In 2007, around the time South Africa’s attention was fixed on the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup campaign, Lubabalo Kondlo stunned the draughts and checkers world by going to the United States and beating their national champion on his first overseas visit.
In the 2010 documentary King Me, written and directed by Geoff Yaw – which should be aired repeatedly on South African television screens, it’s that powerful – one of the competitors remarked that Kondlo winning in Las Vegas that year was “like a rookie hitting four home runs for the Cleveland Indians … it’s just very unlikely … Generally, there isn’t anybody that just walks in off the street and wins a national tournament.”
Americans couldn’t even pronounce his name. Lubego, Lubalow, Kolando and Kumbala were just some of the poor attempts made at addressing him. He paid them no mind. He was about the business of proving his draughts wit sharper than theirs.
By then, Kondlo had been the South African champion since 1999. Without formal employment, sponsors or a federation to back him, Kondlo announced himself to the global draughts audience when he won in Vegas.
“The man who taught me to play the game at seven years old, Lulama Gwashu, passed away,” Kondlo says.
“Then I was taken under Zoli Ngwenya’s wing before joining Vulindlela Draught Club, which I still play for to this day. Vulindlela had been around for a long time, since the 1970s, before I joined as a youngster and got taken in by Jimboy Mqotsi.
“After I passed matric at Cowan High School, I went to Johannesburg, where I saw many other clubs and my interest in the sport grew. When I won the national championships in 1999, that’s when I got the idea that I could compete overseas.
“I found out about overseas tournaments and a guy I played with gave me a book with contacts for some international federations. I emailed the American Checker Federation president, Alan Millhouse, and then everything started from there.”
Facing the loudmouth champion
The film tracks Kondlo’s rise to become the No. 1 world title contender, aiming to dethrone Ron “Suki” King, the world champion for 23 years.
He earned the right to face King by winning the ensuing qualifying tournament, also in Vegas, four months after his unexpected win in the US National Championships.
King was the undisputed champion and worldwide celebrity of the sport. The trash-talking, uber-competitive veteran came into his 2008 matchup with Kondlo with a swagger rarely seen at the time or since.
In his home country of Barbados, he could legitimately claim to be as famous as some ministers and sporting compatriots such as legendary former cricketer Garfield Sobers. He was voted the national Sports Personality of the Year three times, and each time the government endowed him with a new car, $25 000 and, once, 12 000ft² (1 115m²) of land. The man seated across from him, Kondlo, grew up in a two-bedroom New Brighton household with 19 other family members.
King was dubbed the “Muhammad Ali” of the sport. One of King’s quips from Yaw’s masterpiece summed him up succinctly:
“The Almighty God is my father. I am his son. I am King. These points tell you that a king has to get subjects. A king has to rule … so I rule.”
And rule he did in his clash against the South African. It was as close a go-as-you-please version of the game as you can get. They played the mandated 24 games over six days, four per day, with all of them ending in draws bar the final one.
Rules stipulate that to become the new champion, the challenger must win the overall tie. If it all ends in a draw, then the champ retains his title. And so Kondlo, hiding his aggression behind an old worn-out cap, went for broke and used a move designed to bait King to make a false move. But King didn’t and counterattacked before claiming the win.
The ‘peasant’ taking the crown
Draughts champions don’t rule forever, though. King was dethroned in 2014 by Italian Sergio Scarpetta, who subsequently lost the title to fellow Italian Michele Borghetti.
Kondlo never got the chance to get his own back against King. He won the title by beating Borghetti 5-0 in Mississippi in 2018.
“Playing chess is like looking out over a limitless ocean. Playing checkers is like looking into a bottomless well,” American Marion Tinsley, the godfather of checkers, once mused.
“Draughts is more difficult than chess. Even chess grandmasters have confirmed such,” says Kondlo. “Firstly, once you move a draught forward, you cannot bring it backward, unlike some chess pieces.
“In the documentary, there is a university professor who says no one can master draughts because of its five billion possible variations. He says you can take out all the water in the ocean and try to refill it with a tablespoon. That’s what playing draughts is like.”
When the Springboks’ open-top bus parade rolled through Ferguson Street in New Brighton with captain Siya Kolisi holding the trophy aloft, the draughts world champion stood with a glint in his eye hoping that one day that he, too, might be celebrated in his home country.
He grew up just streets away from Bok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick.
“I was so happy and it was so beautiful to see guys from New Brighton and Zwide lift the Rugby World Cup and bring it back home,” says Kondlo. “It gave hope to us here in Port Elizabeth that we, too, can get some support for our sports.”
Fighting for recognition
Draughts is not a spectator sport. In South Africa, where it falls under the Mind Sports South Africa federation, it is treated as voyeur. It pales in comparison to its more glorified cousin, chess.
There is no mud and guts as you find in rugby. It is unlikely sponsors will pine for Kondlo’s attention as they do for Kolisi’s.
A lot like the indigenous board game mlabalaba, where Kondlo is from draughts is loved and played by mostly unemployed men who would rather sit across from each other at a draughts table than take part in gang or drug activities.
Kondlo, now 48, is firmly fixed inside this unemployment quagmire. He has done all sorts of odd jobs to provide for his family. In PE township slang, he says: “Ndiyaromola grootie.” He hustles to make ends meet.
“I try to save money from the prize winnings and use some of it to buy clothes in Gauteng that I can then resell for profit back home,” he says.
“I teach draughts to schoolkids at lower primary schools as a part-time activity. Sometimes I have to ask overseas federations for sponsorship to attend tournaments and other times I borrow from friends, with the promise that I will pay them back once I get the prize money.”
It is a wonder that he is able to keep his mind so sharp for the mentally consuming board game. Just this past November, he accepted a challenge from 10-year Kenyan champion Crispin Odhiambo, with whom he drew 1-1 after 20 games, in an effort to promote the game on the continent.
“I spent more than R7 000 of my own money on the trip,” he says with the tone of a gambler that can’t stay away from the blackjack table.
In 2020, however, he has to raise R225 000 to fund his bid to host the world championship title decider against the No. 1 contender, Bernini Matteo. The Italian is also bidding but Kondlo would love to have home turf advantage for the first time in his career.
“I’d love it if it was here in South Africa,” he says. “Because that would create awareness for the sport and it would create waves for the continent as a whole. Approaching the Nelson Mandela metro has proved futile because there is political infighting and people don’t know what’s happening.
“They don’t take the sport seriously in the Eastern Cape sports department. They treat it as if it’s a frivolous hobby. Matteo won the qualifiers in Barbados and I will have to face him to defend my title. He’s very good and I don’t want to have to face him in Italy.
“Meanwhile, the bid must be submitted by the 7th of February with the R225 000 secured or with a commitment letter from a sponsor expressing that they will fund the competition.”
There are murmurs that draughts could be included in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. It would be a monster victory for the sport if it came true. Kondlo will be 53 by the time those Olympics come around.
But he is not worried that his powers might have waned and he could be unable to represent South Africa as an Olympian. “As long as I’m in good mental shape and still sharp, I can make it.”