Draughts or Checkers in the 1700 and 1800s

Draughts or checkers was a strategy board game played for fun and for its relaxing benefits in the 1700 and 1800s. The game had been around for a long time and involved two players moving diagonally with their game pieces and capturing opponent pieces by jumping them. Because it was easy to learn and play, everyone in the family could participate, although based on what country you lived in you might play it on a different number of squares because United States and British boards had 64 (8×8) squares, Polish 100 (10×10), and Canadians 144 (12×12).

 

Draughts or checkers - Louis Leopold Boilly

portrait by Louis Leopold Boilly of a family playing draughts or checkers. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In France draughts or checkers were originally called “fierges,” “ferses,” “jeu de dames,” or “dames.” This game had been played for some time before it was popularized at the French court in the 1600s by Pierre Mallet, mathematician to the king. In addition, Randall Cotgrave’s French and English Dictionary of the 1650s defined the game in the following manner:

“Dames – the playe on the outside of a paire of tables called draughts [and] Forcat – … also a game at draughts wherein one must take his adversary or else be himself taken.”[1]

As to the name draughts versus checkers, twenty-first century author Govert Westerveld states:

“[S]ince 1400 ‘draughts’ has always in England been considered the usual proper name, and many players never heard of any other. So far as ‘checkers’ was used in England in old times, I think it was a Children’s word and partly a rural term. Now it is in more frequent use … nearly dying out, because of American example and influence. The word ‘draughts’ is simply old English for ‘moves’. It was used by Chess players and in other games. A turn to play was a turn to make a draught. A bad move was a bad draught. The poet, Chaucer, speaks of ‘false draughts’ in a game of Chess. He means Cheating or illegal moves. Our game, being all ‘draughts’, made with pieces all alike … and not complicated with ‘checks’ and ‘Check-mate’ and ‘stalemate’, became known as ‘the game of draughts’, although strictly Speaking Chess and nine men’s morris were also games of draughts.”[2]


“A Bad Move,” showing a game of Draughts that was published by George Humphrey in 1822. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The divergence in the name of draughts versus checkers seems to have gained greater momentum after British emigrates sailed off and settled in the American colonies. Many colonists knew it to be the game of checkers, rather than draughts. It was a familiar game that they could readily play and just like draughts, it was played on a checkerboard patterned board. Exactly how it became called checkers remains questionable although the Newcastle Weekly Courant provided this explanation:

“In the oldest English books, and in works of comparatively slight antiquity, the term ‘chequer’ (variously spelled) is used to designate the board on which both chess and draughts are now played; and unless in some hitherto undiscovered quarter, the term ‘chequers’ does not occur as the distinctive name of a game. The term ‘draught,’ on the other hand is employed in such a manner as to leave no reasonable doubt that … a game of ‘draughts’ was known and practised in England long before the introduction of chess. It may, of course, be argued that, since such game of draughts was played on what is now very generally called a ‘chequered’ board, the assumption that the game was called ‘chequers’ has a certain amount of probability to sustain it. To this … it is sufficient to reply that a ‘checked’ board, though doubtless as convenient then as it is now, was probably not an essential requisite of the game in question; and that, as in the case of most other games, the original name would more likely be derived from some salient factor of distinctive element of the game itself.”[3]  

Despite the controversy over the name there were plenty of books published in the 1700 and 1800s that offered tips or guides on how to play draughts or checkers. For instance, there was William Payne’s book published in 1756 titled, An Introduction to the Game of Draughts. It was dedicated to the Right Honourable William-Henry Earl of Rochford. There was Sturges’ Guide to the Game of Draughts by Joshua Sturges in 1835. He provided theory and practice with clear illustrations. In 1866, there was Draughts or Checkers for Beginners written by Henry Spayth, who also authored American Draught Player and Games of Draughts.

Because the game pieces were so portable, people played it everywhere. Friends played it outside their cottages, club members played it in their fancy club rooms, and families played it in their drawing rooms or parlors. Another popular spot for playing the game was coffee houses with one image produced in 1720 showing three men playing draughts at Button’s Coffee House in London.

Men playing draughts in Button’s Coffee-House, London, ca. 1720. Aquatint by S. Ireland after W. Hogarth. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

As draughts or checkers gained traction, the first championship was held in 1840. A Scottish player named Andrew Anderson won. He was an author who also standardized the rules of the game initially setting seven rules for play as follows:

  1. The first move to be taken by each player alternately.
  2. Pointing over the Board, or in any way interrupting your adversary from having a full view of the men, is not allowed.
  3. When it is your turn to play, if you delay longer than three minutes, your adversary may call upon you to move; and when so called upon, should you delay five minutes longer you will be adjudged to have lost the Game.
  4. The Men may be properly placed upon the Squares in апу part of the Game, provided you intimate your intention to your adversary; but after being so placed, whichever player touches a man, must move it somewhere, if practicable ; and if the man so moved has been visibly over the angle separating the squares the party is playing from and to, that move must be completed.
  5. While a Match or Game is pending, neither party must quit during the time previously agreed upon, without his adversary consent, under the penalty of loseing the Match.
  6. When you move for the purpose of giving man for man, if your adversary neglects to take your man, he must stand the huff – viz: you remove from the board the man with which your adversary might have taken yours; or if you see it is more to your advantage you can compel him to take it.
  7. The act of Huffing is not reckoned as a move.[4]

Despite world draught or checker championships being played, other contests were sometimes held to test the ability of draught or checker players. One interesting battle for draughts or checkers supremacy happened when Charles Francis Barker of Boston, Massachusetts, issued a challenge in 1887 to British players. James Smith of Spennymoor accepted the challenge. Unfortunately, a disagreement arose over expenses, Smith withdrew, and Baker’s challenge was then accepted by Scotsman Robert Martins, an ex-champion of the world who reigned supreme between 1859 and 1864:

“The match [between Barker and Martins] was played at Glasgow during the latter end of the 1887 and the beginning of 1888, and resulted in the defeat of the veteran Scotch representative, the score being – Barker, 3; Martins, 1; Drawn, 45 games.”[5]

After defeating Martins, Barker then immediately issued another challenge to Smith and he accepted. This draughts or checkers match began on 24 December 1888 at Spennymoor in a “never-to-be-forgotten encounter” and concluded on 7 January 1889 with Barker winning the grand prize of £200.00 and a silver cup. Smith received the consolation purse.

