DOVER, Mass. — If you’re a regular reader of Sports Illustrated, you may remember two fairly recent stories written by Michael McKnight.

After turning 40, McKnight embarked upon two quests. The first, to dunk a basketball. The second, to hit a home run at a major league stadium.

After nearly a year of intensive training, he accomplished the dunk in 2015, when he was 42. The home run – actually, three of them – came this May in Houston at age 45 after 15 months of intensive weight lifting and what he figured were 38,400 swings.

Child’s play.

My own quixotic sporting journey, which came to fruition Saturday in this leafy suburb southwest of Boston, required diligent practice and unyielding commitment for two decades.

It started when I wrote a story about two retired gents from Portland who were remnants of what had once been a thriving checkers community.

Back in 1997, only a handful of men (it was always older men) still played regularly, and they did so on Saturday mornings in the food court at the mall.

The handwritten sign on Pine Street lets tournament participants know where to turn for the driveway to the home of Richard and Catherine White, hosts of the New England Checkers championship for the past decade. Staff photo by Glenn Jordan

Nate Cohen was a four-time New England champion, a World War II veteran who spent a year in a German prison camp. He earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for having played 172 opponents (five to 10 at a time) in four hours on July 26, 1981, and winning every game.

Rodney Scoville was Nate’s worthy nemesis, a Lubec native who raised hunting beagles and became state champion in both Maine and Connecticut. He won his first New England title in 1998 at age 82 despite failing eyesight.

***

Checkers, of course, is a kid’s game. Competitive checkers is different. Given the opportunity to jump, you must. That can force you into a 1-for-2 trade that leaves you outnumbered. Once outnumbered, it’s hard to recover.

The adult phase of my checkered life began in 1994, soon after moving to Portland to cover the brand-new Sea Dogs. Coming home late to my Eastern Prom apartment after filing baseball stories on deadline, I would unwind by playing checkers with my friend and co-worker, Jeff, newly on his own and living two floors above me.

The first of eight tournament games played by the author ended with green in position for a double jump, to be followed by a triumphant triple jump by white.

It was Jeff who discovered Nate and Rodney and some of the other fellas – Warren Braveman, Don Dow, Walt Stover – who played competitive checkers. It was Jeff who designed the layout and wrote the headline for the tale of Nate and Rodney: Something In The Way They Move.

Rodney died in 1999. Nate died in 2003. The story’s last line quotes Stover:

“When these guys pass away, I think the game will be gone for good around here. In any sport, you’ve got to get those rookies coming up to replenish the stock. We just don’t have that here.”

Ah, but you were wrong, Walt.

Two rookies got hooked that winter. Last Saturday, one of them had a chance to become a New England champion, Maine’s first since Scoville.

Jeff left the newspaper and now works as a therapist, but we kept alive the checkers game, most often during lunch breaks. Our game moved from several cafes/coffee houses that no longer exist: The Hungry Hippo, Java Joe’s, The Daily Grind. It settled in at Bagelworks, but recently, because of work changes, has moved across the bridge to CIA in South Portland.

For 20 years, we’ve played only each other, and the game has never gotten stale. New configurations arise. Openings vary because we use a randomly selected card from the American Checker Federation’s approved “156-Opening Three-Move Deck.”

And yes, we’ve heard all manner of derision from those who consider chess more complex, more sophisticated, more challenging. Some suggest that we play checkers because we can’t handle the complexities of chess. We know better, because we played Nate and Rodney when we thought we were pretty good, and they crushed us.

Since Nate passed on, the only time checkers got a mention in this newspaper was likely 2007, when a computer program called Chinook “solved” the game by proving that the best a player can achieve against it is a draw.

***

Occasionally, Jeff talked about the possibility of entering a tournament, but opportunities seemed confined to the South or Midwest. A few years back, a friend did an Internet search (why didn’t we think of that?) and passed along contact information for New England tournament director Richard White, who holds a one-day event at his home each year in June.

Jeff couldn’t make it last Saturday because his brother had flown in from Detroit for a handball tournament. I made the two-plus hour drive, turned left after the handmade sign and met the other eight contestants, all men, all from Massachusetts, all but one older than my 54 years.

