The most recent Tinsley-Long championship match was played in respectful silence. The only noises in the Hall emanated from a spectator slapping his pencil against the note pad in which he recorded the moves, another tiptoeing quietly to the bathroom and a good ole boy in overalls crunching peanut shells between his thumbs.
Long knew the odds were against him. Indeed, the good ole boy's peanuts ran out about the same time as Long's chances. "Ha, ha, ha," Long says. "I had no delusions. I helped create the monster." The monster, Tinsley, began playing checkers as a boy of 13 in Columbus, Ohio. His opponent was an old woman who roomed in his parents' home. "She used to beat me and rub it in," he says. " 'Take your leap, take your leap,' she'd cackle. She'd whup me every time."
She kept whupping him until he came across a book, Winning Checkers, in the neighborhood library. "She'd never play me after that," Tinsley says with a laugh. "I never got revenge." At the age of 18 he became a prot�g� of the world champion Long, who last beat him in 1948, and worked his way through Ohio State University playing blindfold exhibitions for $50 against 20 opponents at a time. He never lost. "The difficulty was getting the people together," he says. "Not beating them."
He won his first world championship, a split-venue event held in 1955 in Lakeside, Ohio and Peoria, Ill., by rolling up a jowly Swedish steelworker, Walter Hellman, getting 35 ties and three wins. In those days he was called Two-Ton Tinsley. In the checkers world, that's a joke; he was a vegetarian and weighed just 162 pounds.
Three years later he successfully defended his world title by beating British champ Derek Oldbury, a paraplegic who tried to intimidate opponents by wearing mysterious dark glasses. But Tinsley is impervious to such ploys. He plays the board, not the person. Still, Oldbury became one of the few to beat Tinsley when he won the opener of that 1958 championship. But then Tinsley made Oldbury see the light by winning nine games and tying 24.
Tinsley quit for 12 years after that. For six of those years he didn't play checkers at all. He said he wanted to concentrate on teaching and studying abstract algebra. Indeed, he has lectured extensively on the algebraic number theory, matrix and combinatorial theory and point-set topology—all useful stuff. Other checkers players say there was just nobody around good enough for him to play.
The inner game of world-class checkers is elusive. "Checkers is an aggressive game," says Walker, cleaning his fingernails with a penknife. "It teaches you to look before you leap." Oldbury used to espouse his own checkers theory of relativity. "Checkers has three dimensions," he would say. "There is space [the checkerboard], force [the opponent] and time [the moves]. To win the game you must have an advantage in one or more of these elements. Any position can be assessed in terms of these three elements to determine who has the advantage."
This theory amuses Tinsley. He sees checkers more as a game of creativity than force fields. "Originally, my object was purely competitive—to win," he explains. "But after you play a while, the game is filled with indescribable beauty. I study every day. Checkers has the precision of mathematics—when everything falls into place, it's so elegant and exact. In a sense, two good players getting together are producing a work of art," which, in an eclectic setting like the International Checker Hall of Fame, is one achievement in itself.