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Willie Ryan
Checkers Game

Willie Ryan


William F. Ryan, or better known as Willie Ryan, was another renowned American checkers game player. Ryan grew up near Sam Gonotsky and as a result, they spent a lot of time together as boyhood ‘chums’. Willie developed a keen interest in the game of checkers, and learned much about the game from Gonotsky, though Ryan did not develop his checker game until later in his career and was no real match against Gonotsky early on. However, they both enjoyed practicing checkers in numerous games they played together.

One thing that became clear early on in his checkers career was that Ryan possessed a dominant, charismatic personality that readily displayed a certain cockiness, an easy confidence in the things that he excelled at, such as checkers, and he was often known to be brash. He didn't hesitate to show his love of a good checkers game, and actually spent most of his life promoting checkers in a variety of ways.

One of his most significant contributions to the world of checkers was his publication of The American Checkerist magazine that ran from 1939 until 1950, where a few issues were still published.
The image below is the cover of the 1941 Silver Anniversary Edition.

Checkers Publication

The following are copies of Ryan’s checkers publication:

Checkerist Sept 1946 Checkerist Jan 1947 Checkerist July 1947
Sept - Oct 1946 Jan - June 1947 July - Nov 1947

These checkers magazines featured stories on checker champions, tournaments, and any other event that related to the grand world of checkers. They truly represented the depth to which this wonderful game was played in the early 20th century. Complete bound sets of these are still available, if the checker enthusiast is eager to seek them out for a quick review of notable past checkers events or for a detailed sojourn into history.

Catalin Checkers

As the Catalin Checkers sets were extremely popular in the 1940’s, Willie Ryan promoted them in nearly all of his Checkerist magazines. The real Catalin Checkers were semi-translucent and aged with time, and were inlaid with ceramic tile in a beautiful wooden frame. Many tournament checkers players from that time carried them along on their travels. Today, they are in demand as collector items as they are rare indeed and an unusual checker product with hinges in the checker-board where it folds to preserve the actual board from unnecessary wear.

Willie Ryan’s other great contribution to the checkers scene was his series of authoritative books written on the game of checker play. Most of these books are now out of print, but well worth the effort to seek out old copies. Ryan had a distinctive voice in his writing and a clear approach to defining and explaining checkers from the novice player to the master at board play.

One of the first books that William F. Ryan wrote was entitled Streamlined Checkers. This account was a small 1938 book of analysis of "The Bronx Express," which was an opening variation that he strived to popularize. Unfortunately, it seemed that Ryan was the only checkers player who thought this opening had any real merit, for others felt that the opening was weak.

Willie Ryan also wrote Scientific Checkers Made Easy, which is now out of print as well. The checkers subject categories that he discussed in this book were based on an intermediate level surrounding general information with Openings, Problems and Endings.

Ryan began this book with his philosophy on how to study the game of checkers and how to learn the intricacies within board play. This he titled "A Master's Advice."
The following is an excerpt from this section and it truly gives the reader some insight into the personality of this great checker player. Of course, not every reader will necessarily agree with his masterful advice, but it has relevance in that it is an interesting and entertaining look into Ryan’s style and heart.

(Read More…)
A Master's Advice to Beginners - by William F. Ryan (aka the Bronx Comet)
“How may I attain proficiency at checkers? Is probably the most common question the beginner asks of the expert. The question indicates that the novice expects to find a short and easy way to master the game, without the drudgery of long and close study. It’s not an easy question to answer, and the more explanation the expert tries to give, the more difficult his answer is apt to appear to the beginner. As a matter of fact, there is no royal road to checker proficiency, and the beginner who expects to become a master in a day or a week becomes discouraged and forsakes the game because of the seemingly insurmountable barriers, which confront him. The various authors who have tried to make the science of the game an over-night acquisition have never been successful.

