Thwack. Special K slams a red game piece down on a green square within threatening distance of his opponent’s yellow disk. Z Man stares at him, then down at the checkers board, then back at Special K. His expression flickers between incredulity and amusement. “Are you Miss Cleo, or Miss Cleo’s husband?” Z Man taunts, invoking the TV psychic. “Call me now!”
Special K (real name Louis Kelley) waits silently for Z Man to complete his turn. Every move matters, every calculation counts. Z Man slides his piece onto a nearby space that, several analytical decisions later, forces the men to declare a draw. “Nobody wins if nobody makes a mistake,” says Z Man, a.k.a. Robert Mackey.
And yet, the prospect of a miscalculation is what keeps the members of the Capital Pool Checkers Club glued to the table hour after hour, night after night, year after year. If your biggest checkers win was against Grandma over summer vacation, you probably won’t fare well at this club, which opened in 1982 in a former shoe repair shop in Shaw. The 20 regulars, who pay $75 a month for the privilege of accessing the faded one-room space, specialize in American pool checkers, more competitive — and complicated — than straight checkers. And these are no “hams,” serious players’ term for folks who enjoy the game but don’t perform well; nearly half the members compete on a national level. “I play for fun,” says Talmadge “Tal” Roberts, the 87-year-old club president, whose nom de game is the Razor. “I also play for money and trophies and status and bragging rights.”
But how much longer will he be able to do that in the era of video games and smartphones? At its peak, the club claimed 60 members, many of whom were still working as mathematicians, physicists, stockbrokers and the like. Today, many of the mostly African American regulars are retired, and middle age is a milepost fading in the rearview mirror. Recruits are hard to find. “We’ve become an endangered species,” Roberts admits.
The club is also scrambling to keep up with rising costs in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Rent for the space has soared to $1,500 a month, driving up membership dues. In 2016, a fundraiser helped pay for building repairs, but problems with the pipes and heat continue to crop up.
To counter declining interest and attract the young, members lead an after-school checkers program at Garrison Elementary School and demonstrate their skills at a nearby public library. They also pull out their boards at local events, such as celebrations of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. “Playing is one part of it, and keeping the game alive is another part of it,” says Roberts. “If we don’t do something now, long-term we are not going to be around.”
The origins of American pool checkers are a little murky, though some trace it back to the slavery era, when French and Spanish colonists brought a similar game — different from English draughts, the forerunner of straight checkers — to the New World. It has a long history in African American communities, where its rules and traditions were passed down orally.
A first-time observer might be puzzled by those rules and blurt out: “Can they do that?” Yes, competitors can jump backward to nab a piece. They can glide their kings diagonally like a bishop in chess, gobbling up rival chips along the way. And they can force you to take their piece even though you know it’s a setup. “Our strategies and tactics are identical to those in chess. You have to map out routes in your head,” Roberts says, as one member traces the future steps of a game with his finger. Z Man, meanwhile, utters his aloud. “If I move here, he moves there, and I go there and he goes there, and I lose the game,” mutters the septuagenarian, who earned his nickname for the way he zigs and zags across the board. “That is not worth it.”
Most of the members grew up playing under the tutelage of a ruthless relative. “My dad was very aggressive,” says Tilman Johnson, a 42-year-old Pentagon employee originally from Georgia. “I started beating friends, but not him.” (He finally vanquished his dad at age 13.) They practiced in barber shops and coffee joints or on street corners, cobbling together playing materials: a square of cardboard, bottle caps for the pieces, milk crates for seats.
Now, the clubsters sit in proper chairs, albeit mismatched, arrayed around three tables outfitted with two boards apiece. On this Saturday night in December, someone has sprung for a bucket of fried chicken. Z Man mixes up Sprite and Smirnoff cocktails. Hip-hop music streams from a dusty radio. Two space heaters pump out warmth. The energy in the room is contagious — and deluding: I decide to challenge Roberts to a game. We sit down and I immediately lose two rounds. “Your position is based on faulty reasoning,” he says. “You are building a house on a marsh.”
In the third game, I snag three of his pieces. “I may win the game, but for the time being, you have a very good advantage,” he says. Then it all comes crashing down. But for a fleeting moment, this ham had the edge over the Razor.
Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post staff writer.