Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Thursday, October 1, 2009
From This Issue
Volume 87 • Number 2
Fall 2009

A Checkered Past
Since their college days, Richard '75 and Catherine Friend White '78 always have been on board.
By Michelle Simmons

An 8-by-8 board and 24 round pieces. Deceptively familiar and easy to learn, the game summons images of lazy summer afternoons, child and grandparent huddled over a checkerboard, bathed in a nostalgic glow.

“People say, ‘Oh, isn’t that a game for little kids?’ ” says Catherine Friend White ’78. “ ‘Isn’t it usually whoever goes first wins?’ I often encourage them to come over and play against Richard.”

For the last two years, Richard ’75 and Catherine have been hosting the annual New England Checkers Championship, an officially sanctioned tournament of the American Checker Federation (ACF), in their Dover, Mass., home.

Richard, director of the New England ACF, a three-time New England and five-time Massachusetts champion, began playing checkers seriously in the late 1970s after discovering a book on the game in a Carlisle used-book store. Catherine is what she calls “patroness” of the tournament, greeting participants, serving refreshments, fielding questions and sometimes refereeing.

This June’s competition brought eight contestants from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “Even though we didn’t have many players, they were really strong, the cream of the crop,” she says.

The tournament is played round-robin style, with the first arrival getting the first seat, and so on. The number of matches depends on the number of people playing, and the person with the best overall record at the end of the day wins the title. Richard tied for second this year, while his friend and regionally renowned champ Joe Margolin took the crown.

Together 35 years, Richard and Catherine have played checkers, chess, backgammon, cribbage, bridge—just about every traditional game of skill one can think of—since their days at Dickinson.

The philosophy majors met in 1974, plotting their next move in the middle of High Street in front of then-Spahr Library. “We both crossed to the double line knowing we’d only go halfway across because there were cars going by,” Catherine recalls. “[Other] cars started coming behind us, so we couldn’t escape. I made some quip … and that was the beginning of our relationship.”

They soon discovered that they shared an intense interest in games, which they played “into the wee hours,” she says. Both were members of the Dickinson Chess Club, and Catherine was president one year.

Today, despite their busy schedules—Catherine is founder and president of FinArc Investment Manage-ment, and Richard is director of software quality assurance at Fidelity Investments—they find time for a rousing round or two. Since 1982, they’ve been meeting the same couple every month to play bridge, and Richard volunteers at the local library teaching chess to 8-to-10-year olds. When the former New England ACF director died in 2007, the Whites offered their home for the annual tournament.

Richard also has edited or translated more than 20 books or pamphlets on the game. In 1994, he published How to Lose at Checkers: Lessons from the Masters, inspired by Edmar Mednis’ How to Beat Bobby Fischer, a move-by-move analysis of the chess master’s losses. Richard used a similar approach to deconstruct 154 historic face-offs dating back to an 1847 match (the earliest on record) between Scotland’s Andrew Anderson and James Wyllie.

According to many who play both chess and checkers, the latter is a more complex game. Richard notes that whereas 13-year-old chess prodigies are fairly common, most checkers masters don’t jell until well past 30.

“It takes longer to become a very strong checkers player than it does chess, mainly because there’s so much analysis [in the game],” he says.

Catherine adds, “With checkers it takes so much focus. You have to see 10 moves ahead. Checkers requires more patience.”

Before the Internet, very patient enthusiasts often played via postcard. “You’d send your move, and then they’d send a reply,” Richard says. “The game would take six months.”

Today, anyone with a computer can rediscover the board and hone their skills against players, real or virtual. In 1992, world champion Marion Tinsley battled Chinook, a computer program created by Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer-science and artificial-intelligence researcher at the University of Alberta. Tinsley won but had to forfeit the 1994 rematch when he became terminally ill.

In 2007, Schaeffer announced that the game itself had been “solved.” After running continuously for 18 years through 500 quintillion (5 x 1020) positions, Chinook concluded that playing without error inevitably ends in a draw. Still, the ACF includes a “Man-Machine” category in its championship tournaments.

Although the Whites see technology as a great way to lure adults back to the game, they agree that nothing beats the live version. “We really enjoy the camaraderie and play,” says Catherine. “Sitting across the table from Richard or with friends … is just so much more meaningful and enriching.”

Richard, who collects vintage checkerboards and crafts his own, especially enjoys the “tactile sense of picking up your piece and moving it a square.”

He adds, “Online’s too casual—I prefer playing face-to-face. You get to shake the person’s hand. When the game’s over, you’ve lost to a real flesh-and-blood person.”


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