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The Chess Corner by Dulan Edirisinghe: Lessons from checkers

Chess and checkers share an interesting yet somewhat complicated relationship. Even though the two games are played on similar checkered boards, the strategic aims are completely different. Chess derives most of its complexity through piece-differentiation while checkers is more about the piece-coordination.

The common perception, of course, is that chess is a far more strategically superior game than checkers. It is chess that is often used in commercials to emphasize the wisdom of a person or to underline the depth of a business strategy. Politicians go to great lengths to convince followers that they are “playing chess, while the other side is playing checkers”. Even the late basketball great Kobe Bryant once said, “These young guys are playing checkers. I’m out there playing chess”.

All this means is that “chess vs checkers” has become standard shorthand for suggesting someone is smart, or not. Checkers, however, has its own charm and can teach important lessons.

A checkers combination

In checkers, a combination would typically involve a player sacrificing a piece or two, and getting them back with interest. This is often dramatic, because unlike in chess, a player can capture many pieces in a single turn. Also, captures are mandatory in checkers, so it is not easy to replicate this type of combination on a chessboard. Here’s a delightful example.

 

White to play and win (From a study by Leonid Kubbel)

White starts by sacrificing the rook with 1.Rb6+ Bxb6 (1…Kc8 2.Qb7+ Kd7 3.Ne5+ Ke8 4.Qc6+ Ke7 5.Ng6+ fxg6 6.Qe6#). Then comes the quiet 2.Ka6 which forces 2…Rd7.

White has the stunning 3.Qa8+!

After 3.Qa8+ Kxa8, in true checkers style, white collects everything back, and more. 4.Nxb6+ Kb8 5. Nxd7+ Kc7 6. Nxf8 and wins.

A similar combination once happened in the highest echelon of the game as well.

White to play – Petrosian – Spassky (WCC 1966 – 10th game)

Petrosian finished off his illustrious opponent with one of the most beautiful combinations ever seen in a World Championship. 29.Bxf7+ Rxf7 30.Qh8+! 1-0 (30…Kxh8 31.Nxf7+)

Simplicity can create chaos too

“Table five, Queen to e4 and it’s checkmate” – Magnus Carlsen giving a blindfold simultaneous exhibition

Here’s a fact that might startle you. When it comes to blindfold simultaneous exhibitions, the chess record is held by Timur Gareyev who played 48 such games (and won more than 80%) in 2016. Curiously, the record for checkers is only 32 games. How can that be? If chess is far more complex, why is it harder to keep lots of checkers positions in mind?

The reason is better explained using a famous anecdote of an incident which may or may not have happened.

A grandmaster once went to a small chess club in a village and gave a 10-board blindfold simultaneous exhibition. As dictated by tradition, he was given white pieces on all the boards. He started with 1.e4 in some, while playing 1.d4 and 1.c4 in some others. Unknown to him, the villagers had devised a cunning plan.

To the Grandmaster’s surprise, all of his opponents replied with 1…b6. On the second move, five of them played 2…Bb7, and the other five 2…Ba6. On the third move, three of the five who had played 2…Bb7 now played 3…Bc8 and the other two played 3…Ba6, while three of the five who had played 2…Ba6 now played 3…Bb7, and the other two 3…Bc8. This went on and on. By the fifth move, the blindfolded grandmaster saw bishops everywhere. Soon he excused himself to go to the restroom and fled the village, never to return.

If you consider yourself superior just because you play chess and someone else plays checkers (the meaning does not necessarily have to be taken literally), perhaps there is a lesson in there somewhere.