Saturday, 11 April 2015

Marion Tinsley: 20 Years Later

Time is relentless. I cannot fathom that 20 years have passed since the day that Dr. Marion Tinsley -- World Checkers Champion extraordinare -- passed away. Between 1990 and 1994, Marion was my obsession, as my Chinook team battled him for supremacy at playing checkers. His passing left a deep emotional scar on me, as the follow story relates (taken from my book One Jump Ahead, Springer-Verlag, 1997 and 2009).

I talked with Marion Tinsley in January during the Lafferty match. At the time he sounded good, and he was in excellent spirits. He wanted to play Chinook again, possibly as soon as August. “Any time you feel up to it, we’re ready to play,” I told him. The prize money left over from Boston ensured that another Tinsley-Chinook match would happen once Marion’s health recovered. I never mentioned it to him, but the reality of the situation was that there would never be another match like London or Boston. The Boston debacle [the unfortunate ending of the 1994 World Man-Machine Championship] guaranteed that big-name sponsors wouldn’t be interested in sponsoring a high-profile checkers match again.

A few days later I heard that he had suffered a setback. When I called him up to find out how he was feeling, Marion told me that he was good but weak. He described his recent chemotherapy treatment, his last of six, as having “burned my insides.” Just a minor setback on the road to full recovery, he asserted. When I spoke to him a few weeks later, he sounded much stronger and more optimistic about playing competitive checkers again.

I hoped that Marion would write the promised letter to the ACF, [American Checker Federation] but I didn’t want to bother him about it. Obviously, he had more important things on his mind.

In March he decided to go to Houston, Texas, to be near his sister, Mary Clark, and her family. On March 16 I received the bad news: new tests done by the doctors in Houston revealed that Marion had cancer in his bone marrow, pancreas, and liver. The news stunned everyone; for the first time I realized that Marion was dying. One should never take cancer lightly, but somehow I was sure that he would pull through. Marion had fought adversity before, and he had always won. Fighting cancer of the pancreas was a formidable challenge, but from everything Marion had told me, I naively thought that he was winning the battle. Now the painful truth sank in: I’d been living an illusion. Marion was going to die. It was hard to believe. 

Marion Tinsley (1927-1995)

For a week I tried to deny the inevitable. It just couldn’t be happening. But on March 26 Mary Clark told me that Marion’s condition was deteriorating. He was in intensive care and very weak. He had only a few months, or maybe weeks, to live. I heard the words, but I just couldn’t comprehend them. 

In my life I’ve only had to confront the death of a friend or family member a few times. In every case it happened suddenly, and I had no chance to prepare for it. In Marion’s case I now had advance warning. I wanted to see him one more time. Because of my teaching commitments I asked my travel agent to arrange a trip to Houston for the weekend of April 1 and 2. 
On March 29, I sent the following e-mail to the Chinook team members: 
Tinsley’s cancer has spread and he is in critical condition in a Houston hospital. He has only a few months/weeks to live. I am flying down to Houston this weekend to see him. I have spent the last 6 years of my life obsessed with catching him. At the end of the rainbow, there is no pot of gold, only the stark reality of the cruelty of life.
Later that day I canceled the trip. I wasn’t able to find a reasonable connection to Houston since most of the flights were already full. I could take a contorted flight path from Edmonton to Houston, spend a day with Marion, and then return via a roundabout way, getting into Edmonton at 2 A.M. on Monday, April 3, just in time for my 8 A.M. class. After a vain attempt to find a better arrangement, I decided to postpone the flight to the next weekend when I would have a better flight connection. 

On the morning of April 1 Mary Clark told me that Marion’s condition was deteriorating rapidly and that time was running out. The promise of a few months from only a few days before was wrong. On April 3 Marion was going to move from the hospital to his sister’s home to die. Now I knew that I couldn’t wait. I arranged to fly to Houston in the early morning of April 4. 

