by “The Digger” – December 2014
First published in The Antrim Guardian December 25, 2014.
I wonder how many children have asked for one of the good old fashioned games this year for Christmas? What happened to tiddlywinks, Noddy snap cards, Ludo, snakes and ladders and draughts? Now it’s all tablets and i-pads – words which conjure up images within the medical field to those of us in the older age brackets.
I must admit I still have all of the aforementioned games from my childhood era, including the original draughts board and wooden pieces that my grandfather played with in the early 1900’s. I learned the art of draughts under the instruction and guidance of my late father. The words “You have to jump! You have to jump!” are still etched in my memory. You knew if you did then you would suffer the loss of at least two “men” and if you didn’t you would be penalised and your piece would be confiscated.
The game was popular in Victorian times and there were numerous clubs formed in all parts of the British Isles. It was reported that in an Ottawa prison, Canada in 1868 a number of men were being held, having been charged with membership of the Fenian movement. It was interesting to note that a number of them engaged in draught playing using a scratched out board on a pine table and pieces made from bread crusts!
The experts in the game were putting up challenge matches and in 1859 there was a prize of £200 offered to the winner of a series of sixty games between a Glaswegian and an English champion. The newspapers carried columns reporting on the game and demonstrating to the readers winning moves in previous games. Several of the newspapers encouraged players to play friendly games by postcards.
Locally, there were a number of menfolk who were experts in moving wooden pieces across the 64 squares, and in the early 1920 period they met in the McBride Memorial Hall at Dundrod during the winter months. The Dundrod Draught Club hosted the games and on occasions they were reported in the local press. In January 1923 the secretary of the club announced that a well-known champion, Allan Harvey from Main Street, Ballyclare would be playing against John Ballance from Ballypitmave, Glenavy the nephew of John Ballance, former Premier of New Zealand.
On the evening of the match it was reported that the hall was crowded and in order to facilitate everyone’s viewing the Reverend David Corkey, the minister at Dundrod, drew an imitation draught board and chalked up the moves across the large squares. The game which began at around 6pm was refereed by George Thompson. It was a gruelling three hours and twenty minutes later when the match finished and over the four games John Ballance was declared the victor having won two games, and drew in another.
Undoubtedly the two men were well aware of the numerous standard positions in the game and it became very much a battle of wits. They would be no strangers to the “Goose-walk,” “Bristol,” “Maid of the Mill,” “Alma,” and “Old Fourteenth” moves which were published regularly in the Victorian draughts manuals. Hill’s Manual from that era clearly states “Without a systematic study of Practical Problems no one is likely to become an expert at the Game of Draughts….”
After the untimely death of the Reverend Corkey in 1924 his predecessor, David McKinney carried on the tradition of draughts around the Dundrod neighbourhood. There are many stories of the Reverend McKinney visiting homes in the neighbourhood in the evenings and passing the time away with a game of draughts. John Ballance from Ballypitmave, Glenavy and Allan Harvey have long since passed away in 1945 and 1958 respectively, but stories of their battles across the board have been passed down to the next generation.
The old draught board from the Crew, Glenavy still takes its place from time to time on my kitchen table at home and grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to battle it out.
One of the poems about draughts published in the Lisburn Herald from 1923 is titled “The Greatest Game” and concludes:
“Sing not for me of woman’s love,
Nor yet of passion’s flame;
Gave me the joy that man doth feel,
Who knows he’ll win a game.”
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