The format was round robin. Openings were Go As You Please rather than from the 3-move cards. Eight games. Random draw to see who goes first. Two points for a win, one for a tie.

Fred Follis, 62, of Chelsea records every move from his games so he can go back later and learn from any mistakes. He was the only player in this year’s tournament to beat six-time defending champion Joseph Margolin. Staff photo by Glenn Jordan

Up first is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Actually, his name is Fred Follis. He’s 62 and from Chelsea, works at the Home Depot in Danvers. It was his beard, glasses, tanned face and combed-back flowing hair that made me think of Solzhenitsyn, along with the sound, elsewhere in the house, of a thick Russian accent.

Follis pulls out a pad and jots down each move. I’m familiar with a numbered checkerboard – 1 to 32 for each of the playable squares – but the board we’re using isn’t numbered. This doesn’t seem to faze Follis. I am properly intimidated.

We play for an hour, until we’re each left with three kings and he’s chasing me into his double corner. And then, remarkably – and no doubt aided because I am wholly unknown to these veterans and not seen as a threat – Follis leaves himself vulnerable.

With a slightly trembling hand, I slide a king in front of his to give him a double jump.

His head drops.

We never complete the walk-off triple that results in my first tournament victory. We simply shake hands.

My watch reads 10:27 a.m. We had started at 9:20. A weight lifts from my shoulders: I won’t get skunked after all.

***

Richard White, 64, of Dover, Massachusetts peruses one of four checkerboards used Saturday at his home for the New England Checkers tournament. Staff photo by Glenn Jordan

Next up is the host, Richard White. Now 64, he is enjoying a second career as a locksmith after a long stint in Information Technology. This year was the 10th he and his wife Catherine have hosted the tournament, which had been held in Melrose, and before that in Shelton, Connecticut.

His name is on the New England Championship plaque for 2015, beneath that of six-time defending champion Joseph Margolin. They must have tied.

White also has a pad for recording each move. At least this board, with its squares of green and cream, is numbered. Later, White will show me a six-foot bookcase in his basement, five shelves filled with checkers books and periodicals.

“It’s less complicated than chess,” he says, “but still a hard game, hard for human beings.”

In yet another surprise, I gain control of the middle, his pieces get stuck on the sides, and with 14 pieces still on the board, he resigns. I am 2-0.

Steve Catanese bursts my balloon. He is 52, from nearby Medfield, and learned the game online. He specializes in house cleanouts, mainly after deaths or divorces.

“My family thinks it’s a riot what I’m doing today,” he says. “I try to explain to them, it’s pretty serious. I tell my wife I could have a lot worse addictions than playing checkers.” (Note to self: Useful insight!)

Catanese discovered White through an Internet search eight years ago and is playing the New England tournament for at least the sixth time. He sometimes goes to Margolin’s house in Westwood to play, and nearly always loses.

Joseph Margolin, 68, of Westwood, Massachusetts is deep in concentration during the final match of the 2017 New England Checkers Tournament. Staff photo by Glenn Jordan

Originally from Belarus, Margolin is a master at Russian checkers (the king moves like a chess bishop and pawns can go forward or back). He came to the United States at 31, and now, at 68, is a retired computer programmer. He has won eight New England titles, and last summer played in a national tournament in Ohio and did well enough that, at the moment, his world ranking is 63.

“I get killed,” Catanese says of his annual New England tournament experience. “To me, a draw is like a win because these guys are so good.”

Although I seem to have advantageous position for much of the game, Catanese gets his draw against me.

We break for lunch. Catherine White appears with a platter of cold cuts and potato salad. There is excited talk about the new kid being undefeated. Margolin remembers both Scoville and Cohen.

“Very good players,” he says in a voice that makes me think of Natasha and Bullwinkle.

Opponent No. 4 is John Hanagan, 68, of Haverhill. He works with Follis at the same Home Depot store in Danvers.

Follis was a chess player and Hanagan preferred cribbage. They settled on checkers and have been playing regularly for nine years.

Hanagan also has a pad for writing down moves. I manage to win again and find myself 3-0-1.

***

Next up is the other first-timer, Art Crandall, 59, from Sherborn. He wears a horseshoe mustache and works as a “customer success” manager for a software company. He played checkers as a kid and was intrigued by White’s ad in a local newspaper, inviting all checkers enthusiasts.

