King Me, a film from Think Media Studios of Cleveland, mirrors its subject. Like checkers, the film is filled with subtlety and punctuated with explosive moments.
Checkers is no simple game, and King Me is no simple movie. Humorous and serious, compelling and moving, writer/director Geoff Yaw has made a work of significance out of a game that few adults ever think is more than something for kids or old folks.
After watching King Me you'll never think about checkers the same way again. You'll experience a story about hope, courage, triumph and loss. It's Rocky and Cinderella and maybe even a little Chariots of Fire.
On one level, the movie tells the story of Lubabalo Kondlo, a black man from an impoverished South African township. Kondlo plays checkers at the grandmaster level, but due to disputes with white-dominated Mind Sports South Africa (MSSA), the national governing body for games such as checkers, he was blocked from competition on the international level.
Is the leader of MSSA racist? Or did Kondlo flout MSSA's rules? King Me strives to present a balanced picture, and herein lies one of the movie's subtle touches: you'll draw your own inevitable conclusions, but you'll draw them from the facts, not from a skewed or agenda-driven presentation.
Alan Millhone, President of the American Checker Federation, managed to pull international strings, line up sponsors, and break through bureaucratic roadblocks. Kondlo came to America to compete, and ere long he was the challenger for the world championship of what's known as "Go As You Please" (GAYP) checkers. This is the version of checkers that we all grew up with.
Enter Ron "Suki" King, reigning GAYP champion since the 1990s, a superstar in his home, the island nation of Barbados. King's personality looms large on camera; he's flamboyant and more than a little egotistical. But he's also very, very good. Challenger Kondlo was facing an uphill battle.
It's the classical underdog vs. establishment scenario. Kondlo is poor, short on resources, and struggling. King enjoys tremendous support from both government and business in Barbados. He's wealthy and confident.
Director Yaw makes real drama out of the 24 game King vs. Kondlo match. Can checkers keep you on the edge of your seat? You bet it can, and the emotional content in the match sequences is high. You'll find yourself cheering for the challenger, and you'll share his feelings when the match is ended.
Yaw and crew traveled to both South Africa and Barbados to film on location. The poverty of the South African townships and the lingering after-effects of apartheid come through all too clearly. The contrast with the sequences shot in Barbados is another of the film's subtleties. Barbados is hardly a wealthy place but Yaw captures the differences in a way that you can't help but notice.
There's a lot of color content about checkers, of course. Many of the "big names" in American checkers appear in the movie, although unfortunately a number of them aren't identified by name. Yaw portrays them as a largely eccentric lot. While there is certainly truth in this characterization, it seems overemphasized. Checker players, unlike chess players, tend to be of the man-in-the-street variety.
If you're a checker fan, King Me is an obvious must-see. If you know a little about checkers and want to learn what it's all about at the uppermost levels of play, watch this movie. Even if you're not especially interested in the game, but you enjoy real-life drama and are moved by the heights to which the human spirit can soar, there is much here for you.
Geoff Yaw has done extraordinary and unexpected things with King Me. A documentary about checkers? You're going to be amazed.
Stills from King Me are used with the kind permission of Geoff Yaw and Think Media Studios. This review originally appeared on Mr. Victor Niederhoffer's Daily Speculations website.
Here is a problem situation from game 24 of the King-Kondlo match, as seen in King Me.
Click on Read More to see the run-up and solution.
Here's the game run-up.
9-14 22-17 11-16 25-22 16-20 22-18 8-11 18x9 5x14 29-25 11-15 25-22 7-11 17-13 4-8 22-17 15-18 30-25 3-7---A 24-19 11-15 26-22 15x24
28x19 7-11 22x15 11x18---B
A---Loses; 11-16 draws. But Kondlo can't take a draw in this final game of the match, so he plays for a trap, hoping for the best.
32-28---C 2-7 19-16 12x26 31x15 10x19 White Wins.
C---31-26 going after the man on 18 would lose. This was Kondlo's trap but King saw through it, won the game, and retained the title of World GAYP Champion.