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Obituary:Marion Tinsley

Marion Tinsley was, quite simply, the greatest draughts player who ever lived. Indeed it is difficult to think of anyone who has dominated any competitive activity in the way Tinsley held sway over the draughts world. He won the world title in 1955 and remained undefeated until his death. In the last 40 years of his life he lost fewer than a dozen competitive games.

Tinsley's first regular draughts opponent, according to his own account, was an old lady, Mrs Kershaw, who lodged with his family in Columbus, Ohio. "She used to beat me in game after game," he said. "Oh, how she'd cackle." Irritated by the cackling, the young Tinsley came across a book on draughts, or checkers as it is known in America, in the local library. He was hooked at once by the intricate mathematical patterns of the game and even gave checkers the credit for teaching him how to study for his maths degree.

Tinsley won the world title from Asa Long in 1955 and defended it against the English challenger, Derek Oldbury, in 1958. Shortly after, he announced his retirement from competitive checkers in order to concentrate on his mathematics teaching and research post at the University of Florida.

His return came in 1970 as a result of a curious deal with a friend who had long been trying to tempt him back to the board. "I told him I'd compete again if he gave up drinking," explained the abstemious Tinsley. The friend did not entirely stick to his side of the bargain, but Tinsley immediately regained the United States championship and, in 1975, the world title. For the rest of his life, he popped in and out of retirement, and was even given the title "World Champion emeritus" by the World Draughts Association, so that the other players could get on with their own world title contests while Tinsley was in one of his retirement phases.

When he did play, however, he was unbeatable. In 1989, he defeated a challenger, Paul Davis, by 10 wins to zero with 20 draws, an unprecedented level of domination in a game where the general level of technique normally guaranteed that most games were drawn.

Two years previously, he had had a closer contest with Don Lafferty, one of his own students, which ended 2-0 to Tinsley with 36 draws. Perhaps the most famous contest of his career came in 1992 when he was challenged by a computer program. "Chinook", named after a draughty wind in the Rockies, had finished second only to Tinsley in a recent contest of the world's best players. Its programmers were confident that computers were on the verge of playing perfect draughts. Soon, they said, a contest between man and machine at draughts would be like pitting a weightlifter against a fork-lift truck.

On this occasion, however, the fork-lift truck was made to look more like a Dinky toy. Tinsley won a tough contest by four wins to two with 33 draws. Before the match, Tinsley had said: "I'm sure I have a better programmer than Chinook has. God gave me a rational mind." In that sense, his victory was confirmation of Tinsley's deep religious faith. A part- time minister at the Church of Christ in Tallahassee, Tinsley also taught bible classes. He saw a parallel between draughts and the Christian Fellowship of Suffering. Draughts players, shy and condemned to living with the tag of playing a kid's game, had, according to Tinsley, their own fellowship of suffering.

William Hartston

Marion Tinsley, draughts player: born Columbus, Ohio 3 February 1927; died Houston, Texas 3 April 1995.