World Checkers and Chess Champion Newell Banks Visits Olympia, 1937

Newell Banks, right, plays checkers against A. McLachlan of Spokane. Image from Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 17, 1937. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Checkers and chess are fun, challenging games. When world checkers and chess champion Newell Banks visited Olympia in 1937, local players were eager to test their skills against him.

Newell Banks, ‘Checker Wizard’

“Checker Wizard” Newell William Banks was born in 1887 to Wellington Bainard and Minnie Grauser Banks. He learned checkers and chess at an early age. While the official story varies by source, the Olympia News reported that he began playing at age 5. “His father,” they wrote, “offered him a nickel for solving a difficult checker problem, hoping to stop temporarily the inquisitive child’s flow of questions. The five-year-old solved problems so rapidly that the prize was reduced from a nickel to a penny. Two years later the boy was defeating all his adult opponents. In his teens he was playing simultaneous exhibitions.”

Banks quickly mastered chess as well and his career only went up from there. He challenged the top players of his era, setting world record after record for speed and numbers of games of checkers and chess played at the same time. At the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, he played 140 games of checkers in 145 minutes winning 133 and drawing seven. He made an average of one move a second. That same year he set a record for speed at blindfolded and simultaneous checkers playing 20 games at the same time in two hours and 25 minutes in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He won 17 games, drawing three. He was, as the Daily Olympian dubbed him, the “Checker King.”

Newell Banks in Olympia

Banks spent much of his life on the road, challenging checkers and chess players around America. He visited Vancouver, Washington, in late April of 1937 where he challenged locals. On April 26, he went against 30-year-old New York checker player Willie Ryan in Tacoma. Ryan beat him in a 12-game match for a $500 purse. During his tour, Banks won or forced a draw with all other local opponents except one. On May 1, he was defeated again at checkers by Mount Vernon publisher Fred Ornes in Bellingham.

Banks’ next stop was Olympia. His visit was arranged by the Olympia Chess Club. The club, organized in 1927, brought together local chess and checker players. They arranged local tournaments and often played against other chess clubs in the area. Sometimes they were called the Capital City Chess Club. The group hosted Banks’ exhibition match at the YMCA, 510 Franklin Street SE. This building was home to the YMCA from 1910 to 2019.

Come see the ‘Checker King’ urged the Daily Olympian on June 27, 1937. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

The exhibition match started at 8 p.m., Tuesday, June 29, 1937. It was free for spectators, with voluntary donations going to pay for expenses. The world champion took on all his opponents at once with 20 simultaneous games of checkers and chess. At checkers he opposed Roy Yocom, Albert Lund, William Herman, Clem Smith, L.A. Bracy, Woodrow Trotter, and Fred Perkins of Olympia as well as S. Carter, Karl Klingberg and Ransom Minkler of Aberdeen. Chess opponents were Ellis Ayer, F.S. Francis, C.L. Yocom, A.M. Johnson, C.J. Peringer, Stephen Christopher, and T.M. Jenner.

When it was over, Newell Banks had won 11 games of checkers and 7 games of chess. “Pawn-movers forced their games into complicated situations,” reported the Olympia News newspaper. “Pieces stayed even for many moves, but the champion’s positional superiority was the small but adequate margin of victory.” But two checkers games ended in a draw with Roy Yocom of Olympia and S. Carter of Aberdeen.

After the games, Ransom Minkler, president of the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce and vice-president of the Washington State Checker Association, gave a demonstration of blindfolded checkers, a skill he had a local reputation for. It is unclear if Banks played any of his Olympia games blindfolded.

Newell Banks challenged local players at the Olympia YMCA. Built in 1910, it was home to the downtown Olympia YMCA until 2019. Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005

Later Career of Newell Banks

Leaving Olympia, Newell continued his tour. On July 1 he played checkers in Tacoma against a dozen opponents. He played blindfolded against six of them while carrying on, as the Tacoma News Tribune put it “a conversation at the same time about the big leagues, [boxers] Joe Louis and Freddie Steele, with other words of wisdom thrown in as fillers.”  Freddie Steele grew up in Tacoma, going by the nickname “The Tacoma Assassin.”

Banks traveled on to eastern Washington. In Spokane around 60 players tried their luck against him at the YMCA in 27 games. He played against five of these opponents blindfolded, with his back to the board, directing his moves to an assistant by memory.

In 45 years, he claimed to have travelled a million miles and played about 600,000 checkers and chess games, over 80,000 of them blindfolded. He even published two books on the topic, “Banks’ Scientific Checkers” in 1929 and “Banks’ Blindfold Checker Masterpiece” in 1947.

At age 60 Banks set an endurance blindfold record, playing four hours of checkers a day for 45 days straight, winning 1,331, drawing 54 and losing two games. He engaged in six games at a time. During this marathon he set a blindfold speed record as well, playing 62 games in four hours, winning 61 and drawing one.

Newell Banks passed away in 1977 in Detroit. One of the few experts at both checkers and chess during his day, his visit to Olympia would have been something to remember. Checkers and chess continue to be popular, their challenge and excitement inspiring players to this day.  

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