Checkers Is More Than a Game on H Street

Posted June 21, 2010 at 5:00pm

This is what a visitor to Mason’s Barber Shop at 1010 H St. NE will hear: the common hum of electric shears mixed in with a barrage of trash talk.

“You gotta hand old man? Where you goin’?”

“I’m goin’ where I’m going.”

“He don’t know the water is hot!”

The nonstop taunts flow from one of two checkerboards set up in the shop, boards that are in almost constant use throughout the workday. One is near the front window while the other is in a back room that also holds a washing machine and a water heater. That table is reserved for the novice players, or “hams.” A recent Friday afternoon match pitted Charles Smoke, 51, a barber at the shop, against Spencer Taylor, an 82-year-old gospel singer.

“Come on fool. He’s stuttering, ain’t he,” Smoke says.

“You got me if you move, but you gotta move,” challenges Taylor.

The conversation continues through lightning-fast moves during the variety of checkers game the men play called “American Pool.” Taylor has been playing since he was a child and has mentored Smoke and many other younger players. Taylor is considered the best player among the handful of regulars who gather each Friday at the shop.

“Rabbit got the gun, farmer and dog are on the run.”

The game slows down during a critical move in the match. The playful jeers go silent. A co-owner of the shop, Robbie Mason, clippers in hand, takes a long look away from a patron’s head to watch the development. The move is made and the action continues. After a series of games, Smoke eventually prevails over his mentor.

“They should put me on the back of a one-dollar bill,” Smoke proclaims. “The front too.”

The matchup in the back room has Larry Smith, 71, playing Charles Smoke’s younger brother Fredrick, 48, aka Half Smoke. The game moves a little slower but the one-liners rain down on Smith.

“He’s 71. That’s why I’m beatin’ on him like that.”

Soon Robbie’s father, Nurney Mason, 80, arrives from the back entrance, greeting customers and employees of the shop before taking a seat in the empty barber chair closest to the main checkerboard. The elder Mason has come from his part-time job at the Rayburn House Office Building barbershop where he has worked with Joe Quattrone since 1983. He opened for business in 1961, one of eight brothers, four of whom cut hair for a living.

Although the shop has been in the same location for almost 50 years, the checker tables have been inside for only about two of those years. The elder Mason used to make them play behind the store. He didn’t want a bunch of people hanging around. “But then I started to get into it,” he admits.

Soon the talk turns to how the game is losing its popularity.

“Back then people didn’t have much to do, so they concentrated on checkers,” Nurney Mason says.

[IMGCAP(1)]”It was a cheap game to play,” says Frank Webber, 55. “All you needed was a piece of cardboard and soda tops. When you got a king, you just flipped the cap over.”

“The world is moving fast. People would rather play on a computer,” Nurney Mason observes.

Many of the men do play checkers on the computer when they can’t be at a board. With technology, people can compete with players around the world.

“Brazilians and Russians are the best,” Webber says.

It becomes clear that the game is a serious endeavor and not just an excuse to hang out on a Friday night. Webber produces a book written in Russian, with strategies and multiple game scenarios. Robbie Mason quickly sets up a practice board from memory and executes the proper play. Webber started playing chess before checkers and says it’s just as strategically hard when the play reaches the top level.

All the men have stayed up until dawn playing and Taylor, 82, says he once started playing Friday night and didn’t quit until Sunday morning. He questions how his wife puts up with him sometimes.

Nurney Mason wanders off to a far chair to chat with a friend and watch basketball.

Is checkers addictive?

Webber laughs. “It’s broken up marriages!”

On another night, Webber has to leave the festivities early. He has to make bed check at Washington Hospital Center, where he was admitted overnight.

“He told them he went out for a cigarette,” Robbie says. “And he doesn’t even smoke.”