double jump

words &  photography: joseph swide

Alex Moiseyev is built like a 1970s NFL lineman. Standing more than 6-feet tall, his broad frame looms over a table at the 2017 ACF 11-Man National Tournament, an imposing wall of dominance. “Checkers is my life,” he later says, his tone verging on a threat. The game has become his obsession. That’s why he’s here, inside the Honeysuckle Inn and Conference Center in Branson, Missouri, located on the Shepherd of the Hills Expressway next to Ricky Bobby’s Pit Stop.

Moiseyev, a 57-year-old computer programmer from Columbus, Ohio, is the current grandmaster of checkers in the United States, and he wants a piece of the $20,000 prize purse, the largest for any checkers tournament in recent history. There are stories about Moiseyev, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. Like the time before a world title match against longtime rival Ron “Suki” King, a two-time Barbados Sportsman of the Year. The event’s sponsor took them to dinner at Cracker Barrel. Moiseyev supposedly ordered two dinners and ate each meal separately at opposite sides of the table, as though playing both sides of a checkers opening. Moiseyev beat King in three straight World Title Matches in 2003, 2005, and 2009.

To watch Moiseyev move around a checkers space is to watch a titan in his or her respective space of competition. He’s rarely seen socializing. His interactions consist of dissecting the process and outcome of a game or examining a theoretical checker position. For the next few days, the conference room inside the motel has transformed into tournament headquarters. Competition rooms settle into a hush as games get underway. In the midst of a three-hour round, Moiseyev twitches one foot against the other, the type of minor distraction that can have a significant effect. A quiet conversation between other players in the room is enough to disrupt a player on the cusp of a strategic move. At one point during the tournament, World Champion Michele Borghetti of Italy hurled an apple against a wall and stormed out in a fury after losing a game due in part to what he claimed was an unprofessional level of chatter in the room. Yet no one made the slightest protest about Moiseyev’s foot tic, even though it rang like a bell in the otherwise dead silence.


There are three types of checkers played at the tournament level. “Go As You Please” is the traditional, simple version that most any casual player would recognize. But with only a small number of potential openings, Go As You Please matches can be predictable and players can memorize the lines of their specific games and their opponent’s counter moves.

“Three-Move” is a style that requires players to draw cards that dictate the first three moves of the game. This process limits a player’s ability to memorize lines and expands the number of potential openings to play. For “11-Man Ballot,” the style used at the tournament in Branson, players draw cards that dictate an opening move from each side; they also remove a piece from each side, expanding the number of potential openings to play to several thousand. This makes it virtually impossible to memorize lines, requiring players to mentally assess the board and rely on their talent and experience to map out new lines for each game. This type of checkers is particularly grueling and often referred to as the purest form of the game.

Moiseyev won the Three-Move world title in 2003 and held it for a decade before losing in 2013 to Borghetti in Livorno, Italy. Moiseyev had a heart attack later that same year; since then, the talk among a few players in Branson is that Moiseyev hasn’t been quite the invincible machine that he once was.

A career in checkers is intrinsically tied to one’s loss of ability when the mind starts to slip in advanced age. A player might miss an opening or fall into a trap that he would have easily spotted in his prime. None of this seems lost on Moiseyev, who can see the writing on the wall. One night after a long day of competition, he finds himself in a vulnerable position that many past champions experience once they reach the summit of their field and begin descending.

The young Italians are coming for him. At the time of our interview, he sat in a disappointing fourth, trailing Borghetti, fellow Italian Sergio Scarpetta, and South African grandmaster Lubabalo Kondlo. Borghetti has already taken his world title in Three-Move, while Scarpetta took King’s world title in Go As You Please in 2015, leaving Moiseyev’s world title in 11-Man Ballot as the last one not yet in their Italian grasp. The winner in Branson will earn the right to challenge Moiseyev for that final title. And while others in Branson expect Moiseyev’s reign as world champion to end as soon as the next world title match, he clings to hope. As we talk, Moiseyev notes his rage approaching “the crazy zone, 60 and more.” He references former Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who retired from competition at age 42. “I am not at that level yet. I can still say something in checkers.” Then he walked into the night to find a liquor store.


Not many young people are maintaining the sport’s livelihood. While the Internet and the proliferation of handheld computing and gaming haven’t done the popularity of checkers many favors, the sport has continued to take hits since the invention of television. When people in the community talk about checkers as a dying sport, they often mean that a number of players have literally died. The game is mostly popular in places, times, and cultures where there isn’t much to do. Of the remaining American players, many are from rural areas of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Younger players seem to come from countries outside the United States.

Lubabalo Kondlo left his home in South Africa’s New Brighton township on a Friday afternoon with little more than the clothes on his back. Kondlo, Africa’s first checkers grandmaster, is from one of the country’s poorest areas, a largely agrarian region that holds the distinction as the birthplace of Nelson Mandela and Stephen Biko. Kondlo is considered one of the five best checkers players on the planet. He has competed for world titles and was even the subject of a documentary, King Me.

Kondlo spent the next four days on a multi-continental voyage to make it to the tournament in Branson. After a 10-hour overnight bus ride from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, followed by a 10-hour flight to Germany, a 10-hour flight to Colorado and then nearly a two-hour flight to Springfield-Branson National Airport, his final leg of the journey was a 55-mile ride down U.S. Route 65 South with Jeannie McDaniel, a 69-year-old ultra-marathoner and former Democratic politician in Oklahoma who co-sponsors the tournament with her husband. They pass endless billboards for Cracker Barrel, Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, and various Chinese acrobat troupes before arriving at the Honeysuckle Inn & Conference Center at midnight. The next morning, Kondlo begins four long, grueling days of competition against the best checkers players in the world.

A South African township may seem like another planet from places like Missouri, Oklahoma, or Southern Ohio, and in many ways it is. Nonetheless, the checkers community has taken in Kondlo. “I thank God for this talent,” he says while sitting in a room with American Checker Federation president Alan Millhone, sipping Coca-Cola from a red Solo cup.

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.