“I’ve seen it now for three years in a row,” Crandall says. “I’ve wanted to go, wanted to go, wanted to go.”

The morning rain is a good sign, he says, “because I was supposed to do yardwork.”

Crandall does not take notes. His inexperience is soon evident. He will return home without a point.

Five games complete and I have yet to lose. It feels as though Nate and Rodney are perched on my shoulders, whispering in each ear.

At 17, I wrote a college application essay about my admiration for George Plimpton, the participatory journalist who documented his brief immersions into professional sports. He pitched against Major League All-Stars in Yankee Stadium. He played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, small forward for the Celtics and goalie for the Bruins. The boxer Archie Moore bloodied his nose.

Part of Plimpton’s appeal, in addition to his virtuoso writing, was his spectacular failures. Of course the Ivy Leaguer from the Paris Review gets his appropriate comeuppance from the masters.

So what happens if the writer wins?

Steve Kelly, 59, of Medford, Mass., is a two-time New England champion who wound up in third place this year. Richard White, host of the annual event, looks on.
IPTC information: Staff photo by Glenn Jordan

Steve Kelly, 59, of Medford is next. He works with pool tables, primarily antiques, and has been to Boothbay and York in recent days to inspect tables.

Kelly’s name is also inscribed on the New England Championship plaque White shows me; he tied for the 2005 title with Mike Magnelli of Providence, Rhode Island, and was outright champion in 2010 before Margolin began his six-year reign.

We draw, and I am relieved to do so.

***

Only two opponents remain. Putting off what seems like inevitable defeat to Margolin, I sit down with Eric Reid, 81, from Wakefield, the 1984 Massachusetts state champion and another retired computer programmer. He also remembers playing and losing to Rodney, whose name on the New England plaque is misspelled as Scofield.

Which is what I nearly do, but manage another draw. I text Jeff: 4-0-3! Margolin, who lost early in the day to Follis, is 5-1-1. We each have 11 points.

The winner of our game, the final game of the day, will be crowned New England champion.

Joseph Margolin, right, and Glenn Jordan pose on a back deck after being declared co-champions of the New England Checkers Tournament. Staff photo by Glenn Jordan

He hands me a checker of each color to hide in my palms and taps my right. I open to reveal white, or, as he calls it, “Vite.”

At 4:02 p.m., we begin. I open 11-15 and Margolin responds with the Iron Cross, an approach I have read about but don’t fully understand.

Clearly, I’m toast. Margolin spends long minutes studying the board before making a move. He has no pad or pencil because he can recreate entire games from memory.

After taking 10 minutes to decide on a move, he abruptly leaves the table and heads into the kitchen for potato chips.

At 4:29, I foresee my demise when forced into an unfamiliar position, with my corner square on kings row empty. He studies the board, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes. Outside, the sun is shining. Pine trees sway in a light breeze.

The other players, their games complete, have gathered around the dining room table to watch. The only sound is the thrum of central air.

I move, then walk away from the table. My turn for chips.

We get down to 7 on 7, and for a fleeting moment I sense the possibility of victory. He has six possible moves, and five result in disaster. He takes the sixth, losing a checker in the process, but emptying my back row and leaving me vulnerable.

I try to keep my man-advantage, but after a trade, and trailing four pieces to five, he offers a draw instead of capturing my checker. A cry of protest rings out from the gallery, and we play down to 2-on-2 before conceding that, indeed, neither of us can win without an obvious blunder by the other.

The time is 5 o’clock on the final Sunday in June, and White makes a proclamation:

The most recent New England Checker Federation champion from Maine was Rodney Scoville (not Scofield, as the plaque mistakenly proclaims) of Portland in 1998. Staff photo by Glenn Jordan

“We have two tied champions this year,” he says. “For the first time in many years, a worthy representative from Maine. Congratulations.”

The tiebreaker, I point out, should be number of games won. Margolin won five; I won four. He’s the rightful champ.

“You did not lose,” Margolin shoots back in a voice both guttural and gracious. “Don’t be shy. He is the boss. Listen to him.”

I smile. Somewhere far above, I know, Nate and Rodney are smiling as well. The heart of Maine checkers beats on.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH