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  Checker Strategies - by Derek Oldbury Whatever subject a person selects, he wants to learn the methods used by the leading exponents in that field. If you are an ambitious golfer you read about the strokes of the top-flight pros and listen to expert tips. In checkers, peculiarly, the novice has been neglected by the authorities despite an overabundance of literature dealing with the results of tournaments, matches, and other games played by adepts. These books are supplemented with a follow-up of copious analysis in magazines and newspaper columns yet little or nothing is written explaining the principles and ideas that constitute the game's science in a manner suitable for the beginner. They all make the mistake of trying to bridge the gap between the first grade starter and the expert with a few generalities instead of giving concrete advice. Many excellent players attain their rank the hard way, learning the correct lines and the underlying principles without the schooling which would simplify the climb. A few are fortunate to have the personal coaching of masters and are spared the trial-and-error method of learning, which is a poor one because it wastes time and effort and gives no assurance of quality.

Beginners at checkers often imagine that the expert has some secret mathematical rule which solves every situation arising on the checker board. This idea is false as the number of possible positions is virtually unlimited, and no one has ever mastered checkers to the point of infallibility. The exper's advantage lies in the systematic use of memorized play plus the ability to look ahead clearly, using definate principles, formation theories, and a knowledge of practical end-play. Memory is an important factor in advancement. Your native ability may be very good but the cards are stacked against you when the other fellow knows book play which is the massed accumulation of the great masters' learning. Knowledge is power in checkers. If you know the correct moves in a position not even the champions can deny you. The player who spurns all book lore and relies on his own cross-board effort alone reminds one of the musician who plays by ear.

Forcing your opponent's moves is one of the real secrets of winning checkers games. To apply forcing tactics it is necessary to know something about formations, traps and shots, problems on end-play, and to look forward with keen vision. In planning your game make use of the forcing principle in preference to playing a waiting game, hoping for a blunder. Mediocre players have that failing, trying to put over a "sucker shot," when they could easily force a win by correct position play.

In some respects the game of checkers is similar to a war. Each player can be likened to a general with an army of twelve men on a battleground of thirty-two squares. The leaders in war maneuver their forces with military precision, attacking here, sacraficing there, striving to outwit their foe by strategy or overwhelming them with superior numbers. These same tactics are used in the friendly sport of checkers, a game that is based purely on mental skill. An army does not advance into battle haphazardly. Neither should a game of checkers be anything but a scientific affair, planning in advance and using formations in which the men protect one another and present a concerted front toward the opposition.

  Central Control
When you go into a fight, of any sort, a main concern must be the battlefield. It may be there are danger zones which you must avoid, into which you must seek to impel the foe: these should be known. It may be there are key points which, seized, will control the whole sphere of action and will let the course of events be dictated - by you, or by the other player.

Look again, and note first that the squares are not all the same - those in the center of the board are very unlike those around the perimeter. From the center, it uses only a few moves to get to any square on the board; a few steps and you are at the scene. It is a long way from one side of the board to the other; by the time you get there it may be too late. Apart from speed, the central squares offer a wider scope: from them you can assail or uphold either flank, wherever there is the more profit. In some cases you will switch your attack, or defense, from this flank to that; and usually you will need to pass through the central squares. If these are in your control you can carry out your plan; while if they are ruled by the opponent your communications are cut and your men may have to slink around the side-lines, lurking in the shadows until in the end, alone, they are made away with. Control of the center can mean control of the board.

If the outer squares are less desirable, then of these the squares in the very corners of the board will be even less so and in many cases they are really unsafe. A boxer will not be pinned on the ropes if he can help it - if he is held fast in a corner then he is in dire trouble.

The four corners of a checker board are not identical. Two of them consist of only one square with one exit from that square: these single corners will as a rule be good places to stay away from. The double corner squares protect each other, and with twin exits will be safe in contrast to the single corners.

Now, all these remarks may give you the idea that by playing towards the center all the time you can step out along the winning path; but go not so fast. That is the way to ruin. If you move all your men to the center they will only get in the way of each other and give rise to a jam. A tightly packed group calls forth a pincer movement from the foe. Control is the essential; you occupy the center by as many men as will gain control, but no more. You get control when your opponent is unable to move on to any of the center squares and so is forced into the less favoured areas of the board. This is in fact your ultimate goal: to drive the enemy into the wilderness where he shall perish. Central control is a means to this end.

