There was one morning when 300 folks jammed the Hall of Fame, so many spectators that the second-floor gallery started creaking and some of the cautious ones headed for safety. Or maybe they were just getting a head start to the lunchroom. To tell the truth, not many of those 300 people were actually there to see checkers. They all rushed over when they heard that Good Morning America was televising from the hall, which is about as exciting as things get in Petal unless you count the action at the railroad crossings. Petal seems to have a lot of crossings and a lot of kids who blast across those crossings in Chevys painted with tongues of flame.
For a well-organized world championship endorsed by the American Checker Federation and the English Draughts Association, neither interest nor support was overwhelming. The $5,000 purse—$3,000 to the winner, $2,000 to the loser—was raised through donations, some as small as $5, and corporate sponsors were conspicuously absent from the list. The largest contribution, more than $1,000, came from Charles Walker, the founder and owner of the Hall of Fame.
Walker, 52, is a generous Petal insurance tycoon with a weakness for dazzling blazers and matching two-tone shoes. He claims to have lost more games of checkers than any man alive, but this has not diminished his devotion to the game. He built the Hall of Fame right next to his home, which he calls Chateau Walker, and he filled the hall with checkers paraphernalia, old Bibles, suits of armor, wooden statues, flintlock pistols, arrowhead displays, Elvis photographs and a hologram of a water spigot. It all looks pretty nice, except for the water spigot. His wife, Deloris, 51, did all the cooking for the match, feeding players and strangers alike. "If you happen to be by, you're our guest," she explained. If you arrived early, you were welcome for breakfast, too.
The only person not having a good time at the match was Lafferty. After a week or so of playing Tinsley, he looked like somebody who had been in too many games of chicken at the Petal railroad crossings. "Everybody seems to be enjoying these games except me," he admitted. Lafferty earned the right to challenge Tinsley for his title by winning the 1986 U.S. National Championship (a tournament Tinsley didn't need to enter), but challenging Tinsley is a questionable privilege at best. "It never entered my mind that I could beat him," Lafferty said, a realistic analysis but not the sort of pre-match thinking recommended by sports psychologists. Not only was Lafferty sure he'd lose, he was certain that Tinsley would wreak terrible punishment upon him if he did something reckless, like win a game. "He'd really be after me then," said Lafferty, looking around nervously in case Tinsley might overhear. "I think I'd rather just keep the peace."
Few men have ever won a game of checkers from Tinsley, and those who did had to call in artillery support to cover their retreat. "I think I hate to lose even more than I love to win," says Tinsley. He has won seven national titles and six world titles since 1948, and the only reason he doesn't have more is that he doesn't play all the time. The last time he lost a game was in 1985, while successfully defending his world title against Asa Long, 83, who was probably the best player in the world until Tinsley came along. Since 1948, Tinsley has lost exactly four games. "He doesn't have a single weakness that I know of," said Lafferty, "at least none that a mere mortal can recognize."
Lafferty is a 54-year-old mathematics and physics teacher from North Hardin High School in Radcliff, Ky. He got the nickname "Kentucky Wonder Boy" for his precocious play some years ago. Tinsley, 60, is a professor of mathematics at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. He was given the inelegant nickname "Two-Ton" back in the '40s by a fellow checkers player who fancied himself a master of alliteration. The label had nothing to do with his size—he is 6'2½" and weighed 162 lbs. back then—but was supposedly a compliment to his crushing style of play.
Tinsley grew up in Kentucky, the son of a farmer and a schoolteacher. His parents were hoping for a girl and got twins instead. They had a name picked out for the girl, Mary Frances. When the twin brother appeared, they called him Marion Franklin; the boy always felt that he was named after his sister, which was pretty hard to take. "She was the apple of their eye and I felt unloved," Tinsley says. "That's why I won a lot of spelling bees and adding bees in one-room schools. I sought approval by excelling in school." He skipped four of his first eight grades, but he was no checkers prodigy—oddly, there never has been a true checkers prodigy, at least none like those chess phenoms who pop up every few years and play multiple boards blindfolded during play-school recess.
Tinsley seriously took up checkers at 15, goaded by a woman who boarded with the family and defeated him repeatedly, cackling after each win. He won his first national championship in 1948 and was favored to repeat in 1950, when the tournament was next held, but a blunder cost him a decisive game and he dropped into fifth place. The loss so devastated him that he turned his attention to mathematics, earning his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1957. Then he retired from checkers, declining to play at all until urged to do so by Lafferty, who started visiting him in Florida in 1968. "All that beautiful play and talent. It was such a tragic waste," Lafferty says.
With four games left to play in this year's championship, Lafferty needed draws in all of them to conclude the finest performance against Tinsley in 40 years. He had struggled to 32 draws in the first 34 games, extricating himself from serious trouble in at least a half-dozen. "I don't think in any championship match any human being got out of as many messes as I did," he said.
Championship checkers is played in a style called three-move restriction, where the first three moves—red, white and red again—are determined by the drawing of cards. White has the first optional move and usually a slight advantage. "When Tinsley is playing white he makes moves you wouldn't believe are possible. He torments a man," says Pat Berry, a former Mississippi Open champion.
Lafferty, playing white, got a draw in the 35th game. In the 36th game the players repeated the opening, as required, with Tinsley getting the white pieces. Lafferty was immediately in trouble. He removed his tie, loosened his belt, unsnapped his slacks, cracked his knuckles, twisted his neck and sighed. "He looks like he's in a wave, drowning," said Walker. Tinsley sat motionless, looking deadly in his pitch-black Sunday suit. Lafferty's position seemed so hopeless that Williams, the peach farmer, looked down from the gallery and declared that he could win the game if he were in Tinsley's seat.
Minutes later, Tinsley made one of those blunders that come upon him every decade or so. Lafferty looked up, startled. He moved one of his pieces into a position where Tinsley had to jump it—jumping isn't optional in championship play. He repeated the maneuver twice, sacrificing two more pieces but getting Tinsley exactly where he wanted him. Finally he triple-jumped three of Tinsley's pieces, one of them a king, to force a draw. "I feel like I lost," Tinsley said, joining in the general laughter but obviously stunned. The championship ended quietly the next afternoon: The cards called for an opening that both men had played dozens of times, and the final two games were routine draws.
Lafferty had his record. Not since 1947, when Tinsley lost two games and won three from the late Maurice Chamblee, had he been involved in a closer match. "I'm happy as a lark," Lafferty said. He didn't win a game, but he never expected to. Ever since he showed up at Tinsley's house nearly 20 years ago the two of them have played hundreds of games, and Tinsley hasn't lost a single one. The old-timers in Petal said they surely could believe that, because a fellow has as much chance against Tinsley as butter has against the sun.
As long as checker players gather, they'll be talking about challenger Don (Kentucky Wonder Boy) Lafferty's inspired play against champion Marion (Two-Ton) Tinsley in the 1987 World Checker Championship, held last month in Petal, Mississippi. The best-of-40-games match lasted 10 days. Most days there weren't enough checker fans watching to fill a good-size country store, even though admission was free and so was lunch, and the banana pudding was about the best you ever tasted. Those who did come by the International Checker Hall of Fame agreed with Wilcie E. Williams, a 91-year-old peach farmer and sometime checker player who drove more than 900 miles from Virginia with his daughter to be there. "Lord, did Lafferty play well," said Williams. "He'd of lost 15 or 20 games if he didn't. Never been a man in the history of the game as good as that Tinsley."