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‘We’re losing a piece of our history’

The checkers club is closing after nearly 40 years

‘We’re losing a piece of our history’

The checkers club is closing after nearly 40 years
A match in progress at the Capital Pool Checkers Association in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

The clocks on the walls no longer work, the furnace is busted, and the only window is covered with a thick sheet of plywood.

Not to worry: No one ever went to the Capital Pool Checkers Association for the decor.

With mismatched chairs, scuffed tables and fluorescent lighting, the club’s hole-in-the-wall headquarters in Northwest Washington has functioned as a second living room for generations of checkers players, many now dead and immortalized in a splash of photos on the wall.

But now the property near the corner of Ninth and S streets NW is being sold, and the landlord ordered the club’s dwindling membership to vacate Saturday.

Unless they find a new home — and they are looking — the members, virtually all Black men, appear to have run out of moves in a city that no longer resembles the sleepy town many migrated to long ago.

“It’s a sad day in River City,” club president Talmadge Roberts, 90, said in a rich baritone as he sipped a beer between matches the other day. “This has been our lives. We’re losing a piece of our history.”

Members of the Capital Pool Checkers Association focused on their game on a day in 2005. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Club members gather earlier this month in Washington. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Members of the Capital Pool Checkers Association focused on their game on a day in 2005. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Club members gather earlier this month in Washington. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

Since the early 1980s, the club has been the place where members — cabdrivers, janitors, truckers, car salesmen and musicians among them — could escape the demands of work, wives and children and indulge in a pastime many learned growing up in the South.

“No gambling or loud profanity,” reads Paragraph 4, Subsection D, of the club’s bylaws, a sheet of yellowing, torn paper tacked to a bulletin board that no one appears to consult with any regularity.

The requirement that dues, now $75 a month, be paid on time also is often unheeded by the membership, which has declined from 60 in the peak years to about 20.

At 93, Spencer Taylor is the oldest member. He showed up to play the other day, along with a dozen or so others. Most wore masks, as required during the coronavirus pandemic, lowering them now and then to eat, drink and talk.

“You can’t win playing me,” Taylor told his opponent, an 84-year-old named John Henry Self.

Taylor’s fervor is well-known among members. Once, after he had stayed out all night, his wife drove to the club, where she found him gambling as he played a set of games that had begun 15 hours earlier.

As with many tales told at the club, the details of what transpired when Otis Taylor burst in can feel like folklore a blurry 20 years later.

But everyone agrees that Mrs. Taylor flipped over the board and delivered a profanity-infused command that her husband follow her home.

He obeyed, though it was not long before he returned.

A tattered copy of the association’s bylaws is posted on the wall. (Paul Schwartzman/The Washington Post)

“Maybe a day or two,” said Taylor, who leads the Highway Q.C.’s, a gospel group, when he isn’t playing checkers. “My wife calmed down. She was happy I was there and not at a nightclub trying to catch something.”

The club’s main wall is covered with dozens of photographs, a preponderance showing members, past and present. Most had earned the club’s version of an honorific — nicknames bestowed whenever inspiration strikes.

“Like an epiphany,” said Roberts, who calls himself “The Razor” for cutting opponents with what he describes as “the manual dexterity of a surgeon.”

“You look at a guy, and suddenly a name will pop into your head,” he said.

Here are photos of Frank “Duck Walker” James and Pat “Red Devil” Forrester. And here was Royster Dempsey — or “Bad News” when he was making life miserable for his checkers-playing brethren.

Photographs of the club’s members through the ages are displayed at its headquarters. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

There was “The Duke of Earl,” “The Stealer” and “The Hawk,” the latter conferred on Freddie Owens, a now-deceased janitor from Baltimore who is considered the club’s best all-time player because he could visualize five or more moves ahead.

“This wall is full of corpses,” said Robert “Z Man” Mackey, 74, a retired trucker, as he looked at the display. “It’s top checkers players, it’s jive talkers, it’s teachers and it’s hams.”

A “ham,” in the parlance of the club, refers to a rookie learning the game, a variation on straight checkers, with pieces that can travel backward to make a capture, and kings that can move in any direction on a diagonal and jump more than one square.

Checkers has always been the club’s primary mission, though members acknowledge other amenities, like the occasional game of cards and a healthy supply of beer and liquor. Once they listened to Stevie Wonder and the Temptations on a record player no one has bothered to throw out. Now they stream their music on smart devices, a rare bow to modernity.

There is also the banter, thick with hyperbole and bravado, and threats as empty as the Grand Canyon.

