by Adam Langer, Chicago "Reader", February 12, 1993
Part 1 - November 15, 2004
From the outside, the green-and-white house on Warren Boulevard near Ashland doesn't look much different from any of the other buildings in the neighborhood. The paint has started to peel and the windows are gray and sooty. The only thing a little unusual about it is the dusty checkerboard propped in one of the downstairs windows.
You go down the cement stairs at the front and open the creaky wooden door that leads into the basement. Orange flames rumble in an electric fireplace. A faded American flag hangs on the wall. In the center of the room checkerboards lie atop six tables. Two men sit across from each other at one of them, looking silently down at their board. The only sounds are the rain outside, the O’Jays on the radio, and the occasional clacking of checker pieces.
On the wall a bathroom rug hangs with its underside facing out. On the rug in Magic Marker someone has written "Buster's Place."
Buster Smith used to come here in the afternoons, before his shift at the post office. He would sit down at one of the tables and wait for someone to challenge him to a game. He didn't like to play for money; he played because he loved the game. And when newcomers sat across the table from the quiet, unassuming Buster, they were dumb enough to think they could beat him. The old-timers knew better; they knew that Buster Smith was without a doubt the greatest checker player in Chicago.
The greatest American-born checker player that ever drew a breath, some say, and without a doubt the greatest Chicago ever had. An international grand master who played in tournaments in Italy, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union, Smith won at least a dozen American national championships. In 1938, when he was 17, Buster Smith became the checker champion of Chicago. On the day he died, October 8, 1992, Buster was still the undisputed champion.
Most people give up the game of checkers when they get out of grade school. Some graduate to playing chess; others stop playing games altogether. But checkers isn't always such a simple game. Historians trace its origins all the way back to ancient Egypt; checker players were painted on the walls of King Tut’s tomb. Homer spoke of checker players in The Odyssey and Peter the Great is said to have been an avid player. Legend has it that Napoleon used to carry a checkerboard around with him to amuse himself when he grew tired of waging actual battles. In the former Soviet Union, the game is held in an esteem equal to chess.
There are a great number of variations on the game, and rules differ from country to country. The game Buster Smith usually played is called American pool checkers or Spanish checkers and it is common in this country among older African American and Eastern European men.
(To be continued...)