LEXINGTON - Next time you're looking
for a friendly game of checkers, steer clear of the Rev. Larry
The otherwise mild-mannered Baptist minister will smite
thee on the checkerboard for sure.
"I can't find
anybody around here who will play me," Michael says. "I've offered
people money to play me - I tell them, 'I'll give you 50 bucks if
you can beat me' - but they still won't do it."
Because this 61-year-old man of the cloth has a very, ahem,
checkered past. He's been playing competitive checkers - in
sanctioned tournaments, no less - for nearly 20 years.
note: The God he serves may move in mysterious ways, but there's no
mystery about Michael's moves on the checkerboard - he's out to
"Actually, as far as checkers players go, I'm not really
that good," Michael says. "I'm not in the upper echelon."
he's played against current world champion Alex Moiseyev, for
example, and never even posed a threat.
Don't be fooled, though:
Michael's more than a mere country-store checkers whiz.
a strong minor player," says fellow checkers player JR Smith,
alluding to the minor division in which Michael competes.
full-time minister, so he doesn't study checkers like a lot of guys
do," says Smith, of Greensboro. "He could probably be a whole lot
better if he had the time to study."
Michael, the pastor for 31
years of Gethsemane Baptist Church in Lexington, agrees.
have the time nor the inclination to take it that far," he says. "I
could be a far better checker player than I am if I wanted to
dedicate the time to it."
Michael, who played chess as a
teenager, developed a keen interest in checkers in his 20s. He used
to oblige his father-in-law, Paul Leonard, who played a pretty mean
game and was always looking for an opponent.
"I was just a fair
country checkers player - the kinda guy you'd see playing at an old
country store - and he'd tear me up," Michael recalls.
though, Michael improved to the point that his father-in-law could
no longer beat him - and, consequently, Leonard stopped playing
In the mid-1980s, Michael read a newspaper article about a
professional checkers player, Bernie Ross, who had moved to
Lexington and was looking for competition. Michael accepted the
challenge, called him up, and the two men played checkers all day.
Michael lost 18 out of 20; two games ended in a draw.
"I saw that
there was a level of checkers far above anything that I had ever
played," he says with a laugh.
Ross persuaded Michael to join him
at a tournament, where Michael finished 28th out of 28 - dead
But he kept playing, he began studying books devoted to
checkers theory, and his play gradually improved.
well-known in checkers circles, having played in countless tourneys
and serving as district director for a six-state district of the
American Checker Federation (ACF).
Beginning Thursday, Michael
will compete in the 2005 North Carolina Open Checkers Tournament,
which is being held in Greensboro and will feature a few of the
It's only at tournaments that Michael can
meet his match - and then some - on the checkerboard. He's never won
a tourney, he says, though he has played well and finished
His ACF rating, which is determined by his performance at
tournaments, is about 1,850 out of a possible 2,800, Michael
By contrast, world champ Moiseyev's rating is in the
2,600s. A novice player would probably have a rating of 800 or 900,
Michael admits novices are typically no match for
him - which is why he has so much trouble finding opponents.
his loving wife, Judy, refuses to play with him, though she has
attended some tournaments with him.
"It's terribly boring," she
confides with a smile, "but I'm a good wife."
With a novice,
Michael says, "after about the first three moves, I know whether I'm
gonna beat you or not."
It's not that simple with the other pros,
though. That's why, during the days preceding a tournament, Michael
says he'll spend six to eight hours studying checkers theory and
trying to refresh his mind so he'll be game-ready.
just a drop in the bucket compared to what some guys do," he
"Most of us aren't in it to win big money. We're just in it
for the enjoyment of the game."
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