October 6, 2005 - The Knoxville News Sentinel - "King of the checkerboard"

The Knoxville News Sentinel
King of the checkerboard

Halls man, 79, takes game seriously as he takes on all comers

NORRIS - Checkers seems like such a simple game - unless your opponent is 79-year-old Robert Butler.

Play the Halls resident and you're soon left with one, maybe two pieces trapped on the checkerboard. He's got at least three kings on the board and a slight smile on his face.

That's the way Butler beat one person after another Wednesday at the Museum of Appalachia's Tennessee Fall Homecoming. The Norris museum's old-time festival with more than 150 craftspeople and bluegrass, folk, gospel and traditional music performances continues through Sunday.

Butler has come to homecoming for years. He sits at a table and plays checkers against any and all challengers. He almost always wins.

On Wednesday, he needed only minutes to beat each opponent. Few even earned a king; most were victims of his double and triple jumps.

"They make mistakes. I can't help where they move; they do  it to themselves," he said. "If your opponent doesn't make mistakes, you can't win."

Though he's won the Tennessee championship and the American Checkers Federation's major division, the retired electrician downplays his skill. "I've lost a lot of games of checkers. I don't claim to be great."

His strategy is straightforward. "Swap down till you have two (pieces) and they have one." Losing pieces to the other  player doesn't worry him. "All you want to do is win."

Most of Butler's Wednesday challengers were children who came to the festival's student day. He'll play all comers today 




Isaac Wilson, 13, left, an eighth-grader from Corbin, Ky., studies the checkerboard for his next move as Robert Butler, a former national checker champ, finishes a move. Butler’s opponents and the size of the crowd of onlookers changed, but the outcome remained mostly the same: The former champion cleared the board of his opponents’ pieces in about a dozen moves.

through Sunday. Some contests against adults won't last much longer than those played Wednesday.

"I play these kids kind of hard," he said. "But it's a hard game and they might as well learn while they are young."

Butler began playing when he was about 9. Maybe checker smarts are genetic. His grandfather was a Cocke County champ. And he started against two uncles who also were top players.

"They beat me, like I'm beating these kids, and they'd laugh at me. I told myself, 'Self, one day I'm going to beat them.' "

So he studied the game, read books about it and practiced by playing better players. "It took me 20 years, but I beat both my uncles."

Amy McRary may be reached at 865-342-6437.