Always play slowly and thoughtfully, examining every possible move. The move that beats you is often the one you overlooked or did not think worthy of consideration. Move in haste and repent at leisure is appropriate as a motto in checkers. It is better to play one good game than a hundred slipshod ones. Use your head as well as your hands.

When it is your turn to move use the elimination process to rapidly determine the best play. Start with a fast mental count of every possible move. Then examine the worst looking ones, such as giving one or more men away. These can be quickly eliminated from further consideration as each is found to be an outright loss or gives the other side an advantage. In this manner the best available moves are soon determined and the attention centered on them. Analyze accurately and swiftly the play on each of these, visualizing the changes in position as far in advance as you can and then pick the move you judge best. Always expect your opponent to make the best moves.

It is convenient for study purposes to divide the game into three phases; opening, mid-game, end-game. This division is not entirely artificial as the chief motives underlying each phase are really very distinctive. The dominant theme of the opening may be said to be preparation for the battle which rages throughout the mid-game; the conflict of the mid-game is resolved in the end-game. In this latter we seek to prove the real value of the seeming advantages gained or lost during the earlier play.

One need only define the purpose of the end-game to see that this must be the most vital phase of the game. The preceding phases are concerned with creating good prospects, in the end-game we consider the actual result, win, lose, or draw. A slip at this stage and all the brilliant ideas of the past become worthless. On the other hand it is the end-game, demanding as it does both precision and artistry, that may give one the chance to recover from a weak position and turn defeat into victory. In draughts the best player wins and the proof is here - in the end-game.

Trading off when one or more men ahead is not poor sportsmanship, but the scientific and proper way to finish a game. The object in checkers is to win in the least number of moves, whether by a blocked position, cornering your opponent's men so that he can only give them away, or by whittling them down, one by one. In many situations where an advantage in numbers prevails, the win cannot be forced except by exchanges. Among experts, an ending with uneven numbers, unless there is a position advantage to compensate, is merely a routine procedure.

The nineteenth-century players thought the proper aim in playing checkers was to win the game. Nowadays, the view is that the player should first and foremost play to avoid defeat, that is to say, play for a drawn result. Of course, if an opportunity to win should appear (and it IS by chance) then go for it, but keep the draw in sight at all times. To the modernist then, an opening is not weak if it is safe for a draw, even though it may offer virtually no chances to win.

Practise playing with superior checkerists. One need not travel far to find experts. They are everywhere, the smallest settlements boasting champions. These local experts are apt to be deep students versed in book knowledge and capable of offering stiff competition. If your community has a checker club, join and benefit by the right sort of practise. You will find there players from all walks of life united in a bond of fellowship, fascinated by one of the greatest of intellectual pastimes. Checkers helps develop traits of character necessary to successful living. Some of these are caution, concentration, self-control, poise, precision, patience, resource, and methodical reasoning.

  Diagonals
A chain of squares across the board forms an oblique line. Perhaps we can call such lines diagonals - after all, that is what they are. As you will soon see, there are seven diagonals. However, only one of them is quite straight from end to end; that is the diagonal which extends from single corner to single corner, thus:

Diagram 1
The D-line diagonal

It may be as well to estimate the nature of a diagonal you intend to occupy or control. A diagonal may affect the power of a piece just as we find a square to do. The most obvious effect that the single corner diagonal has is that it cuts the board into halves, as it were. It divides your forces from those of the foe. Seen from this angle, at the start of a game only one of your twelve men is already in the enemy area; three are on neutral ground. In playing an attacking game these men will be brought into action with little delay, you may guess, and you will be right.

The single corner diagonal is the line of defence (we can call it the D-line) that separates the two armies: to gain control of this line is to take the initiative; to cross it is to begin the attack.

Diagram 1b
D-line diagonal example: In the following set-up neither side takes any risks and control is shared.

If the single corner diagonal is defensive in character, then a line which cuts across it and through the centre of the board must clearly be termed a line of attack: any activity along this line signifies aggression. This is the A-line.

Diagram 2
The A-line diagonal
Diagram2b
A-line example: In this diagram, the Blacks occupy their own A-line and in that way control it. Whether they also control White's A-line will depend on the placing of the White men.

In Diagram 2b the Blacks occupy their own A-line and in that way control it.

