January 20, 2008 - Burlington The Times News - "Locals jump at chance to revive checkers"


Sam Roberts / Times-News - From left, Bill Stanley, his son Teal Stanley, Mike Ross and J.R. Smith play checkers Thursday at the McDonald’s in Stoney Creek.

        Check out video of the Checkers club     


Fox 8 News Video  (click picture)  


Locals jump at chance to revive checkers

By Isaac Groves / Times-News
January 20, 2008 - 9:01PM
SEDALIA — Checkers seemed to fall by the wayside along with country stores and pickle barrels.

“You don’t see many of those stores anymore,” said Mike Ross, a northern Alamance County man.

Ross started playing checkers in high school. He kept playing, but about 10 years ago, he started playing seriously.

Now he and a group of men get together to play checkers every Thursday at the McDonald’s in the Stoney Creek Village shopping center.

It’s not a country store, but it is at a good middle point between Burlington and Greensboro, so all the players can get to it easily. The group started getting together at the Kernodle Senior Center in Burlington about 10 years ago.

Face-to-face, or cross-board games, as J.R. Smith calls them, are less common than they used to be, but checkers is getting to be more common on the Internet. Smith, Ross and their friend Teal Stanley have all played people from across the country and around the world online.

“There are a lot of good players in Barbados,” Stanley said.

There is a disadvantage to playing online. Sometimes players will turn on a checkers program to play for them, and those are hard to beat. These cheaters are known as “progs.”  “I don’t know why they do it,” Smith said.

These guys actually met online. Ross invited the local players he met on the Internet to play at the Kernodle Senior Center in Burlington. They met there for seven or eight years and then, since many of them live in Greensboro and Guilford County, they decided to split the difference and meet at the McDonald’s in Stoney Creek.

It’s usually eight to 10 men getting together to play on Thursdays. They gather at 5 p.m. and stay “until they throw us out,” Smith said.

So far, McDonald’s doesn’t seem to mind, as long as the players eat something. Smith says if they get many more players, they’ll have to find a new place to play. It doesn’t seem like he would mind. Smith keeps up and since going into semi-retirement a few years ago, he has become kind of a checkers missionary.

“It’s a fascinating game,” Smith said.

There are some strategic basics. Stanley said he likes to take control of the middle of the board. Going to the left corner on the other side of the board is another basic. There are two squares there so it’s easier to get a king, which is a big advantage since you can come up on your opponent’s rear.

Smith used to play chess, but he has found he can make more mistakes playing chess than checkers. Since some chess pieces can go in either direction, if players catch mistakes early, they can do some damage control.

Checkers go in one direction, at least until they reach the other side of the board, called the opponent’s king line. So each move cuts the possible outcomes dramatically, and having one fewer checker than a good opponent is pretty much the end of the game.

“You can’t make a mistake in checkers,” Smith said. “That’s what I think intrigues most checker players, you have to be very exact.”

And some of these guys are very exact.

“You have to remove all the checkers from the board in your mind; you have to visualize” Stanley said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Several of them play in tournaments and Ross plays in the major class while Stanley sometimes plays in the master class. The classes start with minor and go on to major and master. There are also grandmasters like chess.

One of them was Marion Tinsley, a mathematician from Florida who won world championship in 19 different years.

North Carolina had its own grand master. Elbert Lowder, a native of Albemarle, was a world champion through much of the 1990s and dominated North Carolina checkers for more than 30 years. He died in 2006.

Lowder played 11-man and three-move-restriction checkers. This means the players use eight cards with different options for openings. Smith says this somehow translates into 2,500 different openings. By using the cards players start a game off in a way they would not have thought of, often with one of them on the defensive.

“The first three moves decides the kind of game you’re going to play,” Stanley said.
When it’s over they turn the board around and play the other side of the same opening.

This keeps players from playing the same game every time, which makes a big difference for guys like Stanley and Ross who have been playing each other for nearly 10 years. It also cuts down the number of draw games, so checkers doesn’t turn into tic-tac-toe.

There are still a lot of draws. Stanley and Ross will play eight draws out of 10 games some nights.

The boards the club uses are also unfamiliar to those who haven’t played checkers since they were kids. Tournament boards are green and white because it’s easier on the eyes.

“A black checker on a black square is hard to see,” Ross said.

And that’s tough when you spend hours studying the board.