The Legend of Buster Smith

by Adam Langer, Chicago "Reader", February 12, 1993
Part 6 - February 1, 2005

"Last year I got to watch Buster play," says Ervin Smith. "And he was playing with more aggressiveness than I had ever seen. When Buster beat Kuperman in L.A., it was like watching Schwarzkopf against Hussein. He was like a forward-marching machine. He was going with abandon, playing the whole game on the opponent's side of the board.

"You get people talking spiritually about how he was playing. I never saw him playing with that aggressiveness before. You talk about premonitions of death. He was just overpowering guys over the last two years. You think people start losing their mental ability when they get older. Nobody got a chance to say that about Buster. Buster, to the very end, seemed to be playing better than he had in 20 years".

"I think before he died, Buster discovered the science of checkers," says Smith. "There must have been a science to it. I don't know if he left any secret papers, but I think that maybe Buster, without writing anything down, came close to mastering the science of the game. That's what I like to think anyway."

"Buster's game may have dropped, but we wouldn't have known it," says Fred Schurn. "We wouldn't know it because he was so damned far ahead of us anyway."

Buster Smith successfully fought colon cancer in the 80’s, but he missed a couple of tournaments because of it. On the day he died in October, Smith was taking a friend to the hospital for her radiation treatment. On the bus ride over, he complained of headaches. Later that day, he passed away in his apartment on West Fulton Street in a room filled with books about checkers and dozens of trophies.

Everyone who talks about Smith says pretty much the same thing. He was the quietest guy they ever knew, the most unassuming. He didn't need to brag about his accomplishments; everyone knew he was the best. He never smoked, never took a drink, never drove a car. He lived alone because, he said, he liked his peace of mind. He was seldom angry and he was gifted with extraordinary patience. He never got married and, though he won tons of tournaments, he said he never made more than $5,000 from checkers in his whole life.

"He was just so quiet," says Ervin Smith. "If you went into the checker hall, he was the last person you'd think to go and play. Lots of players are loudmouths. They say, "You can't whup me!" Buster was the opposite of that."

"He worked at the post office, and it has been said that he would sit at his little cubicle and he would work there for eight hours and never open his mouth," says Carl Prince. "He was an extremely humble person. He didn't talk a lot. You had to solicit information from him. If Buster were a politician and you rated him on a scale from one to ten, he would rate a minus five, because he was not a vain person. He was not a braggadocio person. If I could have played the kind of checkers he played, you'd be lucky if I let you walk on the same street as me. I would make you get out of my way."

To be continued.....