When ESPN began broadcasting events like poker and eating contests, it was regarded as innovative (or disturbing, as in the case of eating contests). A major media member had turned its attention to games rather than sticking with the traditional sports world. Unusual though it may have been, the move was hardly groundbreaking.
It harkens back to previous centuries, when popular games like chess and checkers received daily coverage on the sports pages of many of the world’s newspapers. And more than 130 years ago, an amazing North Country boy was mixing it up with the best of them in the world of competitive checkers.
Prior to the mid-1900s, there were few organized sports leagues in the country. Just as there were regular challenge competitions in bicycling, speed-walking, roller-skating, and other sports, American cities were also represented by teams that featured the best from many local clubs in chess and checkers. Major and minor cities alike took part, led as usual by New York City and Boston.
Breaking into the big-time meant establishing a reputation first, something that Watertown’s John Dempster began doing at a young age. Through his mid-teens, he dominated play in northwestern New York State, and by the time he was 18, Dempster was facing off against some of the world’s best.
Looking to prove himself, Johnny showed some impressive skills in wins across New York State, inserting himself into the mix of promising young players. Among the best were a genius American teenager, Robert D. Yates, and the youthful US champion, Charles Barker. Johnny came to know Yates, two years his junior and clearly a special talent.
In the early 1870s, touring the United States was Scotsman James Wyllie, one of the all-time greats who dominated world checkers play for half a century. Shortly before he turned 16, Yates played Wyllie and managed to win one game out of 13, an impressive feat for so young and inexperienced a player.
In 1873, Yates, playing blindfolded, defeated Dempster. It was a great learning experience that would impact the rest of Johnny’s life. Two years later, they faced off twice, with each man winning once.
In 1876, Dempster and Yates played three times. Yates won two and they tied once, but Johnny had no reason to hang his head. Shortly after their last meeting, Yates attained legendary status by taking the world championship from James Wyllie.
Dempster, meanwhile, became a student of the game and worked at developing prodigious memory powers. In the late 1870s, he moved to Cincinnati and became the city champion. He also edited a checkers column for Illustrated New Yorker. But an illness that John had been struggling with proved to be tuberculosis, slowing him considerably. At times of greatest weakness, he returned to stay with his parents in Watertown, but continued competing as often as possible.
In 1878, Yates attended medical school, surrendering his world title back to Wyllie and his US title to Barker. During the next four years, Dempster managed several draws against Barker and won many victories against high-level competition.
In a noteworthy 20-game match at Freehold, New Jersey, Dempster won 9 games and drew 4, prompting his opponent to withdraw after only 13 games―totally demoralized by the fact that John had played the entire match while blindfolded.
Encouraged by recent results, including a big win in Philadelphia, Dempster issued a challenge to play for the championship of New York City. Title holder August Schaefer accepted, and in early 1884, Cincinnati’s top player faced off against New York’s best.
Many observers felt John wasn’t ready yet for Schaefer’s skills, but early headlines pronounced Checker Champions Well Matched. The first evening featured three draws, and after a holiday break, crowds gathered to watch the competition. Reporters noted that John was “evidently not feeling well,” but he was again off to a good start, employing a new move that was adjudged “one of the finest of the tournament.”
Schaefer rebounded and appeared headed for a win, but Dempster managed a draw. The second game was more of the same back and forth, but from that point on, the New York champ took command of the match, which was originally scheduled for 30 games. After a few more nights, the score stood at Schaefer 7, Dempster 0, and 9 draws, at which point John resigned.
Next week: The amazing memory feats of John Dempster.
Photo: 1850 painting by George C. Bingham