The Stealer intercepts me as soon as I set foot in an empty-looking building on S Street NW. “When you think you’ve got it,” he warns, “I’ll steal it from you.”
He’s not as imposing as he might sound. By day, he goes by his given name, Oliver Griffin. He’s in his early 80s, with slicked-back gray hair and a mustache and soul patch to match. He moved to D.C. from Natchez, Miss., in 1957.
But when he steps inside that ragged building he’s been frequenting for 25 years, he’s as fierce as they come. Everyone addresses one another by boastful nicknames. Trash talk flies from the tables, where the intensity doesn’t let up except to restock on Miller High Life from the fridge.
The Capitol Pool Checkers Club has made its home on S Street since 1982, and as its members have aged and the surrounding Shaw neighborhood has transformed—at a once notoriously dangerous corner less than two blocks away, a sherry bar now sells $30 cups of coffee—it’s remained stubbornly the same. But it probably can’t last. For one thing, the dues-paying men of the club (they’re all men) are nearly all deep into retirement. Even the one they call Boy Wonder is past 50.
“When we came in, we had about 50 members,” says Donald Cunningham, aka Pressure Man. “We have about 10 to 12 paying dues now. Most of the guys are deceased or sick or moved out of town.”
Then there’s the building the club calls home. The checkers players had a chance to buy it for $75,000 in the early 1980s but declined. A few years ago, the property, which also includes upstairs residences and vacant storefronts, hit the market for $3 million.
But for now, the club appears safe. The owner, the daughter of a previous owner who was murdered in the early ‘90s, charges the club $700 a month—below market for the neighborhood, but more than the $500 the members paid until last year. She’s assured the players that they can remain as long as both they and she can afford it. She hopes to turn the building into a community center, with financial help from the city. If she can’t, it’s probably only a matter of time before a developer makes her an offer she can’t refuse.
“Being here for more than 30 years, we’re considered a part of the community,” says Tal Roberts, the club’s president, who grew up on a farm in Alabama with no electricity and started playing checkers as a distraction from school, where he struggled with academics and the teacher would literally put a dunce cap on his head. Inside the club, checkers is a useful distraction from the outside world, with its climbing real-estate values and development pressures. The walls are plastered with news stories about checkers and tables of players’ checkers ratings. The players will explain enthusiastically why they play pool checkers—which requires players to capture an opponent’s piece whenever possible, jumping either forward or backward—as opposed to straight checkers or other variants. Or they’ll look at games in progress and predict with certainty who will win. It’s more fun than predicting the future of a dwindling club.
“Once you get on the Mason, you’re probably going to win,” says The Stealer, examining a board on which one player has placed pieces along the long diagonal known as the Mason-Dixon Line. Then he does some quick mental projections, and adds, “Except he’s gonna lose.”
He cackles at my reaction to his ability to see 10 moves ahead, then looks around at his checkers partners with whom he’s been playing for a quarter century. His expression turns serious. “Comes with practice,” he says.