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The Golden Era-Old Time Checker Players

Robert Yates was one of the 1st great American players, and considered a "Boy Wonder." He was the ONLY American to hold the World Title in the 19th Century. He reigned the title he held from 1876-78-having won it from the immortal, James Wyllie.
In his short life, he also became a Physician, giving up the title to enter medical school. He died tragically while still a young man. His obituary was published in "Draughts World Magazine", in Sept. of 1885.

Julian Janvier was born in 1838. His family had escaped to the U.S from the French Revolution of 1789-1799, and settled on the banks of the Delaware River. Born in Newcastle Delaware, he graduated A.B. in 1859 and M.A. in 1862. His interest in checkers was noticed in 1853, and he obtained one of the finest checker libraries of his time, having about all of the books and magazines ever published, plus newspaper articles. He wrote extensively as an analyst, and problemist. He later re-wrote the famous Guide's by Sturges, and also Anderson's Guide, with his improved play, now known as "Janvier's Sturges, and Janvier's Anderson."
Held in high esteem in his community, he was elected Mayor of Newcastle-twice-in 1886 and 1889.

Vol. II September 19th, 1885 No. 8.

Ex- Champion of America-ex World Champion

Intelligence has reached this city by cable of the death of Dr. Robert D. Yates, of this city, while in mid ocean and of his burial at sea. Dr. Yates was one of the most promising young physicians in Brooklyn and was well known as an amateur champion chess and checker player.

After graduating about two years ago he became one of the staff of physicians under Dr. Arnold at the Flatbush Hospital, his object being to thoroughly equip himself before engaging in the practice of his profession.

Dr.Yates was well liked at the hospital and he made rapid advancement. A few weeks ago, his term of service at the hospital having determined, Dr Yates received a flattering offer to become the physician on one of the Rotterdam Line of steam-ships. He was, only too well pleased to accept the offer and was assigned to the steamship Scheidam.

About two weeks ago he sailed in high spirits on his first voyage.

The meagre cable message received does not furnish many particulars of his sad death further than it appears he died on the outward voyage from typhus fever and was buried at sea. Dr, Shaw, of the asylum talking of Dr. Yates, death, said today 'It is a great pity. Young Yates was a bright young fellow destined to make his mark. He was well built and strong, hut typhus will carry off the best men in a little while, I should not be at all surprised if it was learned that Dr. Yates caught the typhus at the hospitaL That is one of the dangers to which the doctors en-gaged in these institution, are subjected.'

Dr. Yates was unmarried and lived with his parents at 860 Bridge street, He was born in this city on December 27, 1857. He graduated first from Public School No. 1, and subsequently from the Polytechnic Institute. Upon determining to study medicine he entered the New York University and graduated an M.D.from that institution in the class of 1881. His family is greatly protrated over the reception of the sad news of his death. Brooklyn Times (From DPWM-Sept. 1885.)


Richard Jordan was one of the greatest players-ever. From Edinburgh Scotland, he arrived on the scene in 1896 to win the World Title from James Ferrie, whom he had defeated in the Scottish Ty. By this time the Checker world has switched to 2-move restriction, (as opposed to go-as-you-please) to avoid repeat games and stereotyped lines. He defended his title many times , all successfully, and retired as champion in 1903. He returned to active play, to join the British team vs. the U.S. team in the 1st International Match ever held, in 1905. Jordan schocked the U.S. Team with 13 wins!, as the British Team trounced the U.S. 74-34 and 283 draws. He died tragically in 1911, when struck by a streetcar (some references say "tram" car, other say "cable" car) in his home town of Edinburgh- at age 39. During his brief career, he reigned supreme. His obituary was pub. in the November 1911 issue of "Draught World." His games reflected brilliance and knowledge, and nearly all are recorded in the match books and magazines.

Richard Jordan vs. James Ferrie. Jordan won the world title in this match.

James Ferrie is another of those names you read frequently in checker books. He played in 2 World Title matches, and was World champion from 1894-1896 having won the title from James Wyllie. He then lost it, in his 1st defense, to Richard Jordan in 1896. He played on the British Team against the U.S. in the 1st Int'l games, in 1905, and in the 2nd IM games, in 1927. He died in 1929 at age 72.

Alfred Jordan.

Alfred (no relation to Richard-but some disagree) was from London and held the World Title briefly from 1910-14. He played on the British Team vs. the U.S. in the 1st In't l match (1905). He would have played on the U.S. team, in the 2nd IM (1927) having become a United States Citizen, but fate, once again, intervened. He died suddenly and unexpectedly on May 7th, 1926 in Washington D.C, from Kidney failure at age 54. A. Jordan played in 5 National Tournaments, nearly winning several, but in the end coming up just short-and winning none. Known as "Artful Alf", he was a great player. His books and magazines are all still collectable.

