The Legend of Buster Smith

by Adam Langer, Chicago "Reader", February 12, 1993
Part 7 - February 15, 2005

"He said nothing when you were playing him," says Mose Johnson. "When you were through, he’d always shake your hand, but he never said nothing but smile."

"Buster's uniqueness was that even when he was playing a person like me, Buster would sit at the table with you and an outsider would come around and the outsider would think you were a top checker player because he took the same amount of time with you as he did with everybody else," says Prince.

He gave you the same amount of respect he gave every player," says Schurn. "There's a joke going around that Buster was playing a little boy and the little boy was like five years old. Now Buster was playing in Russia and everywhere else and he's playing this little boy and the little boy made a move and Buster was looking at it for like five minutes."

"Everyone was saying, ‘Buster, he's just a little bitty boy. What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t know what he knows.’ He respected everybody and that's true and that's why I liked to play him even though there was no way in the world I could ever beat him. He played me the same as he’d play anyone else. And that's where you can learn. Sometimes I’d make a move and he’d say, ‘Well, you could have done this and this and this.’ And I wouldn't have seen any of it. He gave everybody the same amount of respect and then he’d beat you."

"Last time I played him was on a train," says Charles "Pecan" Thompson, a long-time member of the Chicago American Pool Checker Club. "We were taking the City of New Orleans and we played all night on it. We pulled out of the station in Jackson, Mississippi, and when we stopped playing, we were pulling into Union Station. The train takes about 14 hours, but we were so into the game that we didn’t realize the time. I finally wound up winning a couple, but the score was 18-2."

"There were games I thought I’d won and he’d pull a draw out of it. Then, he’d set it up and show me how he did it. He’d show me all the finer points. He didn’t try to hold anything back. He was the type who would share his knowledge with you if you had the patience or the time to sit and listen to what he had to say. Most people didn’t."

"Everybody who played him learned a lot," said Lorenzo Pickens. "You never heard Buster doing a whole lot of talking. Once in a while, he’d chide you for making a bad move, tell you what you could have done but you couldn’t anymore. He could sit at a table for hours and not get tired. He’d get so bad that you’d be scared to play him."

Among the letters and newspaper clippings Smith collected over the years, there is a letter from a well-known checker player named Little George Ramsey written in 1962.

"Tell me," the letter says, "don’t you have any serious matches anymore? Doesn’t any top player from other cities come over to give you a serious workout? Am I the only one? How can you play so long without eating? I was so hungry I was almost sick to my stomach when I quit playing you. You guys act like mechanical men. The next time I play you, I am quitting after 6 hours and eat."

At the bottom of the letter, Smith has written simply, "Smith-4 Ramsey-0."

"I recall he played Ohio Mitchell once, and Buster beat him five-nothing," says Schurn. "Ohio was a boisterous bully-type guy. After he lost, he went across the street, got something to eat, and came back. He knew Buster was better, but he said ‘You beat me 5-0, but put some money down, goddamn it. You can't beat me then. I can't play no fun checkers.’ Buster was a very mild guy. He said "I’ll play you," real quiet.

"They had been playing before and he had beaten this guy and they’d play a couple and then they’d draw a couple, but when they put that money down, Buster wouldn’t let him draw one. He didn’t let him draw one when they put that money down. Buster didn’t like the fact that Ohio had gotten loud and boisterous with him. He beat him every game. That’s the way Buster was. I never saw checkers like that. Buster beat him with a game and I begged him for two weeks to show me. He never did. Later I found it in a book of Russian games. It was a vicious shot, the same shot he shot Ohio with-vicious."

"Buster was not a fighter. He did all his fighting on the board," says William Langley. "When I traveled with him to Italy in 1967 to see him play, he had one of the Russians beat, but the Russian asked Smith to give him a draw and Smith said, ‘All right, I’ll give you a draw’ even though he had the game won. The Russian knew it. That’s why he was begging for a draw. I practically cried, ‘Buster you could’ve beaten this guy."

Some say Smith had a photographic memory. Others say he had mastered a sort of mental telepathy. Most say that it was an indefatigable ability to analyze and memorize that gave him such success. And, though he didn’t show it, he hated to lose, and he’d replay games he had lost until he figured out a way to win.

"I can sit down and figure out my moves one or two moves ahead," says Eddie Smith, a retired electrician and member of the pool checker club here in Chicago. "He could see 20 moves ahead. He remembered games he played 20 years ago. How are you going to beat someone with a memory like that?"

(The Final Series)

Thanks to all, for your attention.