I was in touch with Marion every day now, talking for as long as he had the strength. Whenever I talked to him, he was in good spirits, but his voice was weak. On Sunday, April 2, we talked at length. He sounded good for the first few minutes but his strength ebbed as the conversation carried on. He said that he was “ready to go”; to see Jesus and his friends and family. Before he left, however, he said that he had two more things to do. First, he wanted to write a letter to Bob Bishop  [President of Silicon Graphics, the sponsor of the Man-Machine match] thanking him for his kindness in Boston. Second, he wanted to fulfill his promise to me and write a letter to the ACF setting the record straight about the events in Boston. I told him it wasn’t necessary; there were other things more important right now. But he insisted he would write the letters. 

Marion reiterated several times that he was “ready to go.” He was intrigued about a dream he had had the night before. He wouldn’t tell it to me; he wanted to wait until the next day to tell his mentor, Brother Walden. Apparently it had something to do with “boat people.” He felt that the dream was very important, and he wanted to understand its meaning.

Later that day, Rob Lake talked with Marion:
He was glad to hear from me and we talked for a little over five minutes. At the time he was with his sister and nephew, and a nurse was administering oxygen to him. He sounded weak and he was coughing a lot. He mentioned his main regret during the past four years was not writing a book about his experiences with Chinook. I told him that Jonathan was coming to visit him and he would be bringing something with him that Marion would find very interesting (I did not tell him it was the manuscript for the book Jonathan has been writing about Chinook. We also talked briefly about Dallas and his visit to Edmonton last summer, but at times it was difficult to understand what he was saying.
Mary Clark phoned me in the afternoon of Monday, April 3. She told me that Marion had lapsed into a coma. Brother Walden was to arrive at the hospital that evening. Mary was sure that Marion was using every ounce of strength to hold out until he arrived. 

I was very tired on Monday April 3 and went to bed uncharacteristically early. The telephone rang shortly after 10 P.M., and my hand stumbled in the dark trying to find the receiver. As soon as I heard Mary’s voice, I knew what she was about to tell me. Marion Tinsley, an extraordinary man whom I felt privileged to have known, was gone. He stayed alive long enough for Brother Walden to arrive and give his blessings, and then he passed away peacefully. 

There was no possibility of sleeping now. I left my bedroom to sit downstairs in the dark and be alone with my thoughts. I’d known Marion for less than five years and had met him on only six occasions (Tupelo 1990; Edmonton 1990; Petal 1992; London 1992; Edmonton 1994; Boston 1994), yet he had an enormous impact on my life. I was consumed with my quest to defeat him with Chinook. All I could think about now, however, was his friendship, support, and talent. I went to my computer and sent out the following message to the electronic world: 

From: jonathan
To: ChinookTeam

Subject: Marion Tinsley 1927-1995
Date: Monday April 3 22:48 19
Marion Tinsley passed away quietly tonight after battling cancer for the past eight months. As recently as January, he thought he had won the hardest battle of his life, but a relapse revealed that the cancer had spread.
Tinsley was the greatest checkers player who ever lived and, arguably, the most dominant champion in any competitive sport. Over the last 45 years of his career he remained undefeated, winning every match and tournament he played in. Over the thousands of games played in this period, he lost less than 10. He was as close to perfection as is possible in a human.
As a man, Tinsley was exceedingly kind and loved by everyone. He leaves behind many friends.
He was a great friend of the Chinook team. He could have said “no” when faced with the prospect of defending his world championship title against a computer. Instead he accepted the challenge, relishing the chance to face some tough opposition. We are grateful for the opportunity he gave us, and the privilege of playing the very best.
We shall deeply miss him. Rest in peace.
The last time I saw Marion was when I visited him in the hospital in Boston on August 21, 1994. I had my chance for a last visit with Marion, but I blew it. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to say “thank you.” I wanted to show him the book I was writing on Chinook. I missed my chance. My procrastination will haunt me for the rest of my life.


  1. Thank you very much for posting this story, Dr. Schaeffer. I do not own your book, so I am saddened to have learned you have gone through such personal anguish. Every checkers player should know this story, as first-hand, personal stories about Dr. Tinsley are becoming extremely rare. Again, thank you for all you have done for the checkers community.


  2. I highly recommend reading "One Jump Ahead". I cannot believe this has been 20 years. It feels so recent to me as well. Very touching.