The player who first engages in an A-line attack takes the lead. The opponent must reply in some other way.

In both Diagrams 1b and 2b, did you notice the extra man at the base? Though this man takes no active part in commanding the diagonal, the added strength is desirable, for it is the base which the opponent will attack. If the base can be destroyed the whole structure may break up

The A and D diagonals are the major lines of attack and defence. You expand the power and scope of your men when you fill and control vital lines with them, so it is, of course, this you will try to do.

The diagonal which runs this side of the A-line has by contrast much less import; for the greater part of its length points to the side of the board. It's best squares are those at the edges, which may be used to support more active pieces. The B-line (the name comes easily to it) is a diagonal with weaknesses, which a clever opponent will often make use of for his own ends. One of the more potent ways is for the foe to place a man on the square which intersects your D- and B-lines, dominating both and undermining your A-line also. Beware of danger at the spot marked X in diagram 3!

Diagram 3
The weak B-line diagonal

Most of the C-line runs towards the center and so it is stronger than the nearby B-line, and also this part of the C-line intersects the attacking A-line it can be termed an important diagonal. I need hardly say that the square at which the A- and C-lines meet and cross is of great value in formational play, both in attack and in counter-attack. It is a key square, and now you know why.

Diagram 4
The C-line diagonal

The lines E and F are for the most part defensive, supporting as they do activity along the D-line. This is their main utility.

Diagram 5
The E-line diagonal
Diagram 6
The F-line diagonal

If you look at Diagram 1b, you will see that both sides occupy their E-lines, and this is a typical set-up.

The final diagonal is the G-line.

Diagram 7
The G-line diagonal

The fact that the G-line has almost all the features of the A-line tempts one to regard it as a line of attack, until we realise that what is our G-line is also the opponent's A-line. Any attacks along this line may be expected to stem from the opposite side of the board rather than from our side. However, if we first set up a strong formation along our A-line then an attack along the G-line can be effectual, thus:

Diagram 7b
G-line diagonal example: Black advances two men along the G-diagonal, with the powerful support of the formation shown before, at Diagram 5. This is about the best way to conduct a G-line attack.

In general, an advance early in the game along the G-line serves only to forestall enemy activity and is a defensive measure.

Diagram 7c
G-line diagonal example: Black has thrown away the natural advantages of having the right to move first and so make the first threat, and here plays for safe defence.

The nineteenth-century players thought the proper aim in playing checkers was to win the game. Nowadays, the view is that the player should first and foremost play to avoid defeat, that is to say, play for a drawn result. Of course, if an opportunity to win should appear (and it IS by chance) then go for it, but keep the draw in sight at all times. To the modernist then, an opening is not weak if it is safe for a draw, even though it may offer virtually no chances to win.

If we now sum up our survey of the squares and diagonals, we must come to see very clearly that as the squares often determine the value of the pieces, so the action of the pieces as a whole may determine the character and strength of the diagonals - a diagonal is strong because it allows the build-up of telling formational patterns. It might be useful to state generally that, early in the game, when we have available numbers of men to form chains of attack or defence, then the diagonals are of paramount importance. Late in the game, when forces are dwindling to a few scattered units, then the individual squares come into their own.

One of the vital concepts of the game is that you do not always make a move because you wish to, but at times because you have to; it is your turn and you must move somewhere. If it is your turn and you cannot, then you have lost the game. That is what decides your fate, nothing else.

  Opening, Mid-Game, and End-Game
It is convenient for study purposes to divide the game into three phases; opening, mid-game, end-game. This division is not entirely artificial as the chief motives underlying each phase are really very distinctive. The dominant theme of the opening may be said to be preparation for the battle which rages throughout the mid-game; the conflict of the mid-game is resolved in the end-game. In this latter we seek to prove the real value of the seeming advantages gained or lost during the earlier play.

One need only define the purpose of the end-game to see that this must be the most vital phase of the game. The preceding phases are concerned with creating good prospects, in the end-game we consider the actual result, win, lose, or draw. A slip at this stage and all the brilliant ideas of the past become worthless. On the other hand it is the end-game, demanding as it does both precision and artistry, that may give one the chance to recover from a weak position and turn defeat into victory. In draughts the best player wins and the proof is here - in the end-game.

This excerpt is taken from Move Over by Derek Oldbury.


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