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Dwindling Club Dreads Next Move

Shaw Area Transforms Around Pool Checkers Devotees

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page B01

Behind the steel bars and the scuffed front door, Pressureman pondered Tony the Hammer's latest move as if trying to solve a mystery. A seat away, Rabbit captured one of Slasher's pieces, while the King of Hams taunted Stevan Hayes, the only player in the room without a nickname.

"I never back off nobody!" shouted the King, otherwise known as Charles Johnson, 60, a retired security guard.

Tal Roberts, left, president of the Capitol Pool Checkers Association, and Jeff Thompson joke at their clubhouse on S Street NW, in Shaw. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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Playing to Keep a Tradition Alive

Their game is pool checkers, a variation on checkers that devotees said has been a staple of black culture since slavery, played on farms and in barbershops, back alleys and clubhouses like this one -- a rumpled, one-room storefront on S Street NW in the Shaw neighborhood.

No matter the complaints from wives and girlfriends, the members of the Capitol Pool Checkers Association, as they named the club 21 years ago, have devoted countless hours to the game. Nothing stops them. Ten years ago, robbers burst in and shot up the joint. The men were in their seats the next day.

But their game, they know, is dying. The club's bulletin boards are lined with snapshots of members who no longer show up because they're too old to travel or they're dead. They knew each other as Moo-Moo and Preacher and Dog, whose own devotion to the game inspired his family to place a checkerboard in his coffin.

These days, the club is down to 31 members, and just half have paid their $30-a-month dues this year. The younger generation is not interested in joining, members said, and neither are the people moving in, professionals buying the rowhouses and condominiums that are selling on virtually every other block.

"We're begging right now. We're on our knees. We need members," said Danny "the 800-Pound Gorilla" Lowe, 58, a contract painter and a regular for two decades.

The game is played with 24 pieces on a 64-square board. Players can move a single piece forward and, unlike straight checkers, capture backward. A king also has more latitude in pool checkers, able to jump over more than one open square and in any direction.

The game's origin is unclear, but Ervin Smith, president of the American Pool Checker Association, said he believes it became part of black culture during slavery. "There are some references to checkers in slave narratives," he said, adding that the game eventually spread across the rural South.

"It was cheap to play," said Smith, 55, a professor of Christian ethics at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio. "People could make their own checkerboards. People played it with bottle tops that came off Coca-Colas."

For generations, he said, players convened on street corners and in barbershops in such cities as New York and Atlanta and the District. The national association was founded in Detroit in 1967, he said, "to make it more respectable."

Now, the association's membership, at one time 16 to 20 clubs, has dwindled to as few as 10. "Most of us are getting old," Smith said, adding that younger generations would "rather be in the gym trying to become Michael Jordan."

David Hill, 89, was a teenager when he began playing at a barbershop in Asheville, N.C. After he moved to the District in 1935 to look for construction work, he discovered that his hometown barber had opened a place on Seventh Street in Shaw where he could always find men playing.

The club was based in a storefront on Seventh Street for a decade before the block was demolished as part of urban renewal. Four members formed a new association and leased the current headquarters on S Street near Ninth Street.

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