Baby Steps: A Beginner's Guide to Checker Study
By Lisle Cormier
Source: Draughts Razoo, summer edition 2003.
Please note: the images are not clickable, no solutions are provided.
I remember the first game I played against a master checker player. It was 1995 and the late Arkansas champion Bill Stewart was playing on Yahoo! under his now famous nickname ‘wmclif’. Having won 50 per cent of my games against my grandmother, I decided to show wmclif what Lisle could do. Ten straight losses later, an awestruck, deer-inthe- headlights look was a fixture on my face.
I discovered that checkers contained depth, subtlety and precision of the highest order. My appetite was whetted. I wanted to understand checkers but didn’t know how to proceed. Eight years of experimentation later, mastery of the game is as elusive as ever, but I’ve eliminated a few dead end study techniques. I hope others can learn from my struggles and avoid them.
The first important epiphany in every checker player’s life is the discovery of checker literature. Nowadays, books are widely available on the Internet through bookfinder.com, abebooks.com and ebay.com. The new ACF site plans to sell thousands of books at usacheckers.com.
The vast number of checker titles available can be overwhelming for a student who is just learning the meaning of the terms opening, midgame, endgame and resign. When books are used improperly, they only serve to create confusion. My advice to the beginner is to purchase but three books – Lees’ Guide by James Lees; Total Checkers by Richard Pask; Familiar Themes by Ben Boland, the latter being the most important. I’ll explain why later. In my opinion these books alone, if studied properly, will transform a common woodpusher into an expert player. The following rules are important to ensure this result.
Rule 1 – Maximise study time utility
There are positions in checkers that have taken humans centuries to analyse. Do not waste time trying to duplicate this analysis from scratch. ACF 3-move world champion Alex Moiseyev admitted that he doesn’t have a few centuries to analyse a position, particularly when someone was kind enough to include the analysis in a book. Maximising utility means having a goal and only doing work directly related to that goal.
In my preparations for the 2001 ACF GAYP Nationals, I made two costly mistakes. Firstly, I opened a 3-move book. Secondly, I found a game in this book between Lowder and Francis that began 9–13, 22–18, 6–9, 25–22, 10–14 (forms diagram) and spent the next eight months proving 10–14 loses. It wasn’t a surprise to me or anyone else that this position didn’t arise at the Nationals, and I was pulverised into 28th place for my troubles. The moral of the story; “Pick your battles carefully. There simply isn’t enough time to fight them all.”
Rule 2 – Develop crossboard skills
So which battle should the beginner fight first? I recommend starting with positions of greatest application to crossboard play. By crossboard, I mean a position unknown to one or both players whose solution must be analysed during the game, or “across the board”. It is a rare event when two players do not encounter a crossboard position at some point during a game. The best way to prepare for the unknown is through endgame study.
Endgame books, such as Familiar Themes, demonstrate strategic ideas that can be used in a variety of situations. Solving endgame problems forces the student to consider all pieces on the board carefully and to use precision and timing to milk the most out of a tiny advantage. Each page of Familiar Themes contains ten to twenty problems that are based on a single theme. Discovering a theme in a variety of seemingly dissimilar positions encourages the student to process the subtleties of a drawing or winning idea (see diagrams).
Don’t move any pieces while solving a problem. Such a luxury is forbidden in tournament play, and all study should simulate this. Take time to examine a position, considering every move available regardless of how silly it appears. If you’re really stuck, walk away from the board. Do something else. Then return to the problem anew, but resist the temptation to look up the solution. The probability of remembering how to tackle a complicated position years in the future improves dramatically if the solution was discovered naturally the first time. If it is necessary to read the solution, glance only at the first move before trying to solve the problem on your own again. This is extremely taxing work, but it yields high dividends in tournaments. I have swindled opponents out of several games in major tournaments by way of ideas found in Familiar Themes.
Rule 3 – Write a manuscript
Endgames are the essence of checkers, but Kris Gordon told me, endgame knowledge won’t help if you reach the endgame four or five pieces down! After Familiar Themes is understood, it is time to add openings to your daily study regimen.Decide which style of play you like best – GAYP/freestyle or 3-move. Most US tournaments are conducted in the 3-move style, but there is still plenty of use for GAYP. All world checker organisations hold their own GAYP tournaments on a regular basis. If you choose GAYP, consult Lees’ Guide (the British Draughts Player is also good). For 3-move play Richard Pask’s Total Checkers is considered to be the modern opening bible. The old opening bible, Richard Fortman’s Basic Checkers, was written in the 1970s and is also good, but it is harder to read and contains more errors.
No checker book is guaranteed to be error free. Exhibit good judgement, using the tools learned from endgame study, when analysing a line of play. Don’t take the author’s word for it. You may find something better.
Divide your manuscript (MSS) into openings. Prepare play on the white and black side of an opening separately, and categorise the openings in your manuscript by the first few moves of the game. In 3-move play this is easy. Each opening is defined by the first three moves of the game. In GAYP this is not so obvious. To prepare the black side of your GAYP MSS, choose a move that you will play first in every game and consider each possible reply. For example, against 11–15 white has seven replies; 21–17, 22–17, 22–18, 23–18, 23–19, 24–19 and 24–20. Thus the black side of your MSS should be divided into seven sections, one for each white reply. Choose which move you will play against each of white’s seven possible moves. This will subdivide the black side of your MSS into seven 3-move openings that are a subset of all possible 3-movers.
The white side of your GAYP MSS can be developed similarly. Against 11–15 you may like 23–19. Black can then safely play 8–11, 9–14, 7–11, 9– 13 or 10–14. In this case the white side of your MSS would contain five 3-move openings under the 11–15 section. There are two benefits to subdividing your GAYP MSS into 3-movers. It allows you to use the MSS in 3-move play, and makes it easy to reference 3-move books to further develop your MSS. Systematic methods of study are essential for success. At the end of each variation, note who originated the play and where you found it. This will save a lot of headache later. Trust me.
ConclusionStructure and order is very important in the study of checkers. Diving into openings without knowledge of themes and endgames may be fun and easy at first, but it wastes time in the long run. Writing a manuscript will save hours of looking up the same play over and over, and midgame study will make it easy for the student to consolidate play in his/her mind. The techniques that I list here have proven their effectiveness in tournament play. You may discover techniques of your own, and that’s fine. There’s a lot of play to learn, however, so go with a technique that’s high on efficiency if you want your opponent to run out of moves before you do. Happy hunting!