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by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Checkers has been a recreational fixture in Texas since before the Civil War.

My grandmother taught me the game and we had some spirited matches. Decades later, I instructed my daughter on checkers. At first, as my grandmother likely had done with me, I let Hallie win so she wouldn't get too discouraged. Proving a quick study, before long Hallie started allowing me a win every once in a while.

Obviously, it doesn't take long to learn about moves and jumps. Over the years, checkers has been referred to as "country chess" or "chess for the rest of us," but checkers is no less a thinking person's pursuit than that game of royals, bishops, knights, castles and pawns. Kings do figure in checkers, but players don't have to put up with a long cast of characters with varying powers.

Chess and checkers are both very old games. Some say the history of checkers dates to ancient Iraq, but most authorities agree that checkers (better known across most of the world as draughts) evolved from an Egyptian game called alquerque. (And no, that game is not where Albuquerque, N.M. got its name.)

The French later started playing the game on a chess board and upped the number of pieces for each player to 12, the beginning of checkers as played today.

Even though the game has been popular in America since the 1840s, no one seems to have compiled a list of famous Texas checker players. If anyone ever does, one name that should be included is W.R. (Bill) Chambers. Farmer and state representative from Brown County, Chambers liked the game so much that he used to play it by mail.

Born on April 10, 1880 in Alabama, Chambers came to Texas with his family as a teenager in 1893. They settled in Brown County near the Wolf Valley community.

After attending Southwestern University in Georgetown, where he became quite adept at mathematics, Chambers returned to Brown County and spent 20 years as a school teacher in Wolf Valley and Lost Creek. That not being the most lucrative way to earn a living, he and his wife Mary also ran a farm.

"Notes and Quotes from the Lives and Times of the Spencer Chambers Clan," a privately published family history compiled in 1986 by LaVerne Kilgore, says that the couple enjoyed a deserved reputation as community leaders and humanitarians.

"The depression years were survived by growing and caning foods, and sharing what they had with friends and neighbors," the book notes. Playing checkers also must have helped during the hard times.

As the 1930s wound down, Chambers decided to try another kind of game. First elected to the House of Representatives in 1939, he served through 1947. Two years later he won reelection and remained in office through the 54th Legislature in 1957.

In the 1940s, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram spotlighted Chambers in an illustrated, cartoon-like feature called "Tip Top Texans: A Series of Sketches on Prominent Leaders." The item, which resembled a Ripley's Believe it or Not cartoon, noted: "Checkers is his hobby - Having played the game with world famous players."

Unfortunately for posterity, the newspaper piece did not name any of those world famous players. It is known, however, that even as a youngster, Chambers played checkers by correspondence with relatives and friends by marking his moves on a penny post card and waiting patiently for his opponent's mailed reply. To keep the postmaster and rural mail carrier out of the game, they used shorthand.

Checkers by correspondence is by the numbers. A checker board has 32 black squares, with each player starting with 12 black or red pieces. In postal play, the numbers 1-12, placed before a hyphen, represent the pieces, while the numbers 1-32 placed after a hyphen describe one of the squares. To make a move, a checkers-by-mail player might write "black 9-13" which means you move your black No. 9 piece to square No. 13. A jump or capture is written, "black 15-22," meaning that the opponent who occupied square No. 18 is no more.

The game offers more than brain aerobics. Chambers would have appreciated an eight-point list, "Checkers and Life," developed by Waynesboro, VA. minister and author Russell G. Waldrop:
  • The best players have experienced losses.
  • We…learn more from losing than…winning…
  • Everybody wants to be king.
  • Sometimes it's better to sacrifice…so…others can become king.
  • Kings make bigger targets.
  • We don't become kings all alone….
  • Jumping into and out of kingdom on one move may prove too dizzying for personal safety.
  • If you don't show up on time…you could lose the game.
Chambers kept playing checkers for most of the rest of his long life, which finally ended at the age of 90 on July 3, 1970. He's buried in the Wolf Valley Cemetery in Brown County.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
May 9, 2007 column

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