Checker Hall of Fame: Game Over
For the past 30 years The International Checker Hall of Fame reigned as one of America's greatest anachronisms. For such a humble game -- "The Mind Sport of Kings and Ordinary Men" -- its Hall was flamboyant and flaunting: a 32,000-square-foot Moorish/Tudor edifice, with a seven-story tower, a colonnaded tournament room with 24-foot-high ceilings and the world's two largest checkerboards, a library with checkers books dating back to the 17th century, priceless checkers artifacts scattered throughout, and even a statue, costing more than $10,000, of grand champion Marion Tinsley, who lost only 7 games in 45 years. The place was so over-the-top that we declared it to be too interesting to include in our 1992 "Boring Tour."
Built in obscure Petal, Mississippi, it was also the largest house in Forest County and the mansion of its founder, the wheeler-dealer pompadoured millionaire Charles Clendell Walker, best known for his 1994 Guinness World Record of playing 306 checkers games simultaneously and losing only one. Charles, who dabbled in nursing homes and burial insurance, also founded the "International Christian Church" whose membership was later found to contain only himself, his wife, and his daughter.
Things started to get wonky in 2003, when Charles was charged with buying eight motor homes for his "church" and only paying for two. Things got much worse in early 2005, when Charles was caught in a sting operation (in one of the motor homes), by customs agents, using the church and the Checkers Hall of Fame to launder $100,000 in drug money. During the trial Charles kept the Hall open for checkers championship matches -- but that ended in November 2006, when he was sentenced to five years in a federal prison. At the time, the mayor of Petal said that the Hall should be preserved as a landmark. Charles's family continued to live in it.
On September 29, 2007, a still-unexplained fire started in the tower and quickly engulfed the rest of the Hall. Everything: the giant checkerboards, the library, the statue, was destroyed. "What has been lost is one of the finest checkers collections the world has ever known," said Don Deweber, director of the World of Checkers Museum. "It is almost all irreplaceable."
The Walker family is reportedly still living in the driveway (in one of the motor homes), but the attraction, amazing as it was, is gone.[10/06/2007]