By Neil Offen
DURHAM -- Calvin Morrow, a seven-time national champion, leaned forward against the gray metal folding table, put his right hand to his neck, and peered intently at the green-and-white checkerboard.
He concentrated. He took his hand off his neck, put both hands together on the table, and continued gazing intently. On the other side of the table in the ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel off Renaissance Boulevard, Al Harrison stared equally hard. Minutes passed. Neither man said a word.
Morrow suddenly, quickly, reached out his right hand, moved his red checker from the middle of the back line one diagonal space ahead. Harrison met the move with one of his own and briefly, there was a flurry of activity. Then both contestants at the 44th annual American Pool Checker Association National Tournament Wednesday peered intently at the board again, thinking about their next moves.
"It's a thinking game," said Morrow. "It takes a lot of concentration. It's will against will. It's wits against wits."
Morrow and Harrison were among around 70 players gathered from around the nation who had come to Durham to play a different kind of checkers from what you may know.
"The main difference is that in regular checkers, a single checker only can move forward and jump," said Wayne Lockhart of Toledo, Ohio, director of the four-day tournament organized by the local Bull City Checkers Club. "In pool checkers, you can jump backwards and forward, and when you get a king, you can go jump any number of squares backwards and forward and you can even turn corners if there's a jump to be made."
Lockhart estimated about 10,000 people nationwide play the game. Most of them are black, male and older rather than younger.
"It's a game that just caught on with blacks," he said. "It's difficult to explain why that is, but it started in barbershops and out in the streets, under the shade trees. It was a cheap way to have some entertainment. Every barbershop had a checkers board."
"Straight" checkers, the game played by whites, was considered too slow and not exciting enough, according to the official History of the American Pool Checker Association, formed in the 1960s in Detroit.
Pool checkers -- originally called "Spanish pool checkers" -- was more exciting and took more effort. "It causes you to grow up and mature," Lockhart said. "It values patience, problem-solving and foresight."
And the game, several players pointed out, is also good for you, citing studies, they said, that those who play have a 70 percent less chance of developing Alzheimer's. "It keeps you sharp even when you get old," said Tim Moore, president of the Bull City club. "You have to have great and strong concentration and a sharp memory to play this game."
It's worked for 93-year-old George Robinson, also of Toledo, the oldest player at the tournament, which has five divisions ranging from top master to blue ribbon.
"My dad had a barbershop, there was always a checker board there, that's how I got started," recalled Robinson, who's been playing the game for more than 50 years. "But when I started, I was playing chess at the time until I met a fellow who introduced me to pool checkers. He beat me five straight, and got me interested. I wanted to get better."
Monroe, from Atlanta, and the tournament's defending champion, learned the game, he recalled, from a Russian pool checkers grandmaster. "He was looking for the Muhammad Ali of checkers," Monroe said. "He wanted to make someone a champion, and he found me. He could see I had the natural ability."
But to succeed at the game, you need more than natural ability.
"This is much harder to learn than chess," Lockhart said. "It has been said by expert chess players that it's much more intriguing than their game. And it's more difficult, too."
Read more: The Herald-Sun - A game of patience problem solving