THE CHAMPION CHECKER-PLAYER OF AMERIKY
BY JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY
Of course as fur as Checker-playin's concerned, you can't jest adzackly
claim 'at lots makes fortunes and lots gits bu'sted at it--but still,
it's on'y simple jestice to acknowledge 'at there're absolute p'ints in
the game 'at takes scientific principles to figger out, and a mighty
level-headed feller to dimonstrate, don't you understand!
Checkers is a' old enough game, ef age is any rickommendation; and
it's a' evident fact, too, 'at "the tooth of time," as the feller says,
which fer the last six thousand years has gained some reputation fer
a-eatin' up things in giner'l, don't 'pear to 'a' gnawed much of a hole
in Checkers--jedgin' from the checker-board of to-day and the ones 'at
they're uccasionally shovellin' out at Pomp'y-i, er whatever its
name is. Turned up a checker-board there not long ago, I wuz readin'
'bout, 'at still had the spots on--as plain and fresh as the modern
white-pine board o' our'n, squared off with pencil-marks and
pokeberry-juice. These is facts 'at history herself has dug out, and of
course it ain't fer me ner you to turn our nose up at Checkers, whuther
we ever tamper with the fool-game er not. Fur's that's concerned, I
don't p'tend to be no checker-player myse'f,--but I know'd a feller
onc't 'at could play, and sorto' made a business of it; and that
man, in my opinion, was a geenyus! Name wuz Wesley Cotterl--John Wesley
Cotterl--jest plain Wes, as us fellers round the Shoe-Shop ust to call
him; ust to allus make the Shoe-Shop his headquarters-like; and, rain
er shine, wet er dry, you'd allus find Wes on hands, ready to banter
some feller fer a game, er jest a-settin' humped up there over the
checker-board all alone, a-cipher'n' out some new move er 'nuther, and
whistlin' low and solem' to hisse'f-like and a-payin' no attention to
And I'll tell you, Wes Cotterl wuz no man's fool, as sly as you keep
it! He wuz a deep thinker, Wes wuz; and ef he'd 'a' jest turned that
mind o' his loose on preachin', fer instunce, and the 'terpertation o'
the Bible, don't you know, Wes 'ud 'a' worked p'ints out o' there 'at no
livin' expounderers ever got in gunshot of!
But Wes he didn't 'pear to be cut out fer nothin' much but jest
Checker-playin'. Oh, of course, he could knock round his own woodpile
some, and garden a little, more er less; and the neighbers ust to find
Wes purty handy 'bout trimmin' fruit-trees, you understand, and workin'
in among the worms and cattapillers in the vines and shrubbery, and the
like. And handlin' bees!--They wuzn't no man under the heavens 'at
knowed more 'bout handlin' bees'n Wes Cotterl!--"Settlin'" the blame'
things when they wuz a-swarmin'; and a-robbin' hives, and all sich
fool-resks. W'y, I've saw Wes Cotterl, 'fore now, when a swarm of bees
'ud settle in a' orchard,--like they will sometimes, you know,--I've saw
Wes Cotterl jest roll up his shirt-sleeves and bend down a' apple tree
limb 'at wuz jest kivvered with the pesky things, and scrape 'em back
into the hive with his naked hands, by the quart and gallon, and never
git a scratch! You couldn't hire a bee to sting Wes Cotterl! But
lazy?--I think that man had railly ort to 'a' been a' Injun! He wuz
the fust and on'y man 'at ever I laid eyes on 'at wuz too lazy to drap a
checker-man to p'int out the right road fer a feller 'at ast him onc't
the way to Burke's Mill; and Wes, 'ithout ever a-liftin' eye er finger,
jest sorto' crooked out that mouth o' his'n in the direction the feller
wanted, and says: "H-yonder!" and went on with his whistlin'. But all
this hain't Checkers, and that's what I started out to tell ye.
Wes had a way o' jest natchurly a-cleanin' out anybody and ever'body 'at
'ud he'p hold up a checker-board! Wes wuzn't what you'd call a lively
player at all, ner a competiter 'at talked much 'crost the board er made
much furse over a game whilse he wuz a-playin'. He had his faults, o'
course, and would take back moves 'casion'ly, er inch up on you ef you
didn't watch him, mebby. But, as a rule, Wes had the insight to grasp
the idy of whoever wuz a-playin' ag'in' him, and his style o' game,
you understand, and wuz on the lookout continual'; and under sich
circumstances could play as honest a game o' Checkers as the babe
One thing in Wes's favor allus wuz the feller's temper.--Nothin'
'peared to aggervate Wes, and nothin' on earth could break his slow and
lazy way o' takin' his own time fer ever'thing. You jest couldn't crowd
Wes er git him rattled anyway.--Jest 'peared to have one fixed
principle, and that wuz to take plenty o' time, and never make no move
'ithout a-ciphern'n' ahead on the prob'ble consequences, don't you
understand! "Be shore you're right," Wes 'ud say, a-lettin' up fer a
second on that low and sorry-like little wind-through-the-keyhole
whistle o' his, and a-nosin' out a place whur he could swap one man fer
two.--"Be shore you're right"--and somep'n' after this style wuz Wes's
way: "Be shore you're right"--(whistling a long, lonesome bar of
"Barbara Allen")--"and then"--(another long, retarded bar)--"go
ahead!"--and by the time the feller 'ud git through with his whistlin',
and a-stoppin' and a-startin' in ag'in, he'd be about three men ahead
to your one. And then he'd jest go on with his whistlin' 'sef nothin'
had happened, and mebby you a-jest a-rearin' and a-callin' him all the
mean, outlandish, ornry names 'at you could lay tongue to.
But Wes's good nature, I reckon, was the thing 'at he'ped him out as
much as any other p'ints the feller had. And Wes 'ud allus win, in the
long run!--I don't keer who played ag'inst him! It was on'y a
question o' time with Wes o' waxin' it to the best of 'em. Lots o'
players has tackled Wes, and right at the start 'ud mebby give him
trouble,--but in the long run, now mind ye--in the long run, no
mortal man, I reckon, had any business o' rubbin' knees with Wes Cotterl
under no airthly checker-board in all this vale o' tears!
I mind onc't th' come along a high-toned feller from in around
In'i'nop'lus somers.--Wuz a lawyer, er some p'fessional kind o' man.
Had a big yaller, luther-kivvered book under his arm, and a bunch o'
these-'ere big envelop's and a lot o' suppeenies stickin' out o' his
breastpocket. Mighty slick-lookin' feller he wuz; wore a stovepipe hat,
sorto' set 'way back on his head--so's to show off his Giner'l Jackson
forr'ed, don't you know! Well-sir, this feller struck the place, on some
business er other, and then missed the hack 'at ort to 'a' tuk him out
o' here sooner'n it did take him out!--And whilse he wuz a-loafin'
round, sorto' lonesome--like a feller allus is in a strange place, you
know--he kindo' drapped in on our crowd at the Shoe-Shop, ostenchably to
git a boot-strop stitched on, but I knowed, the minute he set foot in
the door, 'at that feller wanted comp'ny wuss'n cobblin'.
Well, as good luck would have it, there set Wes, as usual, with the
checker-board in his lap, a-playin' all by hisse'f, and a-whistlin' so
low and solem'-like and sad it railly made the crowd seem like a
religious getherun' o' some kind er other, we wuz all so quiet and
still-like, as the man come in.
Well, the stranger stated his business, set down, tuk off his boot, and
set there nussin' his foot and talkin' weather fer ten minutes, I
reckon, 'fore he ever 'peared to notice Wes at all. We wuz all back'ard,
anyhow, 'bout talkin' much; besides, we knowed, long afore he come in,
all about how hot the weather wuz, and the pore chance there wuz o'
rain, and all that; and so the subject had purty well died out, when
jest then the feller's eyes struck Wes and the checker-board,--and I'll
never fergit the warm, salvation smile 'at flashed over him at the
promisin' discovery. "What!" says he, a-grinnin' like a' angel and
a-edgin' his cheer to'rds Wes, "have we a checker-board and checkers
"We hev," says I, knowin' 'at Wes wouldn't let go o' that whistle long
enough to answer--more'n to mebby nod his head.
"And who is your best player?" says the feller, kindo' pitiful-like,
with another inquirin' look at Wes.
