Monday, September 9, 2013

John Dempster: Watertown’s ‘Blindfold Champion’

P2A Checkerboard wikiUndaunted after the tough checker loss to August Schaefer, Watertown’s John Dempster remained in New York City and continued working on his game. Competitive teams representing the city were chosen from a pool of highly skilled players, which included Johnny. When the world champion, Wyllie, came to town again, he played against nine of the region’s best competitors and vanquished all but one, who managed a tie. The next two best finishers against the great Wyllie were Schaefer and Dempster.

While John continued to win big matches, his efforts were now focused on memory development. The skills he learned, combined with the influence of matches he once played against Yates, steered him towards a new career: playing blindfolded. He went public and demonstrated just how adept he had become.

By the mid-1880s, Dempster was sometimes billed as “the country’s blindfold champion,” putting on exhibitions that left many observers scratching their heads. In city after city, five challengers did battle against him simultaneously. In all matches, he was blindfolded and placed with his back to the boards. His opponents’ moves were announced, and Dempster’s replies were carried out while the audience watched in bewilderment. Play went from Board #1 through Board #5 for each move, and cycled in that manner until each game was settled. All the while, Johnny never left his seat and never viewed a board.

His winning percentage was remarkable while playing as many as ten opponents at once. It was all based on memory and visualization. While his old friend Yates had appeared highly gifted in those respects (it was said that, years later, he could recall every move of various games), Dempster achieved the same level of proficiency through hard work and practice.

During a three-month, eleven-city tour of Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey in 1886, he played 86 games blindfolded, facing multiple opponents simultaneously. The result: 61 wins, 6 losses, and 16 draws―without ever viewing a playing board.

In 1886, after successful exhibitions at Binghamton and Utica, where he was awarded a gold badge for his performance, Dempster focused on the North Country. Traveling to different towns and villages each week, he took on the best players, facing five at a time. His appearances were greatly anticipated, and betting was heavy. At each event, five large, specially constructed checkerboards were placed in an upright position, allowing the entire audience to track each move of every game. Pins ran through the playing pieces and into holes in the boards, securing the large checkers in place.

To keep things lively, John became somewhat of a showman at times. Sitting there blindfolded, he worked towards setting up triple or quadruple jumps which, when executed, were met with thunderous applause. Occasionally he would comment on his opponents’ moves, informing spectators correctly that victory would come within a few plays. Often he would maintain running conversations, joking with the crowd, and seemingly paying no attention to the games until it was his turn to make a move.

P2B Dempster headline 1886It was great theater, and folks loved it. Dempster was deluged with requests, playing in Watertown, Carthage, Canton, Gouverneur, Malone, and other communities, sometimes staying on for a second night by popular demand. The best players gathered to test themselves, and the relatively few losses he suffered encouraged others to take on the young man with the astonishing memory.

Those who managed to win a game were congratulated heartily by John, but it didn’t happen often. It was noted more than once that very capable players failed to even reach King Row, despite Dempster’s perceived handicap of playing blindfolded against several men at once.

By spring 1888, having played in 21 North Country communities, John had amassed a remarkable record: 134 wins, 7 losses, and 17 draws. As one reporter so aptly said following one of Dempster’s performances,

“All who attended these games unite in saying that it was the most wonderful exhibition of mental power ever witnessed.”

At that same time, another acknowledgment of John’s great skill appeared in a column written by Dr. August Schaefer, who had defended his New York City championship against Dempster several years earlier. Commenting on a very special move in a recent match, Schaefer wrote,

“This move, which has been credited to Wyllie by several draught [checkers] editors, was really originated by John Dempster, and was first played in our match for the New York City championship. Dempster afterward played it on Wyllie, and as he was unable to do more than draw, he [Wyllie] imported the move to Providence.

That the world champion couldn’t overcome a move by Dempster, and that Wyllie even adopted the tactic himself, was a powerful tribute to John’s abilities.

For all his great mental strength, there was one opponent John was unable to thwart. Bouts of illness had frequently interrupted his life, and in June 1888, tuberculosis suddenly ended it. He was only 32.

Today, 125 years after his death, memories of John Dempster have faded, but for decades following his passing, locals continued to marvel at the Watertown boy with the wonderful mind.

Photos: Checkerboard (Wikipedia); 1886 Headline from Watertown Times


Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 21 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, has been a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. They have published 75 titles and are now offering web design.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publisher’s Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.





One Response

  1. Dempster was fantastic and so in Mr. Gooley. Our lives and interest in North Country history are enhanced by his delightful Almanack stories.
    I have just finished a newspaper column in which I enumerate many ways to finish the sentence, “We are the last generation to remember….” Playing checkers on an ancient board atop an empty cracker barrel, next to a pot-bellied stove in the tiny, local store, is one of those things we’ll never see again except in the caverns of our minds. Thanks, Larry, for the marvelous memories.