Clarence Freeman was a full blooded Pequot Indian. He became "Champion of America" in the early 1880's, and was universally known as the "Champion Beater", having won from J. Wyllie, C. Barker, A.J. Heffner, and other great players. From Providence, R.I., he earned the title of-"Peerless Player of Providence." He never became a world champion, he just seemed to beat them all in non-title match play! His name is still echoed in the literature of checkers.

Charles Francis Barker was another early American champion.-" in a game dominated by players from Scotland and England. He played them all. He was perhaps better known as "Stonewall" Barker. His brother, Isaiah, was well known also, as a problem composer, and analyst. Another brother, W.R. Barker, was one of Wyllie's opponents in Wyllie's 1st memorable "Trip to America." Barker was never a world champion, although he played for the title and lost. One of early great American players, he crowned his long career, winning the 1st ever held-"American National Tournament", in 1905. He defeated long time nemesis-A.J. Heffner in the finals, which could be known as "Their Last Battle" as they had many wars over-the-board.

James Wyllie, of Glasgow Scotland, is one of the best known names in Checkers. His many battles with Robert Martins are memorable indeed. He put the game on the map, with his many travels and exhibitions in the 1860's thru 1890's. A legend if there is one, he was known affectionately as the "Herd Laddie." With his many matches with Robert Martins, the last one had a book published on the games titled-"The Last Battle." This was some years after he was no longer World Champion. But the public would still support this great pair.
In the early years he battled the 1st recorded World Champion -Andrew Anderson. This in the 1840's and 1850's. With Anderson's retirement in the 1850's, Wyllie was the undisputed World Champion. In those days stake matches were in vogue, with the players usually finding wealthy backers to have them play. Tournament play , as we know today, has not yet started.
With Anderson gone from the scene, Wyllie went into semi-retirement, and during this time fathered 9 children.
Then in the early 1860's, Robert Martins, from England, was touring the width and breadth of England, beating all comers. Wyllie wasn't about to miss a chance like this and challenged the English great to their 1st match in 1863, and the rest is history.
Martins eventually adopted Glasgow, Scotland as his home, (the same as Wyllie) with Scotland adopting him- and he is usually mentioned as being from Scotland.
With great interest in the game again, Wyllie announced he would come to America to play our best. His American trip was a resounding success, gathering news headlines in both countries. He won more than he lost. Financially, it was also a great success for Wyllie and in later years Richard Jordan and Willie Gardner were to follow suit and tour America.
Wyllie made a 2nd trip to America and one to Australia. He indeed was putting the game on the map.
He lost the World title to American, Robert Yates, who reigned from 1876-78, then Wyllie held the title again, losing it to Martins for a brief period, regaining it again, and held it till 1894, before losing it to James Ferrie. Wyllie was about 74 years old by the time he lost to Ferrie.
During this period the style of play was GAYP, with "Restricted" checkers thrown in to prevent repeat games. Those restrictions was not 2-move checkers, as we later came to know it, but restrictions that were agreed to by contract. They might demand so many games be played with a certain opening move, and the white reply would be forced by contract-with several ways to begin agreed to and so many games were to played on the agreed opening moves.
Wyllie was a dynamite player even in the late 1830's. A natural crossboard player, he had no competition with the exception of Anderson. For a half a century, or so, he dominated the game, and as an Ambassador, put a lot back in it.
He claimed to have never owned a checker book or studied published play. But his own published play is in existence in book or booklet form.
James Wyllie's unexpected death occurred on April 5th, 1899 at the age of 78 or so, as his birth year is listed as being 2 different years, but 1820 is generally accepted as the correct year.
The "Herd Laddie" was gone. But not his legacy. It will live as long as the game is played. "The Babe Ruth" of Checkers.

"DEMON DRAUGHTS PLAYER" "Many years ago, a party of Draughts players had assembled in the kitchen of a farm-house, situated near the Yarrow water. Soon after play had begun, a packman chanced to stroll in, who was at once was invited to take part. The visitor, as if reluctantly, seated himself at a board, but "wiped out" his opponents so effectively that he was asked to try with one of more experience. But he had as little success as the first. In short he utterly discomfitted every player in the room. No one could get a win; but worse still, no one could get a king. The company were spell-bound. Besides, as he went out he tripped in the passage. The sparks flew in all directions from his well-tacketed boots, and many of the company as they took their way home glanced fearfully around, as in half expecting that their visitor was more than human. Of course the stranger was no other than the James Wyllie." (Taken from "Draughts World" Oct-1892 issue-sent in by David Thomson of Ardwell, Stranraer who submitted it as an early incident in the early history of the "Herd Laddie.") (Photos from Draughts World-circa 1880's)

IN 1905 it was decided to have an International Match-the famed Scots and British players against the U.S.

