King me

Posted: February 19, 2016 in music, Record reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

I can’t bid adieu to Scotland without bringing to your attention the Scotch influence on one of the world’s most popular games.

Not golf, Mr. Spock. Checkers.

The modern history of the game we North Americans call checkers began a thousand years ago on the Iberian Peninsula, where the Moors (the illegal immigrants of that era) and the Spanish (who wanted to build a wall and make the Moors pay for it) spent centuries fighting over which of them would one day oppress the Basques.

The Moors had brought with them a board game they called el-quirkat. The Spanish called it alquerque (pronounced like Albuquerque, minus the third and fourth letters). You played with a 12-man army and captured by jumping. The board was divided into 64 squares as plain as graph paper. The pieces sat on the intersections, not within the squares.

The Spanish passed alquerque to the French, who colored in half the squares and moved the pieces off the intersections. Now all they needed was a new name.

Back up a minute
When chess came to Europe from the Middle East, it had no queen. It had a counselor (in Persian, the fers) who moved one square at a time and captured by jumping. When the Europeans were handed checkers, they already had chess, and the checkers men moved like the fers, so they called checkers ferses. As soon as they did they agreed it was a dumb name.

Also, people were stealing ferses from chess sets and using them for the men in checkers. Nothing makes a chess player angrier than hunting around for a coin or a bobbin or a Monopoly token to stand in for a missing chess piece. That’s like using somebody’s sweater for second base.

Sometime in the 1300s or 1400s, the Europeans fired the counselor from chess and hired the queen – in French, the dame. The French extended this transformation to checkers. Now instead of 12 fers you had 12 queens. When a queen reached the last rank in this new form of checkers, she became a he – a king. He was then paid 25% more.

The French took one look at all those broads on the board and renamed the game dames. This name followed the game as it spread across Europe; in Turkey, for example, checkers is called dama.

The English say no to the European Union
The English refer to checkers as draughts, pronounced “drafts.” But in some rural parts of England, the name draughts took a long time to catch on. People in those areas called it checkers because of the checkered board. This includes the Pilgrims, who landed on Plymouth Rock carrying the Mayflower Compact and institutional racism. Oh, and a checkers set.

What about the Scots, then?
Hold your tartans, laddie, I’m getting there. The Scots got checkers not from their enemies, the English, but from their employers, the Dutch. Many Scotsmen served in Dutch armies in the 1600s. The Dutch called checkers damen. The kilted mercenaries who brought it home called it dams.

The first book written in English on checkers was published in 1756. Somebody smuggled a samizdat copy into Scotland, where it created a sensation (and deep-sixed the name “dams”). For the next hundred years, the Scots owned checkers, bitches. They were still producing world champions in the 1920s.

The Scots also named most of the opening systems. In chess, you have the Queen’s Gambit, the King’s Indian, and the Sicilian Defense. In checkers, there’s the Edinburgh, the Glasgow, and the Bonnie Dundee, as well as the Will-o-the-Wisp, the Laird & the Lady, and the Ayrshire Lassie.

Today, the ultimate checkers player is a computer from Canada, and the game may in fact have been solved. But you’ll never separate the Scotch from the checkers.

Thus ends my tour of all things Scottish. As my ancestor William Wallace cried in Braveheart, Alba gu bràth! (Gaelic for “It’s your turn. Would you move already?”)

Random Pick of the Day
Jimmy Witherspoon, The Concerts
Combines Jimmy Witherspoon at the Monterey Jazz Festival (1960) and At the Renaissance with the Gerry Mulligan & Ben Webster Quintet (1959)

Two live sets from Checker Records artist Jimmy Witherspoon, though neither set was released on Checker and this comp appeared on yet another label. These records are a good look at genres of music (blues, R&B, jazz) that were fading from the pop mainstream.

On the first eight tracks, recorded in an outdoor space where it’s difficult to hear the crowd, the blues shouter holds your attention even as he holds back on the shouting. He delivers a slow “C.C. Rider” that makes you listen as if you’ve never heard this before.

Tracks 9-15 were recorded indoors, and we have the pleasure of hearing the man full-blast with some major-league jazzmen behind him. Witherspoon, having spent the evening singing about dicey women and trouble in general, introduces a special guest: “For the first time in her life, one of the greatest persons in my life is in here tonight to hear me sing. My mother. Let’s give her a big hand.” He then ignites a soulful version of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” Was he sending Mom a message or was it just next on the set list? Maybe it was the family theme song.

Pack Jimmy Witherspoon, The Concerts for a long car trip.


  1. mikener says:

    I wish you were my history teacher, back in the dawn of days. My lack of retention would still be the same, but I would have understood and enjoyed the lessons more, before I forgot them.

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