Saturday, February 5, 2011

Weekend Gaming -- Behold the humble checker

Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess-player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers. In draughts, on the contrary, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen.
Edgar Allan Poe -- "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Poe's opinion on this matter is more common than you might expect. It's not unusual to hear masters of both chess and checkers (draughts) to admit that they prefer the latter. So why does chess get all the respect? Why do you never see a criminal mastermind or a Bond villain playing in a checkers tournament?

Part of the problem is that we learn the game as children so we tend to think of it as a children's game. We focus on how simple the rules are and miss how much complexity and subtlety you can get out of those rules.

Chess derives most of its complexity through differentiated pieces; with checkers the complexity comes from the interaction between pieces. The result is a series of elegant graph problems where the viable paths change with each move of your opponent. To draw an analogy with chess, imagine if moving your knight could allow your opponent's bishop to move like a rook. Add to that the potential for traps and manipulation that come with forced capture and you have one of the most remarkable games of all time.

There have been any number of checkers variants.* You could even argue that all checkers games are variants since, unlike chess, there is no single, internationally recognized version. Here are some of the best and best-known.

Spanish Checkers

Considered by many connoisseurs to be the best of the national variants. It is distinguished from the American version by a queen's (analogous to a king) ability to jump long. This makes a queen powerful but, since captures are mandatory, easier to capture.

Dama (Turkish Checkers)

Also known as Greek checkers. In this variant, pieces move vertically and horizontally instead of diagonally. Among other things this doubles the playing field.


This variant was invented by the second World Chess Champion Emanuel Lasker. It's worth noting that Lasker (who is considered one of the best chess players of all time) would look to checkers when designing his own game.

In Lasca, captured pieces are added to the bottom of columns controlled by whichever player has the top piece. Since jumping only captures the piece on top of the column, players have to take into account not only position but also height and position.

You can get a detailed write-up by following the link or you can see Lasker's original patent application here. He comes off as rather immodest, but he was the world's best chess player and a close friend of Einstein so I guess we can let him slide.

Misère checkers

This one you probably know as suicide or give-away checkers. The object is either to lose all your pieces or have them blocked so that you can't move.

Endless Checkers (or whatever the damned thing is called)

I'm certain I've read about this somewhere though I can't seem to find any record of it. Here, when a piece reaches the last it can move to an appropriate space on the first row (think of a board wrapped around a cylinder). There are no kings in endless checkers.

I have a feeling I'm missing something. Any suggestions?

* Including one I'm particularly fond of, but that's a topic for another post.


  1. Interesting post.

    In terms of what's missing, there are a few variants at Wikipedia that aren't here. Whether they are of any importance, I can't judge: I've only played English (mandatory jump or not) and suicide -- a fine grade school version when it's raining and you can't go outside for recess.

    Similarly, there are a lot of variants to chess but I think only 960 (Fischer random) seems to have a following in the US -- on there are a lot of 960 players, although still a minority.

    (got here from Gelman's blog).

  2. Thanks,

    I'm sure I missed a bunch (posts are always a compromise between get it right and get it written). If I had wanted to do it right I would have gone by the library and checked out Parlett's Oxford History of Board Games.

    As for chess variants, I believe the most popular variant internationally is a hexagonal version of the game ( which is really cool.