Three things the would-be expert must master:
(1) A knowledge of the book games, which are examples of well-played checkers involving notable checker principles and situations.
(2) A knowledge of the reasons for the moves in such games.
(3)The ability to use these moves when the same or similar situations appear in actual play.

The first of these is acquired by memorizing; the second, by analytical study; and the third, by serious and concentrated practice, with the other two constantly in mind.

The leaders of any sport are frequently accused of not knowing the problems of a beginner. This doesn't sound very logical. A leader of any game, sport, or profession started as a beginner. Therefore, he does know what constitutes the best methods for progress. Perhaps a description of my own early problems and difficulties and how I overcame them will be the most effective lesson I can give beginners to help them and inspire in them the necessity of sticking through early ordeals. This book by Willie Ryan, has been compiled with my early struggles in mind.

It may seem strange to my readers that I had been playing checkers for three years before I knew how to win three kings against two, when the two kings occupy both double corners. One day, I was on the winning side of a three-kings-against-two ending, but just couldn't seem to line up my kings correctly to win. The game ended in a draw. This is one of earliest experiences of a beginner. He gets into positions and king endings which he feels he should be able to win or draw, as the case may be, but somehow he is unable to force the issue.

I had reached the stage when the beginner’s interest in the checker game becomes more than casual, and he learns that there is such a thing as a checker game book. So I bought a checker book. I found the book very confusing and uninteresting at first, but my ambition to learn more about the game was the dominating force at the moment. I took the book in hand and ran over numerous problems and games with the help of a numbered board. Once absorbed, I found the plays very interesting and spectacular, and finally, by hard work, I managed to get a faint conception of the proper play to force a win with three kings against two, when the two kings occupy both double corners.

But my problems as a beginner were still ahead. I began to study book games, but like all other beginners, I simply could not hold them in mind for any length of time. My memory was terrible. But where there is a will, there is a way. My ambition was to master checkers, and I was not going to quit. In my desperation to progress in my play, I hit upon a plan (or should I say habit?), which worked wonders for me. I think it is the best plan for a beginner at checkers and, if properly carried out, results are bound to follow. This is what I did: I acquired a numbered checker - board and then selected a game in the book, which I felt I should like to play well. The game selected, I ran over the trunk game, holding the book in one hand, and moving the checkers around with the other.

As soon as I had completed running over the game to its conclusion, I would set up the pieces for play again, and repeat the process. After doing this three or four times, I was able to run the game through without looking at the book. But remember, I was only memorizing! I knew absolutely nothing about the laws or seasons governing the moves being made. I was just memorizing the game "mechanically", making no effort to understand the involved points in the game. I would continue running over the game for a whole evening, just memorizing it, and making sure that I was running it out exactly as depicted in the book. By the end of the evening (my first lesson) I was able to run up the game rapidly and correctly. The next evening I repeated the work of the previous night the same game, the same book, the same board. By the end of the week, you can believe me; I knew that one game by memory. What was my next step? I knew the game by memory. Now it occurred to me that I should memorize some of the variations off the trunk game. And so for my next lesson ii memorized a variation off the trunk game. And my third lesson was devoted to learning still another variation. After several variations on one game had thus been committed to memory I spent several more days reviewing them all at once and running each one up several times without looking at the book.

Now comes the second stage of the beginner, and by far the most trying and discouraging. This stage is reached when the beginner has memorized some book games and feels ready to go out in the big, bad world and beat all comers at checkers. Armed with his memorized book games, the beginner site down to a board with his rival and anticipates fast and furious victory. Alas! Greater difficulties now loom. He find that the moves he has memorized are not always playable. Too bad! Bill Jones, his opponent, doesn't make "book" moves! The beginner suddenly realizes that all his memorization is for naught. The moves that Jones makes are not in the book, and he does not know how to meet them. That was just where my second problem popped up. I had memorized a game and several variations on it, but found that in most cases my opponents would vary (deviate) from the book sooner or later, leaving me to finish the game on my own calculations. What was I to do now? After consulting a number of books in the public library, in which I was unable to find any play covering certain moves by opponents, I decided there was something wrong with the moves that opponents were playing against me. But how was I to go about the task of learning the weak spots in their play? And here I must say that there is only one answer in the whole wide world to that question: "The patient must minister unto himself." All the checker books in the world cannot help you when a player goes of the book. You must then continue on your own ability. All the recommendations, "systems," methods, and tricks of the "self-styled" checker authorities cannot help you. It’s up to yourself.

