Sunday, April 27, 2008 - Greensboro News & Record - "Checkers game of choice back in the day" staff-generated content

Checkers game of choice back in the day

By Glenn Chavis
Contributing Writer

Sunday, Apr. 27, 2008 3:00 am
Checkers or chess, anyone? Sixty or 70 years ago, without a doubt, the answer to this question would have been checkers.

Glenn Cole of High Point found that out when he returned to the city after living in Baltimore for seven years. Cole learned to play chess in Baltimore, but when he returned to High Point, checkers was the game of choice. Chess was strictly for the rich and famous.

Over the years, Cole studied the 137 combinations or openings that are possible in checkers and in July 1957 he won the 37th annual state checker championship.

I decided to check the phone book to see if I could track down Cole. He was listed in Jamestown. I spoke to Cole's widow, who informed me he died in January 2007. She was gracious, and we had a wonderful conversation regarding his fascination with checkers.

In July 1953, Tommie Wiswell, world checker champion, appeared in Thomasville during a checker/chess exhibition. After besting all opponents in the N.C. State Checker tournament in Mount Airy in early July, Wiswell lost two games in Thomasville to local players Charlie Tow and J.H. Lambeth.

Wiswell, of Brooklyn, might have been the world champion, but when he came South, he ran into players raised on buttermilk and corn bread who played on homemade checkerboards with bottle caps and coins for checkers. This is how I remember checkers in the '40s and '50s.

Bam! Crown me! Next turkey! These words rang out every day somewhere east of Centennial Street in my world. If Cole and Wiswell had ventured to a barbershop at 627 Washington St., they would have met some of the best black players in High Point at that time.

Checkers along the East Washington Street corridor dates way back. The Works Project Administration sponsored and supervised a checker tournament for boys in the William Penn High School game room in March 1937. Thirty boys entered, the following making the semifinals: William Hill, Velvet LeGrande, Arthur Evans Jr. and Robert Williams. LeGrande beat Evans to take the first-place prize donated by W.F. Porcha Confectionary Store on East Washington St.

Raymond Williams, supervisor of the Penn game room, held a checker tournament for the girls March 18, 1937, as one of his many WPA projects. Twenty-four girls played and these reached the finals: Hilda Amaker, Grace Gray, Montez Parker, Ruth Caldwell and Sarah Colson. Parker won the first-place prize donated by W.F. Porcha Confectionery Store.

In the '40s, checkers tournaments were held in our recreation centers, YMCA, barbershops and porches throughout the community.

On April 28, 1945, the top 16 players in the community registered to play in the Chavis YMCA checker tournament. Promoter Floyd Phifer, one of the best in the community, announced these entrants: Herman M. Kirkpatrick, William Harding, John Stewart, Oriel Leak, Phifer, James Lynch, Henry Chavis, Solomon Hunt, Dr. Joseph A. Martin, David Flowe, Earl Saunders, Nick Palmer, T.D. Allen, Albert Watkins and Wylie Thompson. I could not find a winner's name.

The YMCA hosted another tournament May 15, 1945, which featured two of the Y's top checker leagues, the Nationals and the Americans. Competing in the National league was Louis Haizlip vs. Kirkpatrick, Hunt vs. Phifer, Willis S. Stewart vs. Flowe and Thompson vs. Lynch. Playing hard in the American league was Harding vs. Garrett Moore, Palmer vs. Leak, Saunders vs. Archie McCoy and Allen vs. Martin.

When the tournament results were reported, I found names not mentioned May 15, or maybe the spelling of names changed. These results were reported May 17: In the American preliminaries, Garrett Moore defeated Harding, Thompson defeated T.D. Allen, Pryor Ancrom defeated W.M. Allen, and Palmer defeated McCoy. The national preliminaries had Phifer defeating Hunt, Flowe defeating Stewart, Lynch defeating Saunders, and Tom Knight defeating Kirkpatrick.

Thompson defeated Pryor Ancrom, and Moore defeated R.C. Palmer in the American semifinals. The national league semifinals had Knight defeating Lynch and, of course, Phifer defeating Flowe.

Phifer claimed victory for the nationals by defeating Moore in the finals. Phifer, an East Washington Street barber, known as one of the best in the black community, lost only two games in the tournament and they were to arch rival Flowe.

The Colored News on July 2, 1946, reported that the YMCA was planning another checker tournament because of a renewed interest in checkers. According to the paper, "One of High Point's old champion checker players is back in the city. He is Mr. Harris, who is said to be Floyd Phifer's only rival or possibly his superior."

I wish I could find the results of some of the matches, but my search has been fruitless so far.

As a teenager, I got my hair cut at Square Deal Barber Shop on East Washington Street, later renamed Phifer's Barber Shop. In the front corner, there was always a checkerboard waiting for someone to walk in and challenge Phifer. Floyd Phifer Jr. and I recall the quiet that came over the shop as everything stopped, and everyone gathered to see who would yell, "game over."

Thomas Campbell said, "To live in the hearts we leave behind, is not to die." Like my father, who passed March 4, I will never forget the many wonderful memories that he and other folk in my early community have made possible.

Glenn Chavis writes about High Point's black history. Contact him at

Glenn L. Cole's Obituary