The Iron Man

An Obituary of Asa Long by Richard Pask

Asa Long

Born: 20th August 1904, in Antwerp, Ohio.

Died: 5th December 1999, aged 95, in a nursing home in Toledo, Ohio.

"The most remarkable competitor in the entire history and field of mind sports." That is how veteran US commentator Richard Fortman described Asa Long when he heard of his death. Not given to hyperbolae, a review of Long's achievements shows that Fortman was merely stating a fact. Born in Antwerp, Ohio, Long moved to Toledo at an early age and lived there his entire life. He learnt the elements of the game from his father and grandfather, and later developed his skills in the city's thriving draughts club. He performed very creditably in the US national tournament of 1920, but it was in Boston, in the national tournament of 1922, that he gained worldwide recognition. At just 18, outplaying champions of many years experience, he was to prove victorious, emulating like performances by Dr Robert Yates and Richard Jordan of an earlier era, and confirming the adage that draughts is fundamentally a test of what you can see rather than what you know. Incredibly, he retained his grandmaster status for over 70 years.

Respecting the role of knowlege, however, Long gained an encyclopaedic command of book lore in the succeeding years, stating towards the end of his career that he had devoted over 50,000 hours to serious play and analysis. In 1927 he was selected to represent the US against Great Britain in the second international match in New York City. Long entered the match without preparation, having been occupied with his university studies, but proceeded to make the second best score on his team, outranked only by the immortal Samuel Gonotsky.

More national titles followed in 1929, 1937 and 1939, and in 1934 he won the supreme title, the world championship, with a convincing victory over Newell Banks, a professional exhibition player, in a 40-game match in Detroit. A successful defence against Edwin Hunt, the Assistant Attorney General of Tennessee, in 1936, further enhanced his reputation. Indeed, such was his physique, stamina, and virtual invincibility during this period that he became known as "The Iron Man", winning the admiration of none other than Jack Dempsey. His style of play, which remained consistent throughout his career, was very distinctive. Employing sound lines which he had previously analysed thoroughly, he often simplified to advantage, using superb endgame technique to register many of his wins. Not overly original, he was very adept at polishing up "cooks" (innovations) which had been used against him and playing them back on his rivals. Possessing uncanny intuition, he normally decided on a move within 30 seconds, using his remaining time merely to "check things over." This fluency, together with his objective approach, often drew comparisons with Capablanca, the chess legend, though he was quick to point out that victory was never automatic. "Some people seem to think I merely have to sit down to win," he once remarked wryly.

In 1948 he defended his world title against Walter Hellman, a steel worker from Gary, Indiana, and to the surprise of many was nosed out by the odd game. It was against the same highly innovative opponent that Long, by now 57, attempted to wrest the title in 1962. Facing innumerable cooks, he used a combination of crossboard (extemporised) skill and "incredible" (to quote Hellman) endgame play to hold the champion even, with many of the 40 games lasting over three hours. Between 1944 and 1954 he served as the mentor for Dr Marion Tinsley, later to become the strongest player of all time. They played over 200 practice games in all, Tinsley remarking that he was "walking on air" when he registered his first win.

In spite of periods of inactivity, Long's play was always of the highest order, and in his later years he produced some of his finest games. He made high scores, without loss, in the third (1973), fourth (1983) and fifth (1989) international matches, won the world title at the esoteric 11-man ballot style in 1975, and in 1980 and 1984 again captured the national championship, earning himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the youngest and oldest ever winner! These two victories earned him shots at Tinsley's world title in 1981 and 1985 and though unsuccessful, he did have the satisfaction of scoring an unheard-of win against the champion. Victory in the British Open Championship of 1984 was, by comparison, a mere formality, and, entirely undaunted by age, he journeyed to Kiev in 1989 to score heavily against a contingent of Russian players who had turned their attentions to the ancient game. He placed third in the 1990 national tournament, again without loss, and, perhaps most remarkably, at the age of 87 narrowly failed to defeat Chinook, the World's foremost computer program, in a 20-game match staged in Mississippi.

Long's inner calm, which he attributed to his Christian faith, and his modest disposition, masked a fiercely competitive attitude. "I play for blood," he once stated. In his eighties, almost completely deaf, he developed a tendancy to talk to himself during a game, prompting Leo Levitt to confess that he often "tuned in" to find out what was happening! Though authoring no books, he produced many insightful annotations, and greatly enhanced the literature with his beautiful games. Like most draughts players, Long was essentially an amateur, and was latterly employed in the General Tyre Company of Toledo. He was also a family man and proud grandfather. His wife predeceased him.