Here is how Willie Ryan mastered the situation. Discovering that my mechanical memorization did not serve me well, I retraced my lessons, but this time in running over the games (by this time I knew them by memory) I played up each move very slowly, taking note of every play and trying to form my own reason for the cause and effect of each move. This was not always easy, and some moves really have no object, but are "waiting moves" or "moves made on general principles" such as developing the pieces along the single corner file. Such moves embody no definite purpose or threat. Here is as point I wish to stress for beginners. Combination moves (see Glossary), for example, are made for an "ultimate conclusion" and frequently their strength is hidden until five or ten moves later. But, as time went on and my study and practice continued (always on the same game), I soon acquired some experience on the characteristic formations of the game, and noticed that the same corresponding moves were playable in different games and position. That is, the same combination, or principle in play involved in one position, was applicable to another entirely different position.”

After his strategy session, Willie Ryan then discussed some of the annotated games and variations on seventeen of the two-move openings. The book did justice to the "openings" category but was certainly not a complete treatise on checkers. However, that was Willie Ryan’s style ~ he would limit his scope but still would cover his subject matter with depth and appropriate detail.

He did include a good section on the "ten major" endgame positions, which seems to be required when discussing the whole checkers game; however, Willie Ryan also added an interesting chapter on identical positions, where he set up the section with a number of problems and many examples that help to teach the novice checker player or even the more experienced checkerist how certain similar positions arise from different lines of play. Certainly other authors have used this method before, but Ryan did it well and it added a nice touch to his checkers book.

Willie Ryan also incorporated a selection of fifty problems with solutions and interesting commentary on a number of them, and they certainly gave the checkers enthusiast a chance to try out individual skills, though Ryan did not set out easy problems for the checker to solve.

Another Willie Ryan checkers book, now unfortunately also out of print, was entitled Championship Checkers Simplified, in which he stated that the material was listed as Intermediate to Advanced with discussion on openings and various checkers problems. Although this issue was probably more suitable to an advanced beginner, it still had information useful to all checkers game players.

Going through the material in this book, the reader easily saw a great deal of Willie Ryan's personal philosophy and humor related to the mind sport of checkers and fellow players. It also displayed an element of Ryan ego in the first pages, which admittedly was still extremely entertaining. Ryan wrote sections with a detailed exposition on a few openings such as ‘Ayrshire Lassie’, ‘Dodger’, and ‘Defiance’, and he used an approach that was refreshingly unique. He included are copious notes, the annotation of many complete games, and detailed study of variations. Willie Ryan also included more than two dozen challenging problems, and basically his book would satisfy the tastes of many checkers players.

Perhaps one of Ryan's best works was his wonderful checkers compendium Tricks Traps and Shots of the Checkerboard published in 1950.

Tricks, Traps and Shots

Willie Ryan’s goal in this checkers source was to present a graded compendium of tactical devices and examples, with shots and strokes as the main feature, while he included various other motifs as well. In this endeavor, Willie Ryan did succeed rather well indeed.

Nowadays, this excellent checkers game source is extremely difficult to find, but is well worth the search as it is a valuable reference and training book on checker tactics and strategy for the novice and intermediate checkers player. The following set of checker problems come from the introductory pages of Ryan’s book.


