St. John USVI Culture: West Indian Checkers
Wilmoth King and Dan Silber enjoying a game of West Indian Checkers (King won)
When I first came to the Virgin Islands, it wasn't long before I happened to notice a checker game being played at Mooie's Bar. Something was different. That game that I knew so well, and which I believed that everybody in the world played on the same board and according to the same rules, was being played on a different board and with different rules.
We Continentals play checkers on a regular chess board having 64 squares, 32 light-colored squares and 32 dark-colored ones. Each player has 12 men that are placed on the black squares of the first three rows.
The men can only move diagonally on the dark squares. Except when capturing an enemy man, which we call jumping, a man moves one square at a time and always in a forward direction. Captures are made by jumping over an enemy man, which can only be accomplished if the square next to that man is empty.
If you can get one of your men to the opposite end of the board, the man becomes a king. You put another piece on top to identify its status and then the king has the advantage of being able to move backwards or forwards, still only one square at a time, except when capturing.
Checkers, as played on St. John, is a more sophisticated and more complicated version of the game calling for more complex layers of strategy. Here in the Virgin Islands checkers is played on a 10 x 10 checkered board with 20 dark pieces and 20 light pieces.
Like the mainland version, regular men can only move forwards diagonally, but when capturing, they can do so both forwards and backwards. Capturing is called eating.
A king is a powerful piece. It can move diagonally forward or backward as far as you want over any number of unoccupied squares. When eating, the king can also move as far as it wants after eating an enemy man, and it can change direction to eat yet another if that man is vulnerable.
Like mainland checkers, if it is possible to eat an enemy man, you must do so or else the opposing player has the option to remove the offending piece on their next turn. This act is called huffing.
In most parts of the world the game we call checkers is known as draughts. It has other names in other countries. For example, Puerto Ricans, and other Latin Americans, as well as Spaniards and Italians call the game damas, and in France it is known as la jeu de dames.
Checkers (or draughts) probably evolved from the ancient game of quirkat, which developed in Egypt about 1000 years before the birth of Christ. The Moors brought the game to Europe during their invasion of Spain and it later became known as alquerque, a Spanish corruption of el quirkat.
Alquerque was played like checkers on a board, five spaces wide and five spaces long.
Around 110 AD in France, alquerque began to be played on a standard chess board and evolved into a game much like American checkers with 12 pieces.
The game played in the Virgin Islands is a form of draughts that is internationally recognized and known as Polish draughts or Continental draughts. Despite its name, it did not originate in Poland, where the game happens to be called French draughts.
So, as usual, things are not always what they seem. By keeping an open eye and an open mind, we can benefit not only from a expanded understanding of the game of checkers, but from an expanded worldview and the realization that out there are all manner of ideas, philosophies and different ways of doing things.