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The Champion Checkers Player of Salt Lake City

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 28, 2010

When Brigham Young III (1857-1945, called “Bid”) was in his early teens, he ran with a small crowd of neighbor boys who won the privilege from Bid’s grandfather, the Brigham Young, to use his offices, housed in the building between Brigham’s Lion and Beehive family homes, as a sort of clubhouse. The boys met there in the winter in a proto-Mutual Improvement Association, to read the books and newspapers housed there and to engage in formal conversation.

Or at least that was the intended program. Usually, though, after poking a bit through whatever reading material was handy, the boys pulled out the checkerboard and played games.

It didn’t take long before one of them emerged as the club’s champion checkers player, able to beat all the other boys consistently. It didn’t surprise them, for, as Bid put it, their winner “was noted as the student who selected the knotty sums in Ray’s Third Part arithmetic which baffled the best skill of the rest of us, for no matter how long it took or how tough the problem, he always came up with the correct answer without consulting the back of the book where the answers were to be found.” (Ray’s Arithmetic was to math what McGuffey’s Readers were to literature in the 19th century schoolroom; the “Third Part” taught “practical arithmetic, by induction and analysis” and featured learning to calculate in one’s head without the use of pencil or slate – a mental skill evidently as much transferable to checkers as to chess.)

The boys began looking for other competitors against whom to pit their champ. He beat all the other boys in their immediate vicinity in every tournament, best two out of three games. They began to range further, scouring the city for boys, and even men. Didn’t matter. Their boy beat everybody.

As the winter wore on that year (sometime in the early 1870s; unfortunately, the year as well as the names of most of the “club” went unrecorded), the boys learned that an English immigrant, newly arrived in the Tenth Ward in the southeastern part of the city, was reputed to be a fine checkers player. The boys sent a delegation to the man, who promptly accepted their challenge – Bid believed that the fact that the tournament was to be held in Brigham Young’s office was the bait that closed the deal.

The challenger arrived and looked around with curiosity, but he greeted the boys with an air of superiority, as if he knew he would crush their youthful champion even on the club’s home turf, even when that turf was the office of Brigham Young himself. Bid recalled,

The game was begun immediately and without formality, and for us was intensely interesting. The Englishman played at first with a rather nonchalant grace, but early discovered he had a keen and worthy opponent. After half an hour of breathtaking play, the Englishman had discovered that he would need all his skill. The first game went to him, but he was sweating as though that half-hour had been spent at the end of a pick handle.

Our boy was feverish to begin the next game, and played it with cool and deadly deliberation. His hawk-like gray eyes were cold and keen as that bird’s talons, his face sphinx-like in its inscrutability. The Englishman was playing a game of brute force and fighting every inch of the way. His back was to the wall. He gave ground only inch by inch. His antagonist was swift and relentless. Presently, the Englishman cracked, and lost the game.

The third game was ridiculously easy; not only had the Englishman “shot his bolt,” he was exhausted.

The boys were jubilant! Their champ had beat his most formidable challenger yet, and they were all in a mood to celebrate. So they adjourned their club and reassembled as quickly as teenage boys could run to the parlor of Hagell’s Meat Pie Shop on nearby Main Street First South. There, says Bid, “we gorged, at the same time ordering a generous supply of harmless beverage that helped crown this feast of youthful gourmets.”

They cheered. They toasted their winner. They offered short speeches in his honor. They sang.

Then they ran out, leaving their champ to settle the bill himself.

And so he did. The champion checkers player of Salt Lake City, a young boy named Heber J. Grant, reached into his pocket and paid for his own celebration.



14 Comments »

  1. My ancestor John Cottam (1823-1903) was an English immigrant remembered as an expert checkers player, lived in SLC during that time–interesting!

    Comment by anita — October 28, 2010 @ 8:03 am

  2. Who was that mysterious Englishman and what was that harmless beverage?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

    Comment by Mark B. — October 28, 2010 @ 8:30 am

  3. I wonder about the extent of the overlap between the membership of this club and the male membership of the Wasatch Literary Association.

    Comment by Justin — October 28, 2010 @ 8:33 am

  4. Psst . . . Are those dates right at the opening?

    [Thanks — fixed. — AEP]

    Comment by Coffinberry — October 28, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  5. I love it! This is a totally different take on HJGrant from the stories about perseverence we hear in Primary. Indeed, the impession I had always had from the stories was that he was a rather friendless lad who could only earn respect by spending hours alone throwing a ball against the barn wall or practicing penmanship. To learn instead that he was a geek with friends who appreciated his geeky qualities is really quite exciting to me.

    Comment by Coffinberry — October 28, 2010 @ 8:43 am

  6. Well told.

    Comment by Clark — October 28, 2010 @ 9:43 am

  7. What a fun story!

    Comment by Meghan M. — October 28, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  8. Winsome story. Great find. Thanks Ardis.

    Comment by Cliff — October 28, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  9. For the enjoyment of anybody who checks back to read comments, here’s the advertisement for Hagell’s shop from the 1874 city directory:


    .

    .

    .

    .

    .

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 28, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

  10. Meat pies, the fast food of choice before the invention of the hamburger.

    Comment by Clark — October 28, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

  11. What a story! I agree with Coffinberry — that is a different side of Grant than we usually get in stories.

    I wonder if Mark B.’s “harmless beverage” was one of the two listed in the ad. What else would they have served back then? A root beer or ginger beer? That seems too early for lemonade to be anything but an expensive luxury, and it was before the invention of Coca-Cola (1886) and I can’t find when soda water was commonly available in the rest of the world, let alone frontier America.

    Comment by Researcher — October 28, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

  12. And so he did. The champion checkers player of Salt Lake City, a young boy named Heber J. Grant, reached into his pocket and paid for his own celebration. This is a great ending to the story, not just revealing the name of the checkers champion, but showing that he had to pay for his celebration himself.

    Comment by Maurine — October 28, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  13. And now you know… the rest of the story. :)

    Comment by Aaron Brooks — October 28, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

  14. The name of the English immigrant from the Tenth ward was… further research may tell.

    Comment by Jpaul — October 29, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

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