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  Interview with Richard Fortman
Richard L. "Dick" Fortman, author of the classic three-move guide Basic Checkers, has known every world champion since the advent of three-move checkers in 1934. Dick can count most of these champions as his personal friends and has played nearly all of them at one time or another. The following interview of the legendary Richard Fortman was conducted by Brian Hinkle in 1998 with help by Dennis Cayton in formulating questions.


  Question No. 1: Starting Out in Checkers
Brian: How old are you, and how long have you been involved in checkers?

Richard: I was born on February 8, 1915, in Springfield, Illinois, and am 83-years-old. I was first attracted to the game while still in high school at age 15 by playing with my father, on long winter evenings, prior to television. He was what you might describe as a "natural" player (non-book), and it is doubtful that he ever saw a checker book. But he would beat me without mercy, much like Marion Tinsley's neighbor lady once beat him, and then he would laugh. He said that the expert players had a "system" and would never lose. He also said that if I was interested, the local library probably had some books showing this system! So I checked this out, and was fortunate to find they did have two books (among a dozen or so chess books), a Hill's Manual and Ed Lasker's Chess & Checkers with Alfred Jordan writing most of the checker section. This, with its numbered board, opened up a new world, even though I failed to find the elusive system!

Lacking a coach at this time, I started to memorize some of the Go-As-You-Please openings without any knowledge of "why" these moves were being made. But at least I found some ideas on opening play, and within a year or so, I was able to defeat my father, who then declined to play, saying that "books" were unfair.

As good fortune would have it, Springfield at that time had an active chess and checker club. Without that I probably would have lost interest. With my newfound knowledge, I visited the Saturday afternoon club at the old YMCA. I can still recall my first game played there, an Old 14th with Black - right down to the fatal 9-13? - and was shocked after the big shot. Of course, this was in Hills Manual, but I had missed it.

Watching the game was a portly gentleman, who inquired later, "Did you know what you were playing?" When I told him I had been studying Hills Manual, he introduced himself as Harland Richards, the Illinois downstate champion. He invited me to his home and showed me his chess and checkers library - an immense collection to me, even though he had some 40 or 50 books. Among these, he had duplicates of Denvir's 1905 1st U.S.-G.B. Match and a Sixth American Tournament book, which he let me use. I was fascinated with these and played over every game several times. He also gave me expert advice on cross-board and end play, in which I was very poor at this time.

Harland and I became fast friends, and with him I went to my first tournament, a one day GAYP affair at Lake Wehi, Indiana. In the first game, I tossed for colors, and with Black I moved 11-15, replying with 23-18 against 11-15 with White. Here again, I recall just one game, again going into a shot, this time with White, in the Slip-Cross. As I recall, I wound up about in the middle half, which Richards thought was very good. After this I was 'hooked' for life!

  Question No. 2: Greatest Accomplishments
Brian: List your accomplishments in checkers in order of importance.

Richard:

  1. Writing Basic Checkers
  2. World Postal Champion
  3. Six Illinois state titles
  4. Placing third in the 1933 Illinois State tournament
  5. Annotations, especially of the Eleventh American Checker Association National Tournament, published in Elam's Checker Board, 1946-47. Also, the notes to the Third, Fourth and Sixth U.S.A.-G.B. International Matches, written crossboard, and the notes to the US versus GB International Correspondence Team Matches in 1954, 1956, and 1958.
  6. My three eight-game postal matches with Derek Oldbury (later world champion), which I won overall by the score of 5-3 with 16 draws. Also, my 1948 mail match versus Marion Tinsley, in which I drew 15 out of 16 games against several of his cooks.

  Question No. 3: Proudest Moment
Brian: Which accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

Richard: After I had completed Part 7 of Basic Checkers, Marion Tinsley wrote, in part,

"The checker world may not recall all of your accomplishments in the game over the past 50 years, but I am confident they will always remember you as the author of BC. My congratulations!"

I suppose that is one reason I listed this first.

  Question No. 4: Crossboard Masterpieces
Brian: What are some of your finest crossboard accomplishments?

Richard: My earliest crossboard effort of which I am proud: Finishing third in my first state tourney in 1933 at age 18. This was a double knockout played in sub-zero weather in the small town of Colchester, held in the local town hall, unheated except for two large coal stoves. Most played in overcoats, looking for a favorable spot near the stoves! In round five of the tourney, I was paired with Oscar Apple of Rock Island, the 1928 Illinois state champ and also Trans-Mississippi winner. Oscar was a middle-aged, rotund gentleman with a large, red, bulbous nose, much like W. C. Fields. Oscar had beaten me very easily in the prelims and, no doubt, thought he had an easy mark here playing this kid.

Our first opening was a Second Double Corner in which I had Black and an easy draw. But with White, he was playing perhaps a bit too rapidly, and in the late midgame, he made a mistake. He knew it, as his nose became a bit redder. I happened to know it also, so I slowed down. My coach, Richards, had finished his round and was nervously pacing behind our board. Oscar later had to play a piece short, but couldn't recover. We were playing four game heats, and our next opening was 12-16, 21-17, 16-19, which was all Greek to me and possibly to Apple also. At any rate, he chased me all over the board in game three but could not win. In game four, he played a piece short in midgame for complications but could not recover, and I won the round 2-0 and two draws. Previously, Apple had won a round over Richards, but this gave Richards another chance, and he won the finals over Apple to give him his first and only Illinois state tourney win. I lost only to Richards to take third place.

