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In Passing

In Passing
John C. Williams Print E-mail
By Jud McCranie   
July 13, 2011

John C. Williams (1927-2011)

By Jud McCranie

John C. Williams of Pearson, Georgia, had a major impact on chess in south Georgia for many years. He was born in 1927 in Americus, Georgia, which accounts for his pronunciation of “tournament” as “toonament.” He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1951 and went on to become a pharmacist. In 1956 he opened his pharmacy in Pearson, a town of about 1,500 people at the time.  In those days, the game of checkers was commonly played in Pearson, and John was one of the avid players, with games being played at the two booths in his drugstore. However, two other residents regularly beat him at checkers.

Because of his interest in checkers, in 1959 his sister-in-law gave him a book about checkers that also covered chess. (Perhaps it was a book like the 1918 Chess and Checkers: The Way to Mastership by Edward Lasker, which was reprinted several times.)  So at age 32 (when most chess players are nearing their peak), John “discovered that chess was the finest board game of them all”!  Checkers in Pearson mostly gave way to chess as adults began playing the game at the drugstore. Soon chess caught the attention of some young people, mostly teenagers.

John was the only pharmacist in the store and he put in long hours, but in between filling prescriptions he had ample time for chess (and for “shooting the breeze”). He began teaching chess to youngsters, although they didn’t always know they were getting lessons. John didn’t give formal lessons, but he said that he taught people according to the way they seemed to learn. Usually this took the form of playing games and commenting on them. He often used the phrases “We teach reading, writing, and rooks on the seventh,” “when in doubt, check,” “take first and last,” and “control the center – control the game.”  As far as is known, his informal lessons were always free.

John played in his first USCF tournament in 1965, probably the Georgia Open in Macon in February. His first rating was on the April 1965 list - a provisional rating of 1384.  He played in at least one more tournament that year and had a rating of 1557 on the end-of-year list.  In September 1966, the Georgia Closed Championship was held in Waycross, 30 miles from Pearson. There were seven players from Pearson and only three from Waycross, so the Georgia State Chess Association (as the GCA was called at the time) decided to hold future tournaments in Pearson instead.  The first one was held less than six months later, at a time when John had played fewer than 25 rated games.

In February 1967 the Georgia Open was held in Pearson, and John was the chairman. Pearson and John also hosted the Georgia Open in 1968, 1969, and 1970; the 1970 Georgia High School Championship; and the 1971 Georgia Closed Championship. The 1968 tournament had the highest attendance of any tournament in Georgia that year. The notorious International Master Norman T. Whitaker played in several of these tournaments. He befriended John and visited several times.

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(From the GCA newsletter, 1972.  A photo of John
at one of his first tournaments, 1965.

 

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, some 5% of the members of the GCA were from Pearson, even though Pearson had only about 0.03% of the population of Georgia. This gave Pearson the largest GCA membership per capita by far.

John said that he, Jim Gates, and Philip Lamb were responsible for starting the state scholastic championship tournaments, the first of which was held in Columbus in 1968. John was the chairman of the southern region of the GCA at least 1968 through 1970.

Bill Thombs was John’s most successful pupil. In September 1967, when the USCF started publishing a list of the highest-rated players under 16, 14-year old Bill was number 12 on the list and the fifth-highest under 15. A year later he was the fifth-highest under 16. He was the Georgia junior champion multiple times and was the Southern high school co-champion in 1970. As a young adult, Bill went on to win the state championship in 1971.

Other pupils of John’s also became the state junior champion, the state high school champion, and the highest scorer from Georgia at the Southern High School Championship. The Atkinson County High School team won the state championship in 1968, 1969, 1970, and 1972. The team finished in the top three in the Southern High School Championship in 1970, 1971, and 1972.

John sold his pharmacy in 1973, and chess in Pearson was never the same again. John still coached young players and still played with anyone who came to his house, but gone were the days when you could drop into the corner drugstore at any time and find a game.  In the 2000s the Harris family of Turner County came regularly from more than 60 miles away for John’s lessons. Several of the Harrises won the scholastic tournament at Jekyll Island several times.

In later years, John was regularly seen at the Golden Isles Scholastic Chess Association tournaments on Jekyll Island. He brought scholastic players from Pearson and coached their team. Then he would be either an assistant director on the floor or play in the adult section of the tournament if his participation would make an even number of players.

John’s last tournament was in February 2008, when he went 2-1 and shared second place. The game he lost was to one of his former pupils.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to George Williams, Richard Williams, and John David Williams for providing copies of photos and the invaluable newspaper articles. Thanks to Bill Thombs for his input. Thanks to Lee Bradley for proofreading.

References:

Chess Life & Chess Review Box Set 1933-1975 (DVD)

“Green Bay of Chess Field, Pearson Starts ‘Em Young,” Atlanta Journal, May 8, 1968, p. 8-A (probably by John Pennington)

Georgia Chess Association Newsletter, 1967-72

Harrell, Bob. “Chess lovers reign supreme in south Georgia town,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution August 5, 1984

Hilbert, John S. (2000). Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker, Chess Master. Cassia Editions, Yorklyn, DE.

Chess (sidebar)

John said that he preferred to play Black because he tended to attack too early as White. As White, he always opened 1.e4 (“More games have been lost with that move than any other move,” John said).  He usually played an early Nf3 and Bc4 against anything, as can be seen by the following short game.

In this game John had White in the first round of a Swiss against Spencer Hurd (the 1977 state champion).

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.Bc4 Bg4 5.Bxf7+

After his fifth move, John offered a draw. Of course, after 5… Kxf7 6.Ng5+ White recovers the piece and is a pawn ahead with a much better position. (The move 6… Kf6? leads to being checkmated.) But can he win against someone rated about 300 points higher? John also knew that if he won, he would play up the second round, and if he drew he would play down. John offered the draw with an eye on having 1½ points after two rounds. After a few minutes of thought, Spencer accepted the draw.

(His line of the Guioco Piano)

 
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