The Legend of Buster Smith

by Adam Langer, Chicago "Reader", February 12, 1993
Part 4 - January 1, 2005

Buster Smith served in Okinawa during World War II and won a couple of Victory medals. He came back to Chicago and took a job at the main post office as a night mail clerk. It was the job he held until he retired in 1986.

One of the best-known players of the 1940’s was Clyde "Kingrow" Black of New York, also a renowned historian of the game.
Black beat Smith in the first match they played. But when Buster Smith returned to New York City in 1947, he defeated Black 14 games to 4. In his scrapbook, Smith called it one of the most memorable matches of his life.

"Black beat Buster, and he put out a book on checkers," says Oldsmobile Junior Pickens. "When Buster came back, he had to write Book two."

Buster Smith claimed that between 1954 and 1963, he didn't lose a single match. In 1965, when the first championship of the American Pool Checker Association was held in Detroit, Smith became the national champ. And it was about this time that he started receiving international attention.

Smith was invited to take part, all expenses paid, in tournaments in Italy and the Netherlands. Stories in Amsterdam newspapers from the time indicate that Smith was regarded as something of a curiosity: the only American participating in these tournaments, and with no formal training, Smith was able to beat international grand masters.

One reporter, who followed him to his hotel room, described in detail Smith's fascination with Agatha Christie, cops-and-robbers movies, and Coca-Cola. Another wrote that "The U.S., which is still seen through the eyes of checker players as an undeveloped country, will soon have its fight for the top in the near future. The play of Carl Smith has left no doubt about this."

Although Smith never won an international tournament, he finished in the top five on several occasions. He also played well against Iser Kuperman and Vladimir Kaplan, two of the greatest Soviet players of all time, both of whom were trained practically from birth to do nothing but play checkers. Both have since moved to the United States.

In the 60’s, Smith received a plaque from Charles de Gaulle honoring him as an international grand master.

In 1968, Smith accepted the first of several invitations he would receive to play in the Soviet Union. During trips to Moscow and Samarkand, newspapers compared him to American chess master Bobby Fisher though he was certainly less eccentric and far more polite. He talked little about his travels to his friends. He did remark that he felt better treated abroad than he did in his own country and that his talents were better appreciated there.

To be continued...