The Legend of Buster Smith

by Adam Langer, Chicago "Reader", February 12, 1993
Part 3 - December 15, 2004

Carl Sylvester Smith was born in Chicago on January 26, 1921. He grew up on the south side and learned checkers from his father, who gave him the nickname Buster. Smith wrote in his scrapbook that when he was 11, he was hounded by a checker-playing prodigy named Thomas, who kept challenging him to checker matches and then beating him soundly.

"He beat me and beat me until I began to see a little light. He aroused my curiosity for becoming a player," Smith wrote. And soon Buster wasn't losing to anybody.

In the 30’s, when Buster was attending Wendell Phillips High School, he became more serious about the game and began to collect books on the subject. He entered city tournaments in 64-square pool checkers and the so-called "big board," 100-square pool checkers, a more-difficult game that is still quite popular in Russia. Buster played in his first two Chicago tournaments without distinguishing himself, but in 1938, he defeated champion Major McGill and acquired the checkers crown. He never relinquished it.

William Langley, a member of the Detroit American Pool Checker Club, came to Chicago more than 50 years ago to play Buster. "I came north from Columbia, South Carolina," Langley recalls. "Back in South Carolina, my dad had a junk shop that sold old wood and iron, and these guys used to hang around there and play checkers. I started watching these guys beating up on each other, and pretty soon, I put a few games together and these guys couldn't even draw me.

"I moved to Detroit and I played all the top players there, so I came to Chicago looking for Buster. I couldn't find him so he came to Detroit looking for me. I came into my house and my wife said, ‘There's a little man upstairs who wants to play some checkers.’ We wrestled for four or five hours and I couldn't win. We played all day and all night, and I don't think I defeated him once. I quit playing him."

"The best I got from him was a string of draws," says Lorenzo "Oldsmobile Junior" Pickens who started playing against Smith in the 40’s. During the summer, Pickens plays outside under the tree across from Gladys’; and in the winter, you can find him in the back of the shoe repair shop at 47th and Indiana. His nickname distinguishes him from other well-known Chicago players like Pontiac Junior, Cadillac Junior, and Junior Guy.

"He was a boy wonder," said Pickens. "He was a beast, the meanest thing you ever saw on a checkerboard. Everybody who ever beat him talked about it for a long time. Some players would take lucky games from him and they'd be talking about it forever. All the checker players knew who Buster was, and if they didn't know, they soon found out."

"His name was bandied about in the South," says Dr. Ervin Smith, of the Saint Louis American Pool Checker Club. "From as early as I can remember, his name was legendary. I remember hearing about him when I was back in Augusta, Georgia. The word was out."