Minister plays tough game of checkers

Staff photo by Don Davis Jr.

The rev. Larry Michael plays been playing competitive checkers for 20 years.

LEXINGTON - Next time you're looking for a friendly game of checkers, steer clear of the Rev. Larry Michael.
The otherwise mild-mannered Baptist minister will smite thee on the checkerboard for sure.

"I can't find anybody around here who will play me," Michael says. "I've offered people money to play me - I tell them, 'I'll give you 50 bucks if you can beat me' - but they still won't do it."
And why not?
Because this 61-year-old man of the cloth has a very, ahem, checkered past. He's been playing competitive checkers - in sanctioned tournaments, no less - for nearly 20 years.
And take note: The God he serves may move in mysterious ways, but there's no mystery about Michael's moves on the checkerboard - he's out to win.
"Actually, as far as checkers players go, I'm not really that good," Michael says. "I'm not in the upper echelon."
He says he's played against current world champion Alex Moiseyev, for example, and never even posed a threat.
Don't be fooled, though: Michael's more than a mere country-store checkers whiz.
"Larry is a strong minor player," says fellow checkers player JR Smith, alluding to the minor division in which Michael competes.
"He's a full-time minister, so he doesn't study checkers like a lot of guys do," says Smith, of Greensboro. "He could probably be a whole lot better if he had the time to study."
Michael, the pastor for 31 years of Gethsemane Baptist Church in Lexington, agrees.
"I don't have the time nor the inclination to take it that far," he says. "I could be a far better checker player than I am if I wanted to dedicate the time to it."
Michael, who played chess as a teenager, developed a keen interest in checkers in his 20s. He used to oblige his father-in-law, Paul Leonard, who played a pretty mean game and was always looking for an opponent.
"I was just a fair country checkers player - the kinda guy you'd see playing at an old country store - and he'd tear me up," Michael recalls.
Gradually, though, Michael improved to the point that his father-in-law could no longer beat him - and, consequently, Leonard stopped playing him.
In the mid-1980s, Michael read a newspaper article about a professional checkers player, Bernie Ross, who had moved to Lexington and was looking for competition. Michael accepted the challenge, called him up, and the two men played checkers all day. Michael lost 18 out of 20; two games ended in a draw.
"I saw that there was a level of checkers far above anything that I had ever played," he says with a laugh.
Ross persuaded Michael to join him at a tournament, where Michael finished 28th out of 28 - dead last.
But he kept playing, he began studying books devoted to checkers theory, and his play gradually improved.
Now, he's well-known in checkers circles, having played in countless tourneys and serving as district director for a six-state district of the American Checker Federation (ACF).
Beginning Thursday, Michael will compete in the 2005 North Carolina Open Checkers Tournament, which is being held in Greensboro and will feature a few of the game's grandmasters.
It's only at tournaments that Michael can meet his match - and then some - on the checkerboard. He's never won a tourney, he says, though he has played well and finished high.
His ACF rating, which is determined by his performance at tournaments, is about 1,850 out of a possible 2,800, Michael says.
By contrast, world champ Moiseyev's rating is in the 2,600s. A novice player would probably have a rating of 800 or 900, he estimates.
Michael admits novices are typically no match for him - which is why he has so much trouble finding opponents.
Even his loving wife, Judy, refuses to play with him, though she has attended some tournaments with him.
"It's terribly boring," she confides with a smile, "but I'm a good wife."
With a novice, Michael says, "after about the first three moves, I know whether I'm gonna beat you or not."
It's not that simple with the other pros, though. That's why, during the days preceding a tournament, Michael says he'll spend six to eight hours studying checkers theory and trying to refresh his mind so he'll be game-ready.
"But that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what some guys do," he says.
"Most of us aren't in it to win big money. We're just in it for the enjoyment of the game."
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579

İHigh Point Enterprise 2005

BACK To Newspaper & Magazine Articles