As one warm Friday afternoon crept into the evening, John Herberger’s kind of heaven was coming to an end, like the slices of blueberry pie scraped clean off the plates by the checkerboard. ¶ This would be the fifth and last game in his Akron apartment before Kenneth Shoesmith, 76, made the trip back across the bridge to Hamilton, Ont. Herberger, ranked as one of the top 100 players in the world, softly clicked the stack of white pieces he’d taken from his old friend. ¶ They met at tournaments decades ago when checkers was in its heyday. Back then, Buffalo men drove to Canada for the competitions. Herberger used to travel downstate, too, where swashbuckling players at the defunct New York City’s Chess & Checker club included an ace who let buttons fly, ripped off his coat and announced to a rival, “I’m ready for you!” ¶ Now that there is no one near – that Herberger knows of – to make for that kind of excitement, the matches with Shoesmith were big news. ¶ What with the hassle of cross-border travel, gas expense, coordinating schedules, it had been two years since they played. ¶ “It’s a lost art,” said Herberger, 67, an unemployed bill collector, fond of making the connections between checkers and life. “I wish more kids would take up checkers and stay away from drugs and booze.”
Shoesmith, 76, a retired elementary school principal, was losing three games to one. He had expected as much.
Herberger was a much better player, and jolly good fellow, whom he appreciated for his quirky intensity and commentary as they played.
“The game is sensitive. It’s like defusing a time bomb,” Herberger said. “One wrong move and ‘boom!’ you’re finished.”
Shoesmith plays checkers with a few friends at home, but he said, “people haven’t got the patience to deal with the preciseness.”
“All the good checkers players have died off.” When his grandson lost interest, Shoesmith understood: Chess, a more forgiving game, and computers, have more obvious charm.
Knights and horses came alive on a chessboard in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Schools are full of chess clubs. The seventh annual Mayor’s Cup before summer break at the Old First Ward Community Center was all about chess.
The simple look of checkers is deceptive, Shoesmith said. The enigmatic game of block and capture dates to 1700s Scotland. “It just captivates me,” he said. “It teaches you to think, to plan, to look ahead.”
To recite a famous, poetic description of the difference, he said, chess is like standing on the shore and looking over a vast ocean. Checkers is like looking down a deep well.
In Toronto, a 9-year-old chess whiz made news recently by beating adults. Shoesmith said that would not happen in checkers.
“In nine years on the earth,” he said, “you can’t learn enough about the game to be that good.”
From the perspective of the World Checkers Draughts Federation, checkers is not yet dead.
“We’re just kind of shifting,” said President Richard Beckwith, 43, an analytical chemist in Willoughby, Ohio, ranked 13th in the world. By his calculations, Herberger is tied for 87th.
“New York used to be a hotbed of players, maybe decades ago,” Beckwith said.
In “King Me,” a documentary shown at the Cleveland International Film Festival last year, Beckwith explained the game by walking through a life-size checkerboard. The movie tells the story of a player from South Africa who challenges the world champion from Barbados.
“I think checkers players are out there,” he said, “but we just don’t know about them.”
A steady backdrop
For Herberger, the game has been a steady backdrop to a life with a wife and adult son and an eclectic career at a copper foundry, a frozen food factory and as a deliveryman.
“If I would have had the money, I would have gone to college and taken computer classes,” he said.
He grew up one of 11 children, the son of a furniture salesman. He has studied the game since he sent away for a 25-cent copy of “How to Win at Checkers” at 14. After he graduated from Newfane High School, he played checkers at a veterans hall with a tournament player teaching the game to local kids.
“My game took off like a rocketship,” he said.
He can still remember walking the stone stairs up to the Chess & Checker Club on 42nd Street, near Times Square, as an awed younger man. Porn sold on the first floor. Boxers trained on the second floor.
On the third floor, there was a room with tables where men carried in their own boards. There, Herberger “got more than I could handle.” This included a match with a man who shouted, “Where’s that guy from Buffalo? I want to play him.”
Once, in the old days, he ran into the late Marion Tinsely, the “Bobby Fischer” of checkers, lounging by a hotel pool during a Tennessee tournament. Cocktail in hand, the Florida math professor listened as Herberger read off the moves of a man he’d just beaten.
“He said, ‘Well, John, you won the game, but you should have lost.’ ” Then some advice, using the numbers for checker squares that aficionados know: “Next time move 6 to 9 instead of 6 to 10.”
Worth the trip
A tall, golden checkers trophy gleamed from its spot by the window as the men played. They were a gentle contrast in style.
Herberger sat straight, looking as if the moves came to him automatically.
Shoesmith crouched, peering through glasses tipped forward and not all the way on his ears. His battered briefcase with checkers books was open behind him. The folding card table he painted with a checkerboard that he brought along to show Herberger leaned against the wall.
Shoesmith played, pencil in hand, keeping track by writing down the square numbers. Red 11 to 15. White 23 to 18 … Half the pleasure of the games would come later when Shoesmith studied how his friend outdid him.
When Shoesmith was a boy, he played with kids on his street until he read “Win at Checkers” and no one wanted to go against him anymore.
He got back into the game in the 1960s after he married and discovered the local checkers club. “I got better and better,” he said.
It was getting close to 4:30. Birds chirped outside. The refrigerator hummed. Herberger clicked his checker stack. They were even. Five pieces each.
Shoesmith needed to head home. Games like this are so absorbing that he has to remind himself not to put too much time in. It’s just a game.
“All right, I’m going to try this,” he said. A bad move. Herberger added a new white piece to his stack. Shoesmith couldn’t recover. “Darn it, darn it, darn it,” he said. “Nice going, John.”
Herberger nodded, happily. “Don’t worry about the score. We had a lot of fun,” he said.
Together they walked, with the checkerboard card table, to the parking lot.
The long trip had been worth it. On the way to Akron, Shoesmith waited more than an hour at the bridge, impatiently counting the eight minutes that the cars ahead spent at the border check.
When he pulled up, the officer glanced at the checkerboard table and waved him through in a minute and a half. Shoesmith was relieved, and amused. The guy probably wondered why a person would come to the United States just to play checkers.