The Legend of Buster Smith

by Adam Langer, Chicago "Reader", February 12, 1993
Part 2 - December 1, 2004

American pool checkers differ from garden variety checkers in a couple of ways. First, whereas in straight checkers you can only jump an opponent's piece by moving forward, in pool checkers you can eliminate pieces by jumping either forward or backward. And second, in straight checkers, kings-the double pieces that have been crowned by reaching the opponent's home row, can only move one space at a time, but in pool checkers they can move as far as they can go on a diagonal. Pool checker players call that piece “the flying king.” Variations on pool checkers are played in Europe, Brazil, and the former Soviet Union among other places.

Every year in the United States there are national checker championships with matches that can last as long as marathon chess games. The game looks deceptively easy. The rules are not complicated and anyone can learn how to play in a few minutes. But mastery is something that can take a lifetime.

There are tons of books on the subject and plenty of well-known opening moves, but trying to beat a grand master is next to impossible. Pool checker players say that an amateur coming in and beating a grand master would be like someone coming off the street and defeating Boris Spassky: it just doesn't happen.

How pool checkers got to African American communities in Chicago, Detroit, Saint Louis, and other American cities is something upon which checker historians don't always agree. But it may have traveled from France to Louisiana during the days of French colonial rule and grown popular there among black slaves.

It certainly came north during the great migration of the early 20th century. The game's popularity in America appears to have peaked during the Depression, when many would have had time on their hands to play. Checker clubs sprouted up in city parks, community centers, and barbershops.

Today in Chicago the number of clubs is dwindling, but a few players remain. They play every afternoon in the basement on Warren called Buster's Place. They play in the back room of a shoe repair shop at 47th and Indiana, and in barbershops at Ogden and Homan and in Evanston. They play at the headquarters of the Chicago American Pool Checker Club at 74th and Vincennes. And in the summer, when the weather's nice, you can find the “tree players” under the tree in the park across from Gladys’ Luncheonette, at 45th and Indiana.

They call Mose Johnson the “mayor of the Tree” because in the summer you can almost always find him playing checkers across from Gladys’. Like many other members of the Chicago pool checker community, he still hasn't gotten over the death of Buster Smith.

“I’ll never forget Buster,” he says. “His name will be around for years and years.” They’ll know him all over. We play out under the tree and we talk about Buster. We tell little bitty kids about him, and when they play, they want to play like Buster. He was a genius. He hardly ever missed a move. He’ll be known for centuries.”