Checker Board 1

White to Play and Win
“A guileless amateur would be tempted to run for a king in Example 1, by moving 22-17; but black has a sure draw against that move by 7-11, 17-13, 11-16, 13-9, 16-19, etc. Instead of 22-17, white can make a win immediately by executing an elementary maneuver known as a "double exposure slip," which means that white can end all resistance by exposing two of black's pieces to capture at the same time. With this broad hint, the tyro should conceive the idea that gives black the heave-ho. A good plan for the beginner to adopt in studying a position is to allow himself a limited time, say five minutes, in which to find the right play without moving a piece; and failing in this, to consult the solution. This method enables the learner to correct his faulty calculations before they take root in his mind.”

Ceramic Mold Tips 2

Checker Board 2

White to Play and Win
“Again in Example 2, Mr. Tyro's policy of trying for a king by 18-14 is worthless, as black replies 6-9, 14-10, 13-17, 21-14, 9-18, with an easy draw in store. White simply does not have enough strength (placement of material) of position to make a strategic win, but in this case as in many others, a win can be affected by a tactical coup commonly termed "a compound stroke," so named because an opposing piece becomes an integral part of the scheme. In this example, we have the simplest form of a single corner compound in which the winning idea involves the single corner file or so-called "long diagonal.”

Also written in 1950 with co-author, Tommie Wiswell, Willie Ryan presented two historic checkers matches in World Championship Checkers:

  • Walter Hellman vs Asa Long during a July 1948 match in Toledo, Ohio.
  • Walter Hellman vs Willie Ryan during May 1949 in New York City, New York.
  • His discussion certainly gave the reader an insight into the complexities of this so-called simple game of checkers and the challenge of the game between checkers champions.

    The above checkers source also recorded the match between Willie Ryan and Walter Hellman in Oklahoma City and Joliet, Illinois for the world checker championship. It was a match between two excellent checker players that is still renowned amongst today’s checkers circles.

    History reported that Willie Ryan made a colossal blunder in game five; one that could perhaps be considered the worst of his career because in the end, it cost him the championship in this closely contested match. The final score between Willie Ryan and Hellman was four wins each and forty-two draws, and since Willie Ryan was the challenger, he failed to gain the crowning title, which stayed with Walter Hellman.

    Modern checkers experts have since reviewed the game to analyze the moves that cost Ryan the game through his ‘blunder’. He could have potentially recovered from his initial error or oversight in the checkers game against Hellman but unfortunately, Ryan made a more serious mistake a half-dozen moves later, which cost him the match.

    The final book to be discussed in this section is also attributed to Willie Ryan as the author; however, it was written posthumously and reprinted in 1961. This checkers source is also out of print now, and was perhaps not the best reflection of Willie Ryan personally, according to book reviews.

    Big League Checkers was considered to be a suitable checkers source for the Intermediate to Advanced checker player complete with games and openings.

    The cover of the book listed Ryan as the author, but it was published post death after parts of the manuscript had passed through a number of hands.

    It is apparent that this book was intended to be a tribute to one of the most colorful characters in the history of the checkers game, but experts feel that a lot more care should have been put into the publication of the work to qualify it as a true honor to Willie Ryan’s checker spirit. It is obvious that more care should have been taken in the proofreading and typesetting as neither is very well done, and the book more appears to have been a thrown-together compendium of previously unpublished Ryan checkers material. It definitely lacked substantial organization, which was unfortunate, as this source could also have served a great checkers player like Willie Ryan better.

    One major critique of this checkers edition was that the actual publishing editor included some of Willie's less-than-friendly comments about players who fell short of the champion status, in which Ryan referred to them as "duffers" and "eager beavers" too anxious to criticize their "acknowledged superiors." In a book like this, it would have a greater tribute to Ryan’s memory to not have included these comments at all because we are all human and have at the best of times made comments that were far from flattering in a given moment, and sometimes these have been made under breath. These should have been left alone as comments he made in times such as that because they certainly don’t reflect that well on him, other than showing he was, despite all his grandeur and cockiness, also very human.

    Willie Ryan Continued, Click Here

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