OK, not in utero, but you get the idea - to play, to prevail, indeed, to crush any who dared challenge him to a game of checkers.

Yes, checkers. You may have mistaken it for a dullard's game, a foolish assumption. Besides, we are talking about a championship here, of claim to an American Checker Federation national youth title. So, back to the boy. King Solomon, Cardie calls him, the boy's name being Solomon. He's from Ohio and is known to move quickly and without mercy. He beat Colton in the first game and played him to a draw in the second, but Colton finished the first day with more points, and so they squared off again. This time, Colton lost both games in 20 minutes.

"Solomon kicked his butt," Cardie says. He is not one to mince words.

Cardie set off to console his grandson, whom he found in an empty hallway, stunned at the speed with which his defeat was delivered. Still, this loss did not budge Colton from the title round. He would have to battle Solomon one last time.

"To win wouldn't be easy," Cardie says. But grandpa had a plan.

I must pause here. Cardie's sense of drama - my own, as well - demands it. Let's face it: Checkers among youth is a dying game. Cardie started teaching his grandsons two years ago, and had not Colton and his two younger brothers, Conrad and Calvin, signed up for the national tournament, there would have been only three players.

This troubles Cardie, an ambassador of the game since the mid-'40s. When I call him Sunday, he tells me he is contemplating a checker puzzle, 12 moves to win. "This is so beautiful," he says. Bee-yu-ti-ful. You can take the boy out of New Jersey . . .

I admit I am among those who have had little use for checkers. Should you have asked me to sum up the game, I would have done so in a single word: boring. Sentimentalist that I am, I do, however, appreciate the nostalgia of it, the simple round pieces, the red-and-black board.

"Green and white," Cardie says.

"Green and white?"

"Yeah, the official board colors are green and white. Can you imagine staring for six hours at red and black pieces on a red and black board? It'd drive you crazy."

My tutelage begins.

Checkers, Cardie says, is a game of strategy and forethought. A move, once made, cannot be taken back in the next play (only a king can jump backward.) A skilled player can look at the board and see many moves in advance. A humble and lowly piece, played well, can become a king, which appeals to Cardie's sense of egalitarianism. In chess, he harrumphs, that poor slob of a pawn, no matter how hard he works, will never become king.

Think ahead. Actions have consequences. Work hard, stay focused and rewards will come. You know what all that sounded like to Cardie? Life itself.

We're back in the empty tournament hallway where Cardie picks up the story. Thinking quickly, he's just congratulated his disconsolate grandson. "You've got him right where you want him, right?"

"I do?" Colton asks.

"Now he thinks you're a pushover. He thinks he's the bowling ball and you're the pins."

This is what you need to do, Cardie told his grandson. You have five minutes to make a move. Take those five.

"He asked me, 'Why are you playing his game?' " Colton said, picking up the story. "So, what I did is after he made a move I folded my hands in front of me and I looked at the board . . ."

"At his pieces first," Cardie says.

"And then I looked at my pieces," Colton said. "And then I moved."

"He really slowed the game down," Cardie says.

"Was Solomon getting frustrated," I ask.

"Yeah," Colton says. "He'd tense up and then move really fast when it was his turn."

So, then what happened, I ask.

"I crushed him," Colton says, and grins. His brother, Conrad, ended up with second place.

"Do you share this fascination," I ask Lee Cardie, married to John now for 44 years. She shakes her head. "It's a terrible story," she whispers.

What happened?

"Our first date he came over and said, 'Let's play checkers,' " Lee Cardie says.

"Oh, no," Cardie murmurs while listening.

"He wiped me out," Lee Cardie says. "I never played another game of checkers again."

When their two kids were growing up, Lee Cardie played with them all games involving dice or cards or spinning dials - games, in other words, of chance. Her husband would have nothing to do with them.

"Any bozo can win if Lady Luck smiles upon him," Cardie says.

Earlier this year, he bundled together the life lessons of checkers, along with some game moves, and self-published his own little book, How to Beat Granddad at Checkers. He didn't do it for the money. That's going to the American Checker Federation. No, he says, he did it as a way to bring kids and their grandparents together. After all, Cardie says: "We can't pole vault like we used to."

Cardie even had special T-shirts made. The family wore them in Las Vegas. "There's more to checkers than pushing plastic," they read.

Colton returns to Las Vegas next month to play in the world championship tournament for youth 18 and under. He's studying checker puzzle books when he has time, usually before bed. Should you wonder, as I did, whether grandpa's larger lessons are sinking in - Cardie says he's just reinforcing the messages Colton gets at home - listen to this. Colton won $60 in the championship.

"What did you do with it," I ask him.

"I'm going to put it toward a washer and dryer," he says.

Turns out his father runs a successful business in used appliances. He buys washers and dryers at reduced prices, refurbishes them and rents them to apartment buildings and such for $1 a day. Colton has already purchased two sets, rented them out and collects $15 a month from each.

"So, you're working on your third set," I ask him.

"Yup," he says.

"That means you'll be getting $45 a month from your washers and dryers."

"Yup," he says.

"What are you going to do with that?"

"Buy more washers and dryers," he says.

Of course.