The Dallas Morning News - Section B METRO
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At 93, he's making all the right moves

Collin County: Checkers champ keeps sharp with 'good, clean' game

08:28 AM CST on Tuesday, December 26, 2006

By LAUREN D'AVOLIO / The Dallas Morning News

Words come a little harder now for Earl Harvell. At 93, he breathes heavily and pauses before most sentences, his thick glasses and winsome smile dominating his face. Wrinkles tell tales of all he's seen: wars, the first telephone party lines, the loss of true love and true love renewed.

But put this Collin County man in front of a checkers board and his sluggish movements turn masterfully quick, full of foresight and strategy. His sullen blue eyes dart from piece to piece as if, only for a game, he sheds 75 years.

"You've got to make exactly the right move," he said, intensely focused on a match against himself that ended in a draw. "If I can win as many games as I lose, then I'm doing pretty good."

In the mahogany kitchen of his modest house 10 miles south of Princeton, he recalls snatching first place in the Majors 2006 Checkers Tournament last month in Haleyville, Ala.

There are three classifications of checkers players: minors, majors and masters. Next year, because of his win, he'll be bumped to the masters level in the same tournament, he said.

"I cried a little bit. It choked me up," he said of his victory, which came with a trophy and a $135 prize. "I guess since I got older, I'm just kind of that way."

His other championship trophy was won in 1968, when he was the South Texas Checker Tournament Champion in the minors.


Mr. Harvell has challenged preachers and judges to board game duels, the former generally refusing to play on Sundays. The last time he lost was this summer. His wife, 76-year-old Faye Harvell, said he did so gracefully.

"It doesn't bother him, 'cause he just loves to play," she said. "He doesn't go out necessarily to win."

Mr. Harvell has been a member of the American Checkers Federation since 1960. He's played in 14 tournaments during the past two years, netting him about $500, from Ohio to Nevada. He's won second and third place several times at the minor and major levels.

When he and his wife don't fly to the matches, she drives mostly. Sometimes, Mr. Harvell said, he relieves her for stretches through remote areas.

"I'm not as good as I used to be," he admitted.

Mr. Harvell was born and raised in Culleoka, three miles down a rugged county road from his current home. He finished school around the eighth grade.

In 1927, Mr. Harvell ran a foundering grocery store where he earned a dollar a day to be the manager, cashier and shelf stocker. A family with eight children packed in a two-bedroom house meant Mr. Harvell slept on a cot in the store's drafty back room.

He nursed his newfound checkers habit with customers.

He worked 32 years in operations with generators and boilers at Dow Chemical in Freeport, Texas. In 1980, Mr. Harvell bought the land where he built his home on the north end of Lavon Lake.

His first wife, Earlene, died in 2002 after a series of strokes and 63 years of marriage.

"She'd been sick about six years. I quit fooling with checkers," he said. "I tried to take care of her and let my checkers go."

It was the current Mrs. Harvell who encouraged him to pick it back up.

Mr. Harvell was a friend of Mrs. Harvell's first husband, and the pair grew up miles apart. Still, they didn't meet until 2003. That year, Mr. Harvell got a call from a childhood friend who was also a friend of Mrs. Harvell. She and Mrs. Harvell were interested in picking pears off his trees and canning them.

That call led to a first date at the International House of Pancakes. They were married six months later, in March 2004.

"She's a real nice Christian lady," he said of Mrs. Harvell, who grew up three miles from Mr. Harvell in the Collin County community of Branch. "She takes good care of me."

Between them, they've got four children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Aside from arthritis and some hearing loss, Mr. Harvell is in good health. He swims some mornings at the McKinney Senior Center and he used to walk on his home treadmill until he "got lazy," he said.

He said checkers is a game of memory that keeps his mind sharp. He likes it because it's a good, clean game played by good, clean people.

"There's no drinking or smoking or cussing going on in checkers," he said.

Hugh Hawkins lives in Howe, about 45 miles from the Harvells, and is a frequent checker opponent.

"He's just like the grandpa you used to have. He's usually pretty sharp," Mr. Hawkins said.

Larry Pollard, an eight-time Alabama state champion, has known Mr. Harvell about two years.

"Earl is a fantastic player and a good man," Mr. Pollard said. "He has such a mild, modest spirit. And he's a very good player. He really doesn't miss many moves."

Mr. Harvell studies how-to books and competitive numbered boards and plays with cards that designate, in certain tournaments, where a player can and can't move at a game's beginning.

"I don't know why the Lord let me have all this time," he said. "I'm not that good a checker player or anything.  "I just like to play."

1/8/2006 The Dallas Morning News - "Staying sharp"

12/12/2006 - McKinney Courier-Gazette Star - "They don't act their age"

12/16/2006 - The Wylie News - "Collin County 93-year-old leads a checkered life"

12/20/2007 - Courier-Gazette - "Birthday swim: Earl Harvell continues to be as active as ever at age 94"<