The men of the Capitol Pool Checkers Club move through life together

By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; C01

Clack. Clack. Clack.

White jumps black.

"Crown me, mister! Just crown me! You don't have a move on the board."

"Put him down. I put him there for a reason, for a season."

"You talkin' way, way, way much too much trash!"

"This is checkers, man! This ain't no damn chess!"

It's a Tuesday evening at the Capitol Pool Checkers Club, at Ninth and S streets NW, and outside the air is cool, cold and gentrified. Inside, nothing much has changed since the '80s. The yellowing tiles of a linoleum floor still yellowing. Wood paneling still buckling. Refrigerator singing. Scent of intensity.

Six checkerboards and 24 men. Their shoulders curled, hovering over a game that mesmerizes them. Brings them out nearly every evening like a sweet addiction. The coolness of a checker in hand. The flatness of the board that rises before them like an empire.

The checkers club is a throwback to the days when men gathered across class and income lines to compete and play the dozens. No women around -- fussing, nagging -- to mess with the mind. Just men and their conversations and games in a competition that will go down to the wire, way past midnight.

"Man, what kind of checkers are you playing?"

"You don't have a move on the board, mister. Not one have you got."

Slap. There goes a flying king.

Slam! "What's that? I can't hear you."

Here comes Fletcher Clark. He is 80, been playing checkers 50 of them. They call him "the Champ" -- all the men have nicknames here -- because "I be spanking their butts," Clark says. He credits the game with "keeping me -- what's that word? Vibrant."

He sits down near a table, back against the paneled wall. "We really talk trash here," he says. "If you've got a guy in trouble, you talk all the trash you can." Clark plays checkers whenever he pleases. He gets in his car, drives from his home in Baltimore to the club, where men have been coming for more than 25 years in this rented storefront, and each pays $30 a month in dues. Sometimes, he says, his wife grumbles: " 'You shouldn't go over there,' she says. 'You should stay home.' "

"I don't say anything," Clark says, hands on his knees. Black Kangol cap. Gray beard. "I just get in my car and go. I wear the pants."

You get the sense he might not say that at home.

But then this is a man's domain. Not necessary to explain. The club, a member of the American Pool Checkers Association, was started in 1980 in Barnard's Barbershop at the corner of Seventh and S streets NW. The club grew and moved to the storefront in Shaw where dues pay the rent.

* * *

Most come here for deeper reasons: To get out of the house. Keep the mind agile. Wisdom. One young man weighing a proposition from a drug dealer came seeking advice. Thirty years later, the man sits at the checkers table, grateful he came here first and men older than he told him: Do the right thing.

Stories flow between moves, stories of overcoming racism and making up for disparate education in segregated schools down South.

It's a place where black men arrive for a battle of minds and nobody tells them what they can and can't do because their skin is brown. No concern that if they look the wrong way, say the wrong thing, don't hold back enough pride, somebody will demean them.

The club is documented in the recently published book "Crown Me!" In the book, Peggy Fleming does a Zora Neale Hurston, capturing folklore. It's street anthropology, a study of a people and their wisdom, documenting intelligence not determined by a degree, showing that a janitor can step toe-to-toe with a chemist. It's what many people in the black community have known for a long time: A degree may not make him the smartest man in the room.

Fleming sought out the checkers players as part of her classwork in documentary film at American University. But as she filmed, she found herself learning from them. In the process of study, Fleming, who is of Italian and Irish ancestry, crossed what W.E.B. Du Bois called the color line.

"Each man expressed himself so beautifully and uniquely, and I transcribed all the tapes and I typed every word," she says. During the course of three years, she went to the club on Saturday afternoons with her camera.

"This book and relationship has been a little step forward in not making assumptions," she says. " 'Building a bridge' is too big a word. Sometimes, when I was working on this, people criticized that I wasn't being hard and tough and asking big questions and getting into race relations. But I feel the result is good."

In the club, assumptions are shattered.

In here, occupations and job titles mean absolutely nothing.

The best checker player ever, bar none, is a janitor. His name is Freddie Owens, 67, but they call him "the Hawk" because he sees everything on the board, can determine a man's potential moves up to five moves in advance. "Brilliant." Never talks trash. Milky gray eyes. Square jaw. Just humble.

The Hawk started playing 50 years ago. Mostly he taught himself to play, studying the game. "I see so much on the board, they started calling me the Hawk," he says. And he is not bragging. Just stating fact.

He lives in Baltimore. Works as a janitor at a plant that makes foam rubber. He works the 7 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shift. But that doesn't define him. Here, his brilliance is legendary.

* * *

Clack, clack, clack. Red jumps white. The whisper of a checker piece being pushed across the board, the sound of certainty, triumph. But one man's superiority in this game can slip away in the next.

