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  A Master's Advice to Beginners - by William F. Ryan (aka the Bronx Comet) Note: Willie Ryan won national titles in both 1939 and 1946.

How may I attain proficiency at checkers? is probably the most common question the beginner asks of the expert. The question indicates that the novice expects to find a short and easy way to master the game, without the drudgery of long and close study. Itís not an easy question to answer, and the more explanation the expert tries to give the more difficult his answer is apt to appear to the beginner. As a matter of fact, there is no royal road to checker proficiency, and the beginner who expects to become a master in a day or a week becomes discouraged and forsakes the game because of the seemingly insurmountable barriers which confront him. The various authors who have tried to make the science of the game an over-night acquisition have never been successful.

Three things the would-be expert must master:
(1) A knowledge of the book games, which are examples of well-played checkers involving notable checker principles and situations
(2) A knowledge of the reasons for the moves in such games
(3) The ability to use these moves when the same or similar situations appear in actual play.

The first of these is acquired by memorizing; the second, by analytical study; and the third, by serious and concentrated practice, with the other two constantly in mind.

The leaders of any sport are frequently accused of not knowing the problems of a beginner. This doesnít sound very logical. A leader of any game, sport, or profession started as a beginner. Therefore, he does know what constitutes the best methods for progress. Perhaps a description of my own early problems and difficulties and how I overcame them will be the most effective lesson I can give beginners to help them and inspire in them the necessity of sticking through early ordeals. This book has been compiled with my early struggles in mind.

It may seem strange to my readers that I had been playing checkers for three years before I knew how to win three kings against two, when the two kings occupy both double corners. One day, I was on the winning side of a three-kings-against-two ending, but just couldnít seem to line up my kings correctly to win. The game ended in a draw. This is one of earliest experiences of a beginner. He gets into positions and king endings which he feels he should be able to win or draw, as the case may be, but somehow he is unable to force the issue.

I had reached the stage when the beginnerís interest in the checker game becomes more than casual, and he learns that there is such a thing as a checker book. So I bought a checker book. I found the book very confusing and uninteresting at first, but my ambition to learn more about the game was the dominating force at the moment. I took the book in hand and ran over numerous problems and games with the help of a numbered board. Once absorbed, I found the plays very interesting and spectacular, and finally, by hard work, I managed to get a faint conception of the proper play to force a win with three kings against two, when the two kings occupy both double corners.

But my problems as a beginner were still ahead. I began to study book games, but like all other beginners, I simply could not hold them in mind for any length of time. My memory was terrible. But where there is a will, there is a way. My ambition was to master checkers, and I was not going to quit. In my desperation to progress in my play, I hit upon a plan (or should I say habit?) which worked wonders for me. I think it is the best plan for a beginner at checkers and, if properly carried out, results are bound to follow. This is what I did: I acquired a numbered checker board, and then selected a game in the book which I felt I should like to play well. The game selected, I ran over the trunk game, holding the book in one hand, and moving the checkers around with the other. As soon as I had completed running over the game to its conclusion, I would set up the pieces for play again, and repeat the process. After doing this three or four times I was able to run the game through without looking at the book. But remember, I was only memorizing! I knew absolutely nothing about the laws or seasons governing the moves being made. I was just memorizing the game "mechanically", making no effort to understand the involved points in the game. I would continue running over the game game for a whole evening, just memorizing it, and making sure that I was running it out exactly as depicted in the book. By the end of the evening (my first lesson) I was able to run up the game rapidly and correctly. The next evening I repeated the work of the previous night the same game, the same book, the same board. By the end of the week, you can believe me, I knew that one game by memory. What was my next step? I knew the game by memory. Now it occurred to me that I should memorize some of the variations off the trunk game. And so for my next lesson ii memorized a variation off the trunk game. And my third lesson was devoted to learning still another variation. After several variations on one game had thus been committed to memory I spent several more days reviewing them all at once and running each one up several times without looking at the book.

Now comes the second stage of the beginner, and by far the most trying and discouraging. This stage is reached when the beginner has memorized some book games and feels ready to go out in the big, bad world and beat all comers at checkers. Armed with his memorized book games, the beginner site down to a board with his rival, and anticipates fast and furious victory. Alas! Greater difficulties now loom. He find that the moves he has memorized are not always playable. Too bad! Bill Jones, his opponent, doesnít make "book" moves! The beginner suddenly realizes that all his memorization is for naught. The moves that Jones makes are not in the book, and he does not know how to meet them. That was just where my second problem popped up. I had memorized a game and several variations on it, but found that in most cases my opponents would vary (deviate) from the book sooner or later, leaving me to finish the game on my own calculations. What was I to do now? After consulting a n umber of books in the public library, in which I was unable to find any play covering certain moves by opponents, I decided there was something wrong with the moves that opponents were playing against me. But how was I to go about the task of learning the weak spots in their play? And here I must say that there is only one answer in the whole wide world to that question: "The patient must minister unto himself." All the checker books in the world cannot help you when a player goes of the book. You must then continue on your own ability. All the recommendations, "systems," methods, and tricks of the "self-styled" checker authorities cannot help you. Itís up to yourself.

Here is how I mastered the situation. Discovering that my mechanical memorization did not serve me well, I retraced my lessons, but this time in running over the games (by this time I knew them by memory) I played up each move very slowly, taking note of every play and trying to form my own reason for the cause and effect of each move. This was not always easy, and some moves really have no object, but are "waiting moves" or "moves made on general principles" such as developing the pieces along the single corner file. Such moves embody no definite purpose or threat. Here is as point I wish to stress for beginners. Combination moves (see Glossary), for example, are made for an "ultimate conclusion" and frequently their strength is hidden until five or ten moves later. But, as time went on and my study and practice continued (always on the same game), I soon acquired some experience on the characteristic formations of the game, and noticed that the same corresponding moves were playable in different games and position. That is, the same combination, or principle in play involved in one position, was applicable to another entirely different position.

This excerpt is taken from Scientific Checkers Made Easy by William F. Ryan. SCME also contains many interesting problems and games that are useful for study.

Editor's Note: Today we also have checker programs that are marvelous for everyday, top-level study and practice. We also have the Internet to practice our play with other great players around the world at websites like Vinco Online Games, Microsoft Game Zone and Yahoo! Games.

Back to Articles on Checker Strategy.

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