Although Barker may have beaten Martins, Barker never became a world draughts or checkers champion. One person who did was James Wyllie, a Scottish player often nicknamed “The Herd Laddie.” He held the title more times than anyone, 1844-1847, 1849-1859, 1864-1876, and finally 1878-1894. Wyllie also played a memorable game against Martins that was well publicized.

Draughts or checkers - Checkers Up at the Farm

Sculpture by John Rodgers. He created several groups of people playing checkers and received so much publicity that he devoted all his time to sculpting. “Checkers Up at the Farm” was completed in 1875. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Although there may have been numerous champions of draughts or checkers since the world championship began, some of the best stories reported had nothing to do with the championships and more to do with the people who played the game just for fun. Among some of the well-known people who liked the game and played for fun was Napoleon Bonaparte, the Duke of Wellington, Edgar Allan Poe, General Ulysses S. Grant, and King George III. In fact, in George III’s case there is in an interesting tidbit that the Chester Chronicle reported in 1789:

“One afternoon Col. G― was desired to play a game at draughts with his sovereign, by way of passing the time. His Majesty, as at other intervals, uncommonly lucid, kept his adversary’s skill on the watch for an advantageous move; at length the opportunity arrived, when the Colonel exultingly said, ‘Now, Sir, I shall beat you; for I am going to make a King.’ ‘Then,’ said the Monarch, looking significantly, ‘You cannot make a more unhappy thing!’”[6]

Another story about draughts or checkers got an American moralist Reverend C. W. Winchester into trouble in 1884. Apparently, he hoped to reform people who indulged in games of chance but instead offended several “intelligent and reputable” people when he gave a sermon on “sinful amusements.” During his sermon he stated that “checkers are hardly of enough account for notice. They certainly ought not to be indulged in by men who ought to be at work.”[7]  His words irked one of the best checkers players in Western New York, a George Mugridge, who responded:

“That … is a slur on the noblest game that has yet been devised. Mr. Winchester is entirely ignorant of its nature or he never would have made such foolish remarks. I consider checkers to be not only innocent but mentally instructive. As a scientific game it is the peer of chess, and the man who would denounce chess is a lunatic. … Thousands play it for pastime, or because it happens to be introduced at social gatherings. … There are infinitely more variations, moves and combinations than in chess … A single game may have many thousand variations.”[8]  

Draughts or checkers also had an interesting connection to the American Civil War. Plenty of Americans knew of the rousing game and apparently that resulted in some Confederate players deciding to take the game to new heights. According to the New York Sun the outcomes of various Civil War battles were regularly replicated by local chess and checkerboard players in the south:

“We had two strategy boards in our town when Grant and Sherman were in the South and McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade on one side and Lee on the other, were in Virginia. … One board played chess, the other one played checkers. … The checker board was composed of the Justice of the Peace, a preacher, the superintendent of the Sunday School and some of the clerks in the stores. There were no bulletins then. There was no afternoon newspaper. When there was a big fight the morning newspaper got out an ‘extra’ … [that] sold for 5 cents … After the issue of the extra the people in what had been the business centre doubted the news or accepted it according to their wishes, and then went to play chess with players who were Southerners. The extra was read, and the players, never raising their eyes from the board, would speak and move about this way:

‘Grant couldn’t get into Vicksburg as the despatch says he did. Here’s Vicksburg’ – pointing to a king or castle, or some other titular – ‘and here’s Grant. He could not more take Vicksburg than I can take that castle with this bishop until I have an open sweep across the board.’ …

The checker board strategists in the office of the Justice of the Peace confined themselves to the movements of the militia at home and the home guard. The Justice was a jolly soul who weighed about 400 pounds the year ‘round, and every time he got into the king row he would chuckle, ‘Pawson, tha’s no use talkin’, yo’ ca’t keep Joe Shelby out o’ Missouri any mo’ n yo’ kin keep me from jumpin’ into that king row.’

‘But the parson would explain, after the game, to his admirers that the Squire moved some of his men both ways before they were crowned. And his admirers were fond of telling what the parson would have done if the Squire had played fair.’”[9]

Two men playing draughts or checkers. Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] The Canadian Checker Player v. 2 (Chatham: M.D. Teetzel, 1908), p. 171–72.
  • [2] G. Westerveld, The History of Checkers (Draughts) (Blanca: Lulu.com, 2013), p. 38–39.
  • [3] The Newcastle Weekly Courant, “Draughts – Not Checkers,” September 17, 1892, p. 5.
  • [4] A. Anderson, Anderson’s Guide to the Game of Draughts: Containing Upwards of Seven Hundred Games (Lanark: R. Wood, 1848), p. vii.
  • [5] C. F. Barker and F. Dunne, eds., Draughts, Checkers: The Great International Match (Manchester: F. Dunne, 1889), p. 5.
  • [6] Chester Chronicle, “Sunday Night’s Mail,” June 26, 1789, p. 2.
  • [7] Buffalo Sunday Morning News, “Pulpit Checkers,” February 3, 1884, p. 4.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] The Sun, “Strategy Boards at Home,” May 29, 1898, p. 15.

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