"Him," says I, a-pokin' Wes with a peg-float. But Wes on'y spit kindo'
absent-like, and went on with his whistlin'.
"Much of a player, is he?" says the feller, with a sorto' doubtful smile
at Wes ag'in.
"Plays a purty good hick'ry," says I, a-pokin' Wes ag'in. "Wes," says I,
"here's a gentleman 'at 'ud mebby like to take a hand with you there,
and give you a few idys," says I.
"Yes," says the stranger, eager-like, a-settin' his plug-hat keerful' up
in the empty shelvin', and a-rubbin' his hands and smilin' as
confident-like as old Hoyle hisse'f,--"Yes, indeed, I'd be glad to give
the gentleman" (meanin' Wes) "a' idy er two about Checkers--ef he'd
jest as lief,--'cause I reckon ef there're any one thing 'at I do
know more about 'an another, it's Checkers," says he; "and there're no
game 'at delights me more--pervidin', o' course, I find a competiter
'at kin make it anyways interestin'."
"Got much of a rickord on Checkers?" says I.
"Well," says the feller, "I don't like to brag, but I've never ben
beat--in any legitimut contest," says he, "and I've played more'n one
o' them," he says, "here and there round the country. Of course, your
friend here," he went on, smilin' sociable at Wes, "he'll take it all
in good part ef I should happen to lead him a little--jest as I'd do,"
he says, "ef it wuz possible fer him to lead me."
"Wes," says I, "has warmed the wax in the yeers of some mighty good
checker-players," says I, as he squared the board around, still
a-whistlin' to hisse'f-like, as the stranger tuk his place,
a-smilin'-like and roachin' back his hair.
"Move," says Wes.
"No," says the feller, with a polite flourish of his hand; "the first
move shall be your'n." And, by jucks! fer all he wouldn't take even the
advantage of a starter, he flaxed it to Wes the fust game in less'n
"Right shore you've give' me your best player?" he says, smilin' round
at the crowd, as Wes set squarin' the board fer another game and
whistlin' as onconcerned-like as ef nothin' had happened more'n
"'S your move," says Wes, a-squintin' out into the game 'bout forty foot
from shore, and a-whistlin' purt' nigh in a whisper.
Well-sir, it 'peared-like the feller railly didn't try to play; and
you could see, too, 'at Wes knowed he'd about met his match, and played
accordin'. He didn't make no move at all 'at he didn't give keerful
thought to; whilse the feller--! well, as I wuz sayin', it jest
'peared-like Checkers wuz child's-play fer him! Putt in most o' the
time 'long through the game a-sayin' things calkilated to kindo' bore a'
ordinary man. But Wes helt hisse'f purty level, and didn't show no
signs, and kep' up his whistlin', mighty well--considerin'.
"Reckon you play the fiddle, too, as well as Checkers?" says the
feller, laughin', as Wes come a-whistlin' out of the little end of the
second game and went on a-fixin' fer the next round.
"'S my move!" says Wes, 'thout seemin' to notice the feller's
tantalizin' words whatsomever.
"'L! this time," thinks I, "Mr. Smarty from the metrolopin
deestricts, you're liable to git waxed--shore!" But the feller
didn't 'pear to think so at all, and played right ahead as glib-like and
keerless as ever--'casion'ly a-throwin' in them sircastic remarks o'
his'n,--'bout bein' "slow and shore" 'bout things in gineral--"Liked to
see that," he said:--"Liked to see fellers do things with plenty o'
deliberation, and even ef a feller wuzn't much of a checker-player,
liked to see him die slow anyhow!--and then 'tend his own funeral,"
he says,--"and march in the p'session--to his own music," says
he.--And jest then his remarks wuz brung to a close by Wes a-jumpin' two
men, and a-lightin' square in the king-row.... "Crown that," says Wes,
a-droppin' back into his old tune. And fer the rest o'that game Wes
helt the feller purty level, but had to finally knock under--but by jest
the clos'test kind o' shave o' winnin'.
"They ain't much use," says the feller, "o' keepin' this thing
up--'less I could manage, some way er other, to git beat onc't 'n a
"Move," says Wes, a-drappin' back into the same old whistle and
"'Music has charms,' as the Good Book tells us," says the feller, kindo'
nervous-like, and a-roachin' his hair back as ef some sort o' p'tracted
headache wuz a-settin' in.
