Today: July 28, 2007 at 8:3:46 PDT

There's a new king of checkers, crowned in downtown Vegas

By Rob Miech
Las Vegas Sun


American Checker Federation championships

1. Lubabalo Kondlo, South Africa, $2,400
2. John Webster, Stoneville, N.C., $1,830
3. Shane McCosker, Northern Ireland, $1,350
4. Gene Lindsay, Morristown, Tenn., $915
5. Richard Beckwith, Willoughby, Ohio, $545


The rising challenger always sleeps with his son, Odwa, and two other relatives in the same bed. More than 20 family members cram into the small home in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Some of those aunts and uncles sleep on the concrete kitchen floor. They share an outhouse with neighbors.

When his richer pupils can afford it, Lubabalo Kondlo earns the equivalent of $3 per checkers lesson.

Ron "Suki" King earns $40,000 a year by teaching the game in university classrooms in Barbados and $15,000 by tutoring prison inmates. A statue of him stands in front of the grade school he attended.

The former world champion was given 12,000 square feet of land, on which he will build a checkers-themed house, by Barbados government officials.

Sponsorship deals enable him and his wife to drive Suzuki and Mitsubishi vehicles.

In many ways, the two checkers players clashed late Thursday afternoon when they met in Round 11 of the American Checker Federation (ACF) championships in the Plaza showroom.

The challenger

Kondlo, 35, writes four postcards during a Thursday break.

Two are addressed to siblings, one to his girlfriend and a big one, with the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign on the front, will go to Victor Niederhoffer in New York.

Niederhoffer, son of the late philanthropist Arthur Niederhoffer, sponsored Kondlo's first trip outside South Africa.

ACF President Alan Millhone's letters to the South African government were instrumental in allowing Kondlo to receive a visa to play in his first major international checkers tournament.

"The government couldn't believe someone wanted to leave to play checkers," Millhone says. "I explained it, and I think they saw that our Web site was legitimate."

Kondlo honed his game in grade school, by spending his lunch money on a pack of cigarettes, which he exchanged for lessons from teacher Lulama Gweshu.

Jimboys Mqotsi, the president of the Vulindlela Draughts Club - draughts is the British version of checkers - took over when Kondlo was 9 by bringing the lad to the club.

"He saw something," Kondlo says.

Kondlo displays patience, discipline and foresight in earning a victory and draw in his two games against Dr. Richard Beckwith, who says, "Oh, no!" the moment after making a mistake in the defeat.

"God is on my side today," Kondlo says.

"I had him, too, and he slipped right out of it!" says 20-year-old Paul Bryan, a victim of Kondlo's earlier Thursday. "I had the most brilliant win."

Kondlo often wipes his brow with a dark handkerchief. He can tell many opponents, such as Beckwith, are computer-savvy, able to store and replay infinite games, at various speeds, on systems at home.

Kondlo relies on a library of books. He says he used a strategy from 1847 to defeat Beckwith.

A 60-year-old man with a Southern drawl happens to hear Kondlo describe his living conditions in Port Elizabeth.

"I have a 4,000 - square-foot home with three full bathrooms," the older man says. "Makes me feel for you. I'm sorry."

Kondlo doesn't react.

He savors all the exotic dishes at the Plaza buffet, where he dines nightly. Ice cream, available to him and his family in Port Elizabeth only on Christmas, is a delicacy.

He can't believe he can leave dirty towels in his room in the morning, then find clean ones on his return.

"And there's a TV in there ... total luxury," Kondlo says, laughing. "I wish I could take that room back home with me. 'Hey, where's Room 20? That guy must have taken it home with him!' "

The king

King, 49, is weary. He misses three flights from Barbados, which delays his arrival at the tournament until Round 5. He can't make up those lost games but nearly catches the leaders.

He looks like Caribbean royalty , from his white sandals to gold-trimmed white pants, long-sleeve shirt and kofia, or cap, to impress potential sponsors.

"When I talk to business people, I tell them I am King Suki, not Ron King," he says. "I portray that I am a king. When you have a king, you have to give him what he wants. Right? Works all the time."

King, the reigning Go As You Please, or standard checkers, world champion, is the only man to play in 11 world title matches, and he was awarded the Barbados Service Star, his country's highest civilian national honor, in 1992.

In 1998 he defeated 385 opponents in Houston simultaneously, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. He hasn't lost a game in Barbados in 26 years.

He gets much pleasure from his work in prisons.

"It helps them think and calculate," King says, "look at life differently."

Because he likes to trash-talk, some call him the Muhammad Ali of checkers. But his weariness kept that to a minimum at the Plaza.

Against one foe, however, he left to survey games around the whole red-draped and red-carpeted showroom.

Against Kondlo, he shows up 13 minutes late with a bottle of cranberry juice in a white plastic bag.

The match

Kondlo seethes as he walks around the Plaza, looking for King. Kondlo returns to his board, vowing to get up and walk around if King follows his usual pattern.

"I don't like that," Kondlo says of King's penchant for standing up and wandering.

King never leaves his seat. After drawing both games in the round, King does not shake Kondlo's hand. Kondlo says he wasn't about to offer his hand to King.

Kondlo finishes Round 11 in the top three in the tournament. With his strong debut, he hopes Niederhoffer will continue to sponsor him. A world qualifying tournament is in Las Vegas in September.

On Friday he makes $2,400 for winning the tournament at the Plaza, but he won't buy a computer. The home in Port Elizabeth needs a ceiling (it has a roof) and carpet, and Kondlo missed his son's fourth birthday a few days ago.

"Odwa," he says, "will get a bicycle."

1. Lubabalo Kondlo South Africa $2,400

2. John Webster Stoneville, N.C. $1,830

3. Shane McCosker Northern Ireland $1,350

4. Gene Lindsay Morristown, Tenn. $915

5. Richard Beckwith Willoughby, Ohio $545

Rob Miech can be reached at 259-4087 or at         Read Las Vegas Sun Online 

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