We tend to think of checkers as a game played by two Confederate Army veterans sitting at the base of the statue of Robert E. Lee in the courthouse square.
Well, last month, the world championship was played in a small town in the Deep South, Petal, Miss., but not in the town square. The competition took place in the ever-expanding mansion and museum owned by Charles Walker, an insurance tycoon and checkers maven.
In the title match, Dr. Marion Tinsley, 54, a gentle mathematics professor at Florida A & M, once again beat the man who taught him the tournament game, former champ Asa Long, 76, an almost translucent, wispy-haired retired machinist from Toledo, Ohio. They tied 34 games and Tinsley won three. In tournament checkers, that means Tinsley blew Long off the board.
The two finalists played in Walker's International Checker Hall of Fame. The Hall is part of a complex on Walker's 30-acre estate that includes his residence. Chateau Walker, and Chateau Retreat and Chateau Cottage, buildings he uses to house visiting checkers notables. For the last six years he has employed three carpenters full time to tack additions on to his compound, such as a seven-story observation tower adjoining the Hall. He also needs the extra space to hold the huge animal statuary and other objets d'art he's picked up on his travels.
Walker is a poor country boy who made millions selling cancer insurance and who favors flashy leisure suits and two-tone patent leather shoes in green and buff—the colors, believe it or not, of a regulation checkerboard. A disciple of Chicago insurance mogul W. Clement Stone, Walker is a testimonial to the books he reads. His office bookshelf contains Think and Grow Rich, Who's Who in The New Testament and The Success System That Never Fails. His garage also contains evidence of his success; it houses three Lincoln Continentals. "I owe everything I get to God," Walker says. "I believe in paying God first and yourself second. You can't outpay God."
An ideal place from which to watch the championship match was the gallery that rings the Hall. The walls are adorned with photographs of great checker players from the past, such as the legendary Richard Jordan and Samuel Gonotsky. It also contains a mounted knight in a full suit of armor, an imposing teak eagle and innumerable wildlife paintings by Walker's father-in-law. "I've always had a desire to accumulate," says Walker.
Tinsley is an accumulator, too, having amassed six national and five world titles since 1948. He has, in fact, lost only one tournament game in the past 23 years. The Encyclopedia of Checkers, which is published by Walker, says Tinsley "has been called the Alexander the Great of checkers" and "is to checkers what Leonardo de Vinci [sic] was to science, what Michaelangelo [sic] was to art, and what Beethoven was to music." Tinsley is also a very modest man, who makes no great claims for himself. "I'm perfectly capable of losing a game," he says.
Tinsley ordinarily plans 33 or so moves ahead; he can remember one occasion on which he thought 83 moves ahead, which is about as far into the future as you can look without help from Jeane Dixon. Tinsley says he once played Newell Banks, a champion in the '20s and '30s, who could also think 33 moves ahead. "But he should have looked 34," says Tinsley, "because that's where I beat him."
For their match Tinsley and Long were tucked away in a corner amid the general ostentation of the Hall of Fame. Their moves were duplicated on a green-and-buff linoleum board almost as big as any ring Muhammad Ali ever fought in. The pieces on the display board were red-and-white foam-rubber cushions about the size of garbage can lids.
Tournament checkers isn't a game that would sell out Madison Square Garden at $20 a ticket. In fact, it might be more entertaining to watch Richard Petty tune his carburetor, although Walker apparently finds the inaction so riveting that he videotaped the championship match. The spectacle is played at a pace of 24 moves an hour, but there's often half an hour between the early moves. Apparently, that's when Tinsley thinks his 33 moves ahead. "Chess is like looking across a broad field," he says. "Checkers is like looking down a deep well." The longest game Tinsley ever played was 7� hours in a championship match in 1958. It ended in a draw.