Checker Champion James Wyllie
The Wanderlust Returns.
James Wyllie, better know as Herd Laddie
was becoming older, yet his checkers activity
did not slacken. In 1877, he faced Willie
Bryden, one of the strongest players of western
Scotland, in a subscription match, wherein
Wyllie secured it with four wins and four
draws. Then, in 1880, champion James Wyllie
challenged Robert Martins yet again. This
checkers match was played in Glasgow, and
it was staged to settle the controversy whether
29-25 in the "Switcher" game
was a losing move or could draw. Both checker
masters were engaged to test the theory behind
the move and as a result, this match created
a lot of public interest. In this famous
match, James Wyllie easily demonstrated that
29-25 was sound and won by four games to
one, with 13 draws.
In 1881, he began a second American tour
seeking new checker opponents to test his
skills and challenge his strategies in this
board game that was becoming more and more
popular around the globe. Champion Wyllie’s
travels lasted four years and were again
exceedingly successful. By his own estimation,
he played eleven thousand games, of which
he won ten thousand, lost one hundred and
two, and drew nine hundred. Twice James defeated
a strong master, J. P. Reed, of Pittsburgh.
His hardest competition was against Charles
Barker, younger brother of W. R. Barker.
The match was played for the world championship,
but ended in a draw with one win each.
Wyllie then returned to Britain and set
out on another tour of England and Scotland.
On these travels, a second match with Bryden
was played in Glasgow in 1886 and brought
Wyllie another victory in four games to none,
with sixteen draws.
Again checkers champion James Wyllie began
looking for uncharted seas and new adventures
as well as new checker opponents, so this
time, in 1887, he sailed from London, and
spent another four years of his life touring
Australia and New Zealand. He sensed that
he would have many opportunities to play
this great checkers game because Scottish
immigrants had taken draughts with them to
their new homes abroad.
Wyllie’s intuition was indeed correct
for he found some serious opposition from
competitive players who had acquired their
skill in Caledonia. From the beginning, James
was extended a warm welcome from loving hearts.
Not only could he enjoy the riches of a new
land, but he could also reap the bounty from
the many and varied checkers games that he
played against some very skilled opponents.
His journey to Australia was more than
successful, for out of the twelve thousand
games Wyllie played, he won eleven thousand,
seven hundred and sixty, lost only forty,
and two hundred ended in a draw.
Ouch! ~ After James Wyllie returned to
Scotland, a checker match was arranged between
him and a leading member of the Edinburgh
club, 19-year-old Richard Jordan. This checkers
match, played in Scotland’s capital
in May 1892, also holds a special niche in
draughts/checkers history, for Jordan won
the set by two games to one, with 17 draws.
This young player possessed a skill in the
board game equaled to that of James Wyllie,
and his ability eventually led him to become
world champion in 1896.
The winter of his career ~ While James
Wyllie traveled abroad in pursuit of new
conquests in checkers, and throughout the
1890's, a new generation of Scottish checkers
stars had risen. The Herd Laddie was the
aging checker champion in his seventies but
he was still a vigorous figure with a love
of draughts that had surpassed his initial
passion from years ago. Champion Wyllie still
possessed an innate desire to face the checkerboard
so he turned to James Ferries, one of the
most prominent masters in the game during
this era in Scotland, and pressed him to
play for the world title. Ferrie, a mere
36, agreed to the match in Ramshorn Hall
in Ingram Street, Glasgow, to be played in
April 1894. The checker match was scheduled
to be longer than any played before with
a total of ninety-four games so that every
possible opening could be formed in turn
by each player. After 88 games had been played,
the end came with Ferrie leading by thirteen
wins over Wyllie's six, with 69 draws. Ferrie
became the new checkers world champion. Though James
Ferrie would have a notable career in
draughts, by winning the Scottish tournament
six times, he would always be remembered
for ending the reign of the Herd Laddie.
Though no longer the checkers world champion,
Wyllie continued to play at the top level
for five more years as a well-loved veteran.
He played against Robert Martins, his great
rival, in a match that became known within
the checkers circle as "the
This match reportedly took place in 1897,
and the fifty-two games were split between
Glasgow and Manchester. James Wyllie succeeded
with ten winning games to four by Robert
Martins, and there were thirty-eight draws.
During all their friendly checkers encounters
since 1859, champion Wyllie won maybe twelve
games more than his rival.
International matches between Scotland
and England had since been established in
the early 1880’s, and took place in
1884 and 1894; both were won by Scotland.
A third match was to be played in Glasgow
for April 1899, and both masters, Wyllie
and Martins, were selected to play checkers
for the Scottish team but unfortunately both
were unable to participate due to illness.
James Wyllie had been looking forward to
representing the team, but fell ill with
bronchitis. It was with great sadness that
Scotland received the news that the Herd
Laddie had succumbed to the illness and passed
on without playing another checker game.
James Wyllie, the "Herd
and one of the greatest checker players to
ever live, died in Glasgow on April 5, 1899.
Wyllie still occupies a unique place in the
history of draughts, for he devoted his life
to the board and dominated the game for more
than fifty years. That is an astonishing
feat in any sport. Champion James Wyllie
was an outstanding personality whose activities
popularized more than just the game, but
encouraged the study of checkers strategy
and the multitude of openings, midgames,
and endgames. Wyllie held the honored position
of world draughts champion for forty years,
a span of time that was interrupted only
by two brief spells when other contenders
outmaneuvered his play. His name is still
frequently seen in checkers books because
he contributed so much to the development
of the game. Wyllie’s
influence is evident to this day, for he
is remembered as a player of originality
and innovation, and responsible for his very
Lassie" opening and the "Fife".
Furthermore, James Wyllie is also associated
with the "Switcher" opening, which
he clearly stated that he had used to "perplex
many an eminent player".
During his time, the style of play was
GAYP (Go-As-You-Please) with "restricted" checkers
thrown in to prevent repeat games. These
established restrictions were not the same
two-move checkers, as the world later came
to know it, but generally restrictions that
were agreed upon by contract for that match
or set of games. The restrictive play might
demand so many games be played with a specific
opening move, and the white reply would be
forced by the contract. There were several
ways to begin the checkers game and these
were the ones agreed to by the players so
that many games were played according to
the agreed opening moves.
Wyllie was a dynamic player even in his
early years. He was a natural cross-board
player, who had no real competition with
the exception of Anderson. For half a century,
he dominated the game, and as an Ambassador,
was unequalled in checkers. He had never
owned a book on checkers or studied published
play. But today his own moves exist as published
play in book format or booklet form.
Checkers champion James Wyllie was about eighty
years old when he died, but even at that advanced
age his mind was still sharp, his skill was
still at the level of a master player, and
his heart and mind carried a unique enthusiasm
for the sport. Throughout his life, James Wyllie
remained a formidable competitor, who really
never lost his edge when facing a checkerboard
or an opponent, and he will be remembered for
his indelible contributions to the progress
of the checkers game around the world.