The win over Oscar Apple was my first victory over a rated state champion, and it helped Richards win his first (and only) Illinois state championship. As a result, he later presented me with a Christmas present - an autographed copy of the Second International Match of 1927, a book that I had long desired but couldn't afford in those bleak depression days. ($5.00 in those depression years was a large sum for a high school student.) Harland had a draftsman inscribe in black ink an old English script on the flyleaf:

To: Richard L. Fortman

In commemoration of your brilliant showing in the 1933 Illinois State Tournament, this book is respectfully presented. Your victory over Oscar Apple, 1928 Illinois state champion, proved you to be at least the second best player at Colchester. Only the luck of the draw forced you to be content with third prize in this, your first major tournament. This same victory was of especial importance to the writer of this little token, for without it I could not sign this as:

Harland Richards
1933 Illinois State Champion
Dec. 23rd, 1933

This is one of my most prized books, and although the binding may be a bit loose, it has stood the ravages of some 65 years in good fashion.

Winning over former state champ Oscar Apple in my first state tourney was probably my finest early achievement. However, upon reflection, I think winning the seventh game from U.S. tournament champ Edwin Hunt after six draws would certainly have to rank in the top category also. We played 12 games at the YMCA in Nashville, Tennessee on successive Sundays in January 1934, just one month prior to my 19th birthday. We had draws on 11-16, 24-20, 16-19, then draws on 9-14, 24-20, 11-15, as published in Ryan's New Checkergram. The third Sunday produced 11-15, 23-18, 12-16, x, 24-20, with both using the 9-14 defense. Hunt defended easily with black, while I managed to struggle to draw.

Then, at about 9:30 p.m., our next card was the Octopus in which I had White first! 10-15, 21-17, 7-10, 17-14 10-17, 22-13 ( I don't recall if I knew anything about this, but I did find the proper attack) then 9-14 ( the accepted defense in those days, before Ryan's Modern Encyclopedia of Checkers!), and of course 24-20 is proper, which Mr. Hunt took in the next game to win. But playing crossboard, I went 23-19?! ( I doubt if anyone else has played this.) As I remember, he looked quite surprised, and played 6-10? quickly, then 25-22 and again very quickly 11-16? (where 2-6 looks about even). Looking back across all these years, I can take pride in seeing I had some crossboard skill to attack his double corner with 29-25, 16-23, 27-9, 5-14, and 13-9! At this stage, he excused himself to visit the water fountain, then returned to stand in back of my chair to observe the position.

Continue: 12-16 25-21, 8-11, 22-17, 3-7, 17-13, 16-20, 9-6, 20-27 31-24, 2-9, 13-6, 4-8, 24-19, 15-24, 28-19 (if 6-2, 1-6, x) 14-17, 21-14, 10-17, 6-2, 8-12, 32-28, 1-5, 2-6,17-21, 28-24, 11-16, 24-20, 16-23, 26-19, 7-11, 6-2. White Win.

The time was now after midnight, and Richards was anxious to leave for the drive back to Murfreesboro. However, Mr. Hunt asked if we could continue and give him an opportunity to "get even" as he put it! Richards wasn't too happy (but very happy over my win) but agreed to stay. Then Hunt won the White side, which concluded at 2:15 a.m.! We both had to go to work at the airport the next morning. In the fourth session, he won 1-0 and 3 draws, winning the White side of a 10-15, 23-18, 7-10, which concluded my play against him.

Other fond memories: Winning my first Illinois state tourney in 1950 after a five year stint in the Army. Defeating Leo Sanders, Tony Gursky and H. B. Mason, all former Illinois state winners. I can still remember walking from the playing room to the hotel at four a.m., literally walking on clouds all the way. This was the first of my six Illinois state titles but by far the most exciting. Also, my play in the 1949 Sixth District tournament at Joliet, finishing third behind Tinsley and Roy Hunt, half-lifed out by Tinsley but ahead of Lee Munger, Leo Levitt, and other players.

  Richard Fortman's Crossboard Record

  • Fortman's first tournament was the 1932 Illinois Downstate 101 at Decatur where he finished with a minus score well down in Class B. He was very discouraged and might have quit had it not been for the encouragement of his coach, Harland Richards.

  • Fortman played in a total of 26 Illinois state tourneys from 1933 to 1990: Won six (1950, 1956, 1969, 1975, 1977, and 1978), second in nine tourneys, third in seven tourneys, fifth in two tourneys, and withdrew in two tourneys.

  • In the Illinois Downstate tourneys: Won four (1938, 1940, 1970, 1974), second in two tourneys, third in one tourney, fourth in one tourney.

  • In the Sixth District tourneys: Won twice (1980 and 1981), third in 1949, fourth in 1977, fourth in 1978.

  • In Cedar Point tourneys: Won Minors in 1933 (see photo in Ryan's New Checkergram), fourth in 1949.

  • National Tournament: 1948, Brownwood, TX (double knockout): Tied for 12th (107 entries), lost to Everett Fuller in round six.

  • National Tournament: 1958, Bethlehem, PA (72 entries): Tied for 12th, 13th and 14th with Bob Cornell and K. D. Hanson. Total score in Masters: 3-3 and 19 draws.

  Question No. 5: Career Disappointments
Brian:What was one of your major disappointments in your career?

Richard:When I lost to Newell Banks 2-1 with five draws at the 1958 Bethlehem National Tournament. After winning the White side of an Octopus with Tinsley's new 30-26 cook, I lost with Red on the 24-19 attack. After two draws, in overtime, we had 10-15, 24-20, 6-10, and I drew with Red. In game six with White, Banks went into a loss. In the midgame, seeing his position was bad, his face flushed. Banks made a motion that I thought was going to sweep the pieces off the board, but he held himself in check and managed to draw after I missed the win. He had earlier lost one round to Professor Fraser, so this would have eliminated him. He then went on to win game seven and drew game eight. I later lost to Professor Fraser in round four on a cook that Oldbury had shown him. This was my last national tournament.


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