Talmadge Roberts, 79, a chemist, stockbroker and the club's president, opens an old refrigerator and takes out a cold one. He presides over the club with pride. "I see checkers as a blueprint for life," Roberts says. "Anything you do in life requires a little planning and strategy, because if you make an error or a mistake, it's not the end of the world. The blueprint of life consists of the same strategy we use in a checker game. You make the wrong moves and you are headed for disaster. You make the right moves and you are open for all possibility."

They call him "the Razor," he says, "because I give close shaves. It's a pleasure. When I play checkers, I'm like a skilled surgeon. I can put a man out and embarrass him. That is what you can do when you are the Razor." He laughs.

Pernell Lee, 74, retired contractor, comes to the club almost every day. "Sometimes to get away from home. To be with other men. Talk, joke and play checkers. When the telephone rings here, you will have two or three men saying, 'If that's for me, I'm not here.' "

They call Lee "the Butt Kicker." "I don't take any prisoners," he says. "I strike for the jugular."

And so here it is on a Saturday night. Gladiators of checkers have come to compete, a fan beating the stifling air.

They call Johnnie Coleman, 55, "Johnnie Cool and Snatch," because "I'm a base stealer in checkers," he says. "Steal other men's checkers."

Charles Covington, 69, a master jazz instructor at Howard University, comes here to keep his game sharp.

Tony Simuel, whom they call "the Hammer," prefers checkers to chess: "In chess you can't talk. People get upset. In here, you can express your feelings while you are playing. When I play checkers, it is like pounding nails."

Here comes "Pressure Man." That would be Donald Cunningham, 63, of District Heights. They call him Pressure Man because "I apply so much pressure, the guy sitting on the other side of the table gets headaches."

He sees them stumped, then yells jokingly for somebody to help them: "Is there a doctor in the house?"

If the man takes a while longer to make the move, Pressure Man yells: "I said call 9-1-1. This man needs help."

His strategy: "Always keep my men tight. I try not to leave openings. I talk to my opponent to throw his mind off."

"Now where you going to move this checker? You in trouble now. You surrounded. Might as well give up."

* * *

There are a few members who don't talk much, but sit quietly behind the board. "When I play someone and I beat them, I want to beat them at their best. I don't like to make anyone feel small. I like thinking that when I get up from the table, no one can tell whether I won or lost," says Oliver Griffin, 76, a retired Pentagon mathematician. "I don't brag about winning, and I don't get mad if I lose."

Thomas Franklin Webber, 56, is not known for his soft voice. "When I know I got him, I holler, 'Come here, John!' It's like an old saying. You've got caught in the alligator's grip. And you can't get out."

Gabe Curtis Brothers, 58, whom they call simply "Brothers," dreams of checkers. "Plenty of times my wife wakes me up," he says in the book. "She said sometimes I be telling people, 'Your move!' "

History is told between moves.

They call James B. Dixon, 83, "the Kid." He grew up in "separate but equal North Carolina. I left as soon as I got a chance," Dixon says. "It was rough back then. They would tell you, 'You better behave or we tell the Klu Klux Klan on you.' "

John Curtis, 70, they call "the Shark" because "when they hit deep water, you got to have a route picked out. That means you're in trouble." He was raised in Warrenton. Started playing checkers in New York, where his father played in Harlem. "I was selling Jet magazine for 15 cents. Sugar Ray had his purple Cadillac. On the door, it said 'Sugar.' He'd give me a dollar for a Jet, Daily News and Amsterdam News. Him and Joe Louis."

Stevan Davis, 44, has the handle: "Never give up." "I love coming up here to play. The older guys have that knowledge and wisdom. You learn a lot from their patience. "

Kids, nowadays, don't know about simplicity. About games that don't move unless you physically move them. About analyzing your opponent, understanding his strengths and capitalizing on his weakness. "We sit here for hours," Webber says, "and it don't cost you no more than a dollar and your time."

About 20 years ago, Webber had a problem. He had another baby on the way. He panicked. Needed money. The men in a notorious drug organization offered him a deal too good not to take, more than a $1,000 a week. Wouldn't take much work. Webber came to the club with his dilemma. "A lot of them told me you don't have to do it," he recalls. "The law of average can tell you when someone 60, someone 75, someone 40 tell you no, no is what you should do."

The glamour of the streets vs. the simplicity of checkers and workingmen.

The risk of death or jail vs. the risk of losing a game or a draw.

The certainty of fast money vs. the certainty that every Saturday night, men will come here to congregate, talk some stuff, push the checkers across the board. You might lose or for a few minutes you might be crowned king, with the ability to jump forward and backward and all the way across the board. A flying king.

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