To spend a week at a checkers tournament is to enter a uniquely diverse and self-sustaining universe. The tournament begins at 8:30 a.m. and consists of three three-hour rounds each day. Few, if any, other pursuits would have such a collection of 39 people--elderly Appalachians, Southerners, young Italians, Bajans, Amish, an Iraq War veteran, a chemist, a Russian immigrant, an Israeli immigrant--competing against one another in a motel in Missouri. And few things exemplify that diversity like the friendship between Kondlo and Millhone, a bolo tie wearing Army veteran and grandfather from Belpre, Ohio, who Kondlo refers to as “Old Man” (Millhone, for his part, often calls Kondlo “my friend Lubabalo Kondlo” as though it’s one full name).
The two spend most of their breaks together in Millhone’s room, where Kondlo phones family in South Africa. They dine together at nearby chain restaurants. “Old Man Millhone” sponsored Kondlo’s first trip to the U.S. in 2007 to play in a national tournament in Las Vegas that Kondlo would go on to win. Since then, Millhone has traveled to Italy to officiate a world title match in which Kondlo competed. When Kondlo comes to the U.S., he occasionally travels home with Millhone to Belpre and spends several days with him.
“I really want to win this tournament, man. For the people back home,” says Kondlo as we walk across the street for dinner at Golden Corral. Currently in third place in the Masters division, trailing only the Italians, Kondlo stands to win about $1300 of the $20,000 purse, certainly not an insignificant amount in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
As Kondlo enjoys his portions of the $14 buffet of ribs, green peas and mushrooms, he talks about the Bible and shows pictures of his wife and children on his cell phone. He wants to bring them to the U.S. one day to share the experience. He asks me to take his picture so he can show friends and family back home what America looks like. A handwritten name tag that reads “Lubabalo Kondlo, Grandmaster” is on his shirt as he stands proudly underneath neon lights outside of the Golden Corral.