"Never wuz 'skunked,' wuz ye?" says Wes, kindo' suddent-like, with a
fur-off look in them big white eyes o' his--and then a-whistlin' right
on 'sef he hadn't said nothin'.
"Not much!" says the feller, sorto' s'prised-like, as ef such a' idy
as that had never struck him afore.--"Never was 'skunked' myse'f: but
I've saw fellers in my time 'at wuz!" says he.
But from that time on I noticed the feller 'peared to play more keerful,
and railly la'nched into the game with somepin' like inter'st. Wes he
seemed to be jest a-limber-in'-up-like; and-sir, blame me! ef he didn't
walk the feller's log fer him that time, 'thout no 'pearent trouble at
"And, now," says Wes, all quiet-like, a-squarin' the board fer
another'n,--"we're kindo' gittin' at things right. Move." And away
went that little unconcerned whistle o' his ag'in, and Mr. Cityman
jest gittin' white and sweaty too--he wuz so nervous. Ner he didn't
'pear to find much to laugh at in the next game--ner the next two
games nuther! Things wuz a-gettin' mighty interestin' 'bout them
times, and I guess the feller wuz ser'ous-like a-wakin' up to the solem'
fact 'at it tuk 'bout all his spare time to keep up his end o' the
row, and even that state o' pore satisfaction wuz a-creepin' furder and
furder away from him ever' new turn he undertook. Whilse Wes jest
peared to git more deliber't' and certain ever' game; and that unendin'
se'f-satisfied and comfortin' little whistle o' his never drapped a
stitch, but toed out ever' game alike,--to'rds the last, and, fer the
most part, disasterss to the feller 'at had started in with sich
confidence and actchul promise, don't you know.
Well-sir, the feller stuck the whole forenoon out, and then the
afternoon; and then knuckled down to it 'way into the night--yes, and
plum midnight!--And he buckled into the thing bright and airly next
morning! And-sir, fer two long days and nights, a-hardly a-stoppin'
long enough to eat, the feller stuck it out,--and Wes a-jest a-warpin'
it to him hand-over-fist, and leavin' him furder behind, ever'
game!--till finally, to'rds the last, the feller got so blamedon worked
up and excited-like, he jes' 'peared actchully purt' nigh plum crazy and
histurical as a woman!
It was a-gittin' late into the shank of the second day, and the boys hed
jest lit a candle fer 'em to finish out one of the clost'est games the
feller'd played Wes fer some time. But Wes wuz jest as cool and ca'm as
ever, and still a-whistlin' consolin' to hisse'f-like, whilse the feller
jest 'peared wore out and ready to drap right in his tracks any minute.
"Durn you!" he snarled out at Wes, "hain't you never goern to move?"
And there set Wes, a-balancin' a checker-man above the board, a-studyin'
whur to set it, and a-fillin' in the time with that-air whistle.
"Flames and flashes!" says the feller ag'in, "will you ever stop
that death-seducin' tune o' your'n long enough to move?"--And as Wes
deliber't'ly set his man down whur the feller see he'd haf to jump it
and lose two men and a king, Wes wuz a-singin', low and sad-like, as ef
all to hisse'f:
"O we'll move that man, and leave him there.--
Fer the love of B-a-r-b--bry Al-len!"
Well-sir! the feller jest jumped to his feet, upset the board, and tore
out o' the shop stark-starin' crazy--blame ef he wuzn't!--'cause some of
us putt out after him and overtook him 'way beyent the 'pike-bridge, and
hollered to him;--and he shuk his fist at us and hollered back and
says, says he: "Ef you fellers over here," says he, "'ll agree to
muzzle that durn checker-player o' your'n, I'll bet fifteen hunderd
dollars to fifteen cents 'at I kin beat him 'leven games out of ever'
dozent!--But there're no money," he says, "'at kin hire me to play him
ag'in, on this aboundin' airth, on'y on them conditions--'cause that
durn, eternal, infernal, dad-blasted whistle o' his 'ud beat the oldest
man in Ameriky!"
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~