“Most of them trophies belong to me,” Curtis “Hard Rock” Brothers, 68, a retired driver at the Pentagon, announced, gesturing toward a display in the corner.

“Yeah, he bought ‘em at a swap meet,” Mackey replied just before they sat for a match.

“Don’t try to pressure me,” Brothers warned as they played. “I’ll hit you in the head with an ax.”

Association President Talmadge Roberts, 90, rings the bell March 6 after defeating his opponent. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
Trophies on display at the Capital Pool Checkers Association. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Association President Talmadge Roberts, 90, rings the bell March 6 after defeating his opponent. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Trophies on display at the Capital Pool Checkers Association. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

‘The soul of this city’

Maurice Jackson, a Georgetown University professor who teaches a course on D.C. history, likes to take his students on walks around the city. The tour inevitably includes landmarks such as the African American Civil War Museum and Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW.

About a decade ago, after a friend published a photography book about the checkers players, Jackson took his students to visit. He invited the players to his classroom and appeared with them when the photographer, Peggy Fleming, presented a short film about them at the Library of Congress.

“I wanted to introduce my students to an essential part of what Black life is like — a part that they don’t know, even the Black kids,” the professor said. “When you walk in there, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living. You put away all pretensions. The club represents, first and foremost, brotherhood, guys getting together.”

The club’s demise, he said, represents more than just the loss of a place most Washingtonians would pass without noticing.

“You’re losing the soul of this city, and it’s been happening for years and years,” said Jackson, a former chair of the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs. “As you move African Americans out, you lose the culture and you lose the flavor. The more D.C. gentrifies, where can you go?”

Robert Mackey, 74, plays checkers earlier this month. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

The men originally leased their S Street headquarters for $50 a month from Ernest Smith, a cabdriver who was a club member before he was killed in 1999.

Smith’s family was lenient when the club fell behind on its rent, which is now $700 a month. They allowed the club to stay even as Shaw became an epicenter of the transformation that has overtaken D.C., with new luxury condos, million-dollar rowhouses and fine dining.

But over the past year, the pandemic made it impossible to lease several vacant storefronts that are also part of the property, adding to the financial losses.

“My back is against the wall,” said Jackie Foster, Smith’s daughter. “I hate to see them go. This is not something we wanted to do, but covid has forced our hand.”

In recent days, as word of the club’s plight spread, a member created a GoFundMe page that had raised $9,100 from 195 donors as of Friday morning. A leasing agent got in touch about a vacant 1,600-square-foot space near a Metro stop in the Petworth neighborhood.

The rent: $7,800 a month.

Roberts talks on the phone earlier this month at the club headquarters. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

A final few games

Before they opened on S Street NW, many of the club members would gather at a nearby barbershop, as was the custom in other parts of the city.

“People were playing before and after they got their haircuts,” Roberts recalled. “Bernard the barber — he was playing, too. That was one of the incentives of going to him.”

Donald “The Pressureman” Cunningham, 74, a maintenance supervisor, learned to play from his mother while growing up at the Barry Farm public housing complex in Southeast Washington. He graduated to playing more experienced men on a Florida Avenue NW street corner, until he learned about the club in the early 1990s.

“A gentleman was watching me play and he told me about this place where the experts were,” Cunningham said. “When I first got here, I couldn’t win a game. As time went on, I learned, and I won more than I lost.”

“When I get off work, I get home and take a shower,” he said. “Then I come down here and relax my mind. It’s joyful being with the fellas.”

He compared the club’s closing to “losing my best pal.”

Taylor learned the game in the 1930s in Mississippi. His father, a farmer, taught him on a makeshift board with pieces that were bottle tops. He found new opponents when he moved to Chicago and then the District, where the club became his retreat for 40 years.

No longer able to drive, Taylor was dropped off by his son earlier this month, when the men gathered for a final photograph in front of their building’s sign — a red-and-white-painted checkerboard — and a few more games outside in the sun.

A man who calls himself “Toby Dick” — the self-proclaimed brother of Moby Dick — was facing “Boy Wonder.”

“I got a hot meal in front of me,” Toby Dick announced as he eyed his foe’s pieces.

A seat over, Taylor told his opponent: “You don’t know more than me! You don’t know how to play!”

His game ended in a draw, but neither player was leaving. They wanted a rematch, while there was still time.

Members of the Capital Pool Checkers Association sit for a photo outside the club on S Street NW, which they must vacate by Saturday. (Paul Schwartzman/The Washington Post)

Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design by Emily Sabens.

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