It's been a checkered career, but he stuck it out and triumphed in the end
Draughts veterans marvel at him, now Lubabalo Kondlo has earned the title of world champion
On the night before the final day’s play in the 2007 finals, the underdog challenger, a young man named Lubabalo Kondlo who has travelled all the way from New Brighton, Port Elizabeth to the badlands of Iowa to take on the greatest champion the sport has ever seen, pulls his peaked cap low over his eyes and sits back in his chair.
He has played the champ to a draw over 20 rounds, and there are only four to go tomorrow. If the final four rounds are also drawn, the champ keeps his title. If he wants the win he must take a chance; to create an opening he must open himself to defeat.
“I have to win tomorrow,” he says. “I have to win. If I become champion tomorrow, it will change everything.”
The man he’s challenging is Ron “Suki” King, champion for the past 19 years, the trash-talking Muhammad Ali of his sport. Ron glares at his opponent across the arena and says: “You shouldn’t talk, son, because when you open your mouth I take a peep inside and see you have no brain.”
Ron King calls himself King Ron and trains like a boxer, skipping and running and doing press-ups and power squats and honing his reflexes with table tennis and handball. In his native Barbados he was national sports personality of the year three times and appears on TV adverts and billboards. He’s sponsored by Subaru and Mitsubishi and was given 12,000 square feet of land by his government in recognition of his sporting dominance.
There’s a statue of him outside his old high school. Reggae songs have been written about him. Barbados is not a rich nation, and draughts doesn’t have the profile of cricket, but his nation knows how to reward a hero.
Lubabalo Kondlo doesn’t have sponsorship deals or statues and certainly no one has given him any land. He isn’t even competing in SA colours. He was unknown in the world of competitive draughts before 2007, when suddenly, on a wild card and airfare donated by Alan Millhone, the president of the American Checkers Federation, he arrived at the US Open in Las Vegas and beat all comers.
There’s footage of him at a Vegas buffet, beaming over a large plate of food, saying: “I have to eat everything, because once I’m gone back I’ll never see this food again.”
American checkers veterans scratch their heads and marvel at him. Lubabalo is a prodigy, a wonder, a comet suddenly appearing in the night sky. Back home in New Brighton he leads his family in regular prayers that one of them will find a job.
Lubabalo learnt to play draughts as a schoolkid, using lunch money to buy cigarettes which he traded to his teacher for lessons in tactics. With his $2,400 prize money for winning the US Open he provided a ceiling for the family house and bought his son a bicycle. He hopes that if he wins the world championship, someone in SA might pay for his travel to the next tournament.
I didn’t know, until I watched King Me, a 2010 documentary film exploring Lubabalo’s 2007 challenge for the world title, how big draughts is in the Eastern Cape. Lubabalo describes it as a game for people who spent the morning looking for work and not finding it, and who have to pass the time before they can try again tomorrow. It’s a social game, cutthroat and fun, a game of swagger and bonding, of occupation and idleness, easy to access but with seemingly limitless depths of strategy and nuance.
Don Deweber, the grey-whiskered, wizard-like proprietor of the World Museum of Checkers in Dubuque, Iowa, calls it “a game a child can play but which no man has ever mastered”.
(Incidentally, the more you learn about the world of draughts, or checkers, the more fascinating it becomes. For a long time Don Deweber’s Checkers museum was in rivalry with Charles Walker’s International Checkers Hall of Fame in Petal, Mississippi. The hall of fame was glitzier and had more razzmatazz, whereas the museum was housed in Don’s double-storey, red-brick home, filling it so thoroughly that his wife left him to live somewhere not jam-packed with checkers books and memorabilia.
Finally, Walker made an offer to purchase and move the museum to the hall of fame – to dismantle and reconstruct the entire house in every particular. When Don Deweber pointed out that the museum was also his home, Walker extended the invitation to Don as well – he could still live in his house and become a permanent exhibit. Don turned down the offer, which was just as well because the hall of fame burnt to the ground in February 2007 in a conflagration that has still never been fully explained.)
I watched King Me this week, on the edge of my seat as the climactic championship round played out. Lubabalo went all in. The night before, he had baited the trap by baiting the King, insisting he wouldn’t lose a match, drawing him into a cold-eyed war of words. Then in the opening to game 24 he came out loose and unorthodox, exposing the flanks of the board. He let slip the dazzling trap. This was it – would the King make a mistake? Would his eyes light up at the chance to punish the upstart? One missed move and Lubabalo would be the new king. But The King didn’t miss the move.
Lubabalo risked and lost, and afterwards he sat in his hotel room with the same hurt, baffled look that I remember on the face of George Foreman when Ali put him down in Kinshasa in 1974, at the end of When we were Kings. The dark lights were still flashing in his head. The world was still very far away. But he gathered himself. I’ll train, he said. I’ll go back and work harder. One day I will be the champion.
I had never heard of Lubabalo Kondlo before this week, when the news broke from Mississippi that he had beaten Italy’s Michele Boghetti 5-0, 11 years after that loss to Ron King, and had finally become world champion for the first time.