Held in Boston, the British team demolished the U.S. Team 74 to 34 and 283 draws. They were led by Richard Jordan's 13 wins.

Jordan retired as undefeated World champion -also in 1905.

The U.S had not produced so many good players, as the English and Scots. But strong checker clubs, mainly in the East, were about to change that.


American Team and officials

Bottom-left to right. T.J. O'Grady, John F. Horr, A.J. Heffner, Harrah B. Reynolds, Newell Banks. Center row. Harry Lieberman, Mike Lieber, Sam Gonotsky, Louis Ginsberg, Jessie Hanson, Andrew Dossett. Back row. John Bradford, Asa Long, John Finley, Joseph Lanin, John Finley, Will Tyson, Saul Weslow and George Tanner.
(Photos from 2IM book)

Scenes from the 2nd International Match. The victorious U.S. team is shown on the left. The U.S. crushed the British team-

In 1927 the 2nd International Match was held at the "Hotel Alamac" in NYC.
The U.S had now produced many very strong players. By this time the World Title was back in Scotland in the person of Robert Stewart.

America had young stars. Asa Long was but 21 or 22, with Mike Lieber and Sam Gonotsky 22 and 24 respectively.

Gonotsky has entered his 1st Am. Ty. in 1926, and won it! But the "feared one" had a reputation before he even started playing in Am. Ty's. Studious, he and his buddy, Lieber, had learned the game, primarily, at the Brooklyn Library where the finest Checker library existed.

He practiced constantly against good competition, one of which was the also young-Willie Ryan. Ryan was no match for Gonotsky in these early years, as he was to come into his own much later- in 1939.

But Gonotsky developed quickly. A small man with a protruding forehead, he struck terror in the hearts of his peers, with a "sphinx" like appearance at he board. No games known to me exist with Gonotsky against the other 2 recognized great players of that era-Asa Long and Newell Banks. Just who avoided who is not clear, but no one wanted to play Gonotsky.

Sam Gonotsky scored 13 wins for the U.S. team, and turned in his scorecard with the comment: "This ties Dick Jordan's record (in the 1st IM games) but mine is better as I was in no losses, and missed no wins." Time may have tempered that statement, but regardless, Gonotsky was amazing.

In 1929 he entered the 7th Am. Ty. (One of them. There was 2 that year) His buddy Mike Lieber, still in his 20's, was a victim of a bad flu epidemic in 1929, and had died 2 weeks before the 7th Ty of Pleural Tuberculosis.

Gonotsky won that one to and he was 2 for 2 in Am. Ty's, having entered 2, and won them both-as well as his stunning performance in the 2nd IM games.

He was coughing badly at the 7th Ty, and after he won, he returned to Detroit, where he worked for Chrysler. He was immediately hospitalized. Like his friend, Lieber, he never made it, and just 2 weeks after the death of Lieber, Gonotsky himself died in the Hurley Hospital in Detroit, of Pleural Tuberculosis-at age 26. No brighter star had shined in checkers, and to this day he is considered the best to ever play the game, by some. Today, Marion Tinsley holds that honor, in the opinion of most-but if Tinsley had any competition -in this world- perhaps it would have been "Terrific Sam Gonotsky." We will never know.

Newell Banks is considered one of the best of all time, and former world champion in the early part of the century. Left is the great grandmaster (seated-right) in his 1952 match games with 25 year old Marion Tinsley, ( won by Tinsley) sponsored by the Chrysler Corp.

Asa Long is known as the "Iron Man" of Checkers. He was 18 years old when he won his 1st Nat. Ty. and became American champion in 1922. The youngest to ever do so. He also won the 7th Am. Ty. in 1929, giving two National Titles in the "20's". The same as Sam Gonotsky. In 1980, he won it again, at age 76!, to become the Oldest to ever win it! In 1984 he broke his own record, and won it again. After winning these 2 Nat. Ty's., he challenged Tinsley for the World Title, but lost both times. Asa Long ranks as the 2nd or 3rd best player of all time. (I personally asked Marion Tinsley at the 1994 NT to list his top ten. Don Lafferty was present and began writing the names down on a napkin, which I still have. He ranked Walter Hellman as the best he ever played, with Asa Long 2nd and Willie Ryan 3rd. He then listed the rest of "his top ten", mentioning that the names could easily be slipped into different slots, with so many very close in ability. Don and I had already entered Tinsley as #1.) Asa Long was World Champion from 1934 to 1948, when he lost the title to Walter Hellman. As age 95, he resides in Ohio.

E-Mail. AL Lyman, Acf Editor