Checkers History

As a child, I enjoyed a number of spirited games of checkers with my grandfather. He let me win, of course, although I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. Another thing I didn’t realize at the time: I happened to be playing one of the oldest games known to man.

Before we delve into checkers history, let’s pause to get our terminology straight. In America, the game is known as checkers, while English speakers from outside the U.S. know it as English draughts or draughts (pronounced “drafts”). The game can also be called straight checkers or American checkers. While similar in many regards, international draughts is a different variation of the game.

In the course of this article, you’ll notice a number of sections labeled “historical perspective.” These have nothing to do with the actual history of checkers, but they’re included to give you an idea of what was going on in the world alongside the continuing development of the game that we all know and love.

Checkers history goes all the way back to the early days of civilization in 3000 B.C. In what’s now modern-day Iraq (then known as Mesopotamia), an archeological dig unearthed a board that was obviously the forerunner to the modern game of checkers. The board and pieces varied slightly, and sadly no rulebook was found in the ruins, but the similarities were unmistakable.

Historical Perspective (around 3000 B.C.): The healing properties of mineral springs are discovered by Sumerian medicine. Wrestling becomes the first developed sport. The Danubian culture is at the peak of its power.

As far back as 1400 B.C., the Egyptians were known to enjoy a game known as Alquerque. While pieces moved along intersecting lines on a 5×5 board, they were also divided into light and dark colors and similar in size and shape to modern-day checkers. But the biggest similarity was the object of the game: capture the pieces of the opposing player. Queen Hatasu (known as the Queen Elizabeth of Egyptian history) was known to be passionate about the game, and examples were found in the burial chambers of Egyptians of the time, many of which are now housed in the British Museum.

Another Egyptian game was known as petteia, and it was mentioned by both Plato and Homer as having originated in that region of the world. In this variation, capture occurred when one player managed to get pieces on either side of an opponent’s piece. This game was said to have been played during the legendary Trojan War, and the Romans would later adapt it into a game known as latrunculi, aka Game of the Little Soldiers.

Checkers had spread across Europe by the 12th century, and a French citizen came up with the idea to play it on a chess board and increase the number of game tokens to 12 apiece in 1100 A.D. This version was called “Fierges.”

Historical Perspective (1100 A.D.): Middle English overtakes Old English as a language. Islamic science begins to decline. Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, begins his reign.

In the 13th century, an early manuscript mentions the new rule of crowning, and the rule requiring players to take pieces whenever possible was introduced in France around 1535. This new wrinkle resulted in the game being called Jeu force, which is the same as modern checkers. The version where players could still choose whether or not to make a jump was called Le jeu plaisant de dames (so called because it was considered a social game for women), and it would later become known as international draughts.

The first known book to be written about draughts was released in 1756 by British mathematician William Payne, although some experts assert that work was being done on the subject as early as the 1500s. The forward to Payne’s book was written by none other than Samuel Johnson, one of the legendary figures in the field of English literature.

Historical Perspective (1756): The beginning of the Seven Years War. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is born. The first chocolate factory is built in Germany.

1847 was another watershed year for checkers, as the first world championship would be awarded. The game started to become more sophisticated at this time, with greater analysis of maneuvers and even tournament bans on certain openings.

While a primitive computer program for checkers was developed by Alan Turing in the days prior to World War II, technology was so limited that calculations still had to be done on paper. The first true draughts program is credited to C.S. Strachey, a British researcher who developed one in the early 1950s. An IBM researcher named Arthur Samuel would follow suit in 1956, creating a program that would play against itself and constantly improve. This latter program even competed and won against an actual person, making it perhaps the first such example of man versus machine.

Historical Perspective (1956): Dwight Eisenhower reelected President of the United States. Rocky Marciano retires undefeated from boxing. Grace Kelly marries Prince Rainier of Monaco.

The ‘50s also saw the rise of Marion Tinsley, an American-born player widely regarded as the greatest in the history of checkers. He reigned as world champion from 1955 to 1958, withdrew from championship play from 1958 to 1975, then returned to resume his dominance from 1975 to 1991.

A team from the University of Alberta developed a checkers program in 1989 dubbed “Chinook.” Marion Tinsley would play Chinook in 1992, and the human master defeated the computer by a score of 4 games to 2 (with 33 draws). They played again in 1994, but Tinsley withdrew after six games (he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a week later). Chinook would compete in the USA National Tournament in 1996 and win by the widest margin ever. After this impressive display, Chinook’s creators retired him from competitive play, although they would claim 11 years later that the program had been improved to the point that it would never lose a game.

Checkers history continues to evolve thanks to the Internet, and people from all across the globe are able to connect with one another and enjoy a game. So whether you’re an aspiring tournament pro or just a kid looking to enjoy some time with his grandfather, rest assured that checkers will always be there for you.