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Remember This? Ottawa's checkered past

Checkers became a really big deal in Ottawa in the late 1800's -- The first known checker tournament happened this week back in 1877, involving 26 players from Wellington Ward and St. George’s Ward.
2020-04-06 checkers draught table
Illustration from William Payne’s 1756 book on the game of Draughts (Checkers). Photo/ Historical Society of Ottawa

OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with The Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.

April 9, 1877

The game of checkers, also known as draughts, inhabits most family games’ closets. Often, its familiar two colour, eight squares by eight squares board has a backgammon board printed on its flip side. 

For many, checkers is perceived as a simple game, designed principally for young children before they are ready to move up to the rigours of chess. In a way, this is correct. The rules of checkers are simple. Unlike chess, all of a player’s pieces move in the same fashion. However, this simplicity is deceptive. It’s a game that requires considerable strategy to play well.

Checkers is also a game that has a very long and distinguished pedigree. It’s far older than chess, which is a mere pup in comparison.  A version of checkers was played as long ago as 3,000 B.C. in the city of Ur in Mesopotamia. The ancient Egyptians also played a type of checkers. However, the “modern” game dates from the Middle Ages in France.

William Payne, an English mathematician, wrote in 1756, An Introduction to the Game of Draughts that contained fifty select games for instructional purposes. In the preface, he writes: "Whatever may be determined concerning its Ule, its Difficulty is incontelible; for among the Multitudes that practice it, very few understand it. There are indeed not many who by any frequency of Playing can attain a Moderate Degree of Skill without  Examples and Instructions."

The game of draughts, popular in the taverns and coffee houses of England, was brought to North America where it was more usually called checkers owing to the checkered board on which it was played. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, checker clubs were formed during the nineteenth century -- a reflection of its rising popularity among all classes of people. The first checkers/draughts World Champion was Scotsman Andrew Anderson who took the title in 1840. (Scots had a virtual lock on the championship for almost the next one hundred years.)

One of the earliest references to the game in Ottawa was an 1861 advertisement for the opening of Sheffield House, a new up-scale store located in the Porter Block of Sparks Street owned by its proprietors Messrs, Sinauer and Levey. Among other things, the advertisement announced that the shop had "chess and draught men for sale in bone, ivory and wood.  Boards for ditto." 

In 1873, the game featured in a criminal trial when Andrew Kendrick was invited to the home of a Mr. Glasford on Clarence Street to watch "an excellent game of checkers." At Glasford’s home, Kendrick took the opportunity to try to steal his host’s purse. Glasford objected "to any such intimacy with his trouser pockets." In an ensuing scuffle, Glasford was stabbed in the hand and slightly injured. What happened subsequently to Kendrick was not reported.

During the late 1870s, the game experienced a surge in popularity in Ottawa. Amateur checker clubs began popping up in the city’s wards. 

In mid-March 1877, a checkers club was organized in the St. George’s Ward, with Mr. F. Graham as President. St. George’s Ward encompassed part of Lower Town including the Sandy Hill neighbourhood. The following month, a club was established in Upper Town’s Wellington Ward. Later, Victoria Ward "determined not to be outdone," organized its own checkers club centred in LeBreton Flats. It had two presidents, Messrs, Carruthers and McClay of the Perley and Pattee lumber company.

The first known Ottawa checker tournament happened on April 9, 1877 between Wellington Ward and St. George’s Ward, with each team fielding thirteen members. The contest was held in front of a large audience in a hall over John Roos’s tobacco shop at 50 Sparks Street. 

After two hours of play, the Wellington Ward team beat their Lower Town rivals by eleven games -- 66-55 with 11 draws. Among the big individual winners was W. Hutchison with 13 wins for the Wellington Ward team. The prize of the tournament was a bag of meal which was presented to the Protestant Orphans’ Home. 

A return match was held the following week at Francis Germain’s cigar shop at 512 Wellington Street. This time there were 18 men aside. The Daily Citizen’s account of the match was a bit muddled, though the Wellington Ward again emerged victorious.

In November of that same year, a championship match was held between an Upper Town side and a Lower Town team in the hall above John Roos’s tobacco shop. With 18 men per team, Lower Town took the crown 82 games to 76 with 38 draws. On the Lower Town side, N. Germain was the big winner of the two-hour event, taking 14 wins, with no losses and two draws. On the Upper Town side, John Roos, the tobacconist, won a team-leading eight games. Further Upper Town/Lower Town matches were later held.

Also that November, Mr. Edmund Lemieux, who was employed in the Department of Public Works, completed a combined "chequer, chess, backgammon and polonaise board" that was later exhibited at the Éxposition Universelle in Paris. 

It was an artistic marvel. 

Taking nine months to craft, the Board was 32 inches long and 21 inches wide and consisted of 21,360 pieces using 32 different kinds of wood. Inlaid and veneered and ornamented with mosaic work, the board had a drawer on each side for the game’s pieces. Each of the carefully turned checkers were made from nine pieces of wood. The Citizen enthused that Lemieux’s creation would show "to the people of La Belle France that the skill of their compatriots in this land has not been deteriorated by the Canadian atmosphere."  The newspaper added that the board will "bring great credit upon the artisan skills of this Dominion."

In September 1883, Ottawa was visited by the greatest checker player possibly of all time -- James Wyllie, also known as "Herd Laddie." Wyllie was another Scotsman who had wrestled the title of world champion from Andrew Anderson in 1844, and would hold it for most of the next fifty years with a couple of short breaks. 

He received his odd nickname early in life when he worked for a livestock drover. The drover, an avid checkers’ player, recognized Wyllie’s ability in the game, and soon the young man was playing for money, and winning big time. 

When Wyllie came to Ottawa, he was well into his second North American tour which was to last four years. Apparently, at that point of his tour he had reportedly played 12,386 games of which he had won 10,921, drew 1,283 and lost only 82. Herd Laddie had a "standing challenge to the world" in the American sporting magazine Turf, Field and Farm, of $500 to $1000. 

Few, if any, took him up on the bet.

Needless to say, Herd Laddie’s visit to the nation’s Capital was a cause for considerable excitement amount the checkers’ fraternity. (Fraternity seems to be the correct word as there is no reference in the press about women playing the game although they undoubtedly did.) Staying at the Albion Hotel, the Citizen described the checkers champion as a "hale old gentleman" of about 61 years of age, stoutly built, standing only about 5½ feet tall, and wearing spectacles with a keen eye and slightly deaf. The journalist, who apparently was a devotee of phrenology, also commented that Wyllie had "an unusually large brain, well developed in the frontal region."  

While in Ottawa, the champion competed in a number of friendly games with local checkers players, playing as many as ten opponents simultaneously. There is no record that he lost any of his games.  Mr. W. Stewart, the Wellington Ward’s ace player, fared the best against the world champion, earning two draws.

The game of checkers remained popular through the remainder of the nineteenth century with weekly tournaments. Checker puzzles appeared regularly in local papers alongside their chess counterparts. The Ottawa Chess and Checker Club (OCCC) was established in December 1891, meeting in the Union Chambers. They subsequently secured quarters for their clubhouse on the first floor of the Perley building at 51 Sparks Street. However, it appears that the game was increasingly eclipsed by chess. The old OCCC also seems to have disbanded by 1904 when there was a failed attempt to re-establish a checker club in the Capital.

Checkers remains a globally popular pastime. The 2018 world men’s (Go-As-You-Please or GAYP) title organized by the World’s Checkers/Draughts Federation was won by South African Lubabalo Kondlo while the women’s (GAYP) championship was won by Nadiya Chyzhevska of Ukraine.




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