Beating the Checker Man

September 1, 2007
Howard Fischer, MD

Volume 6, Issue 9

This story was told to me by Dr W, a pediatric resident whom I run into every now and then. He swears that it's true. He had an afternoon to kill one Sunday in late August, before taking call that night, so he went to the Hamtramck Street Festival. Hamtramck is a small city completely surrounded by the city of Detroit. Until 20 or 25 years ago, it was populated nearly almost entirely by families of Polish origin--immigrants and their descendants. Then, as in other Rust Belt cities, time and unemployment produced some drastic changes. The city became poorer; physical decay became more evident. Immigration from Albania, Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Bangladesh reduced the Polish majority. Still, it's the only city in North America that has a park with a statue of Pope John Paul II. "A touch of Europe in America" say the bumper stickers.

This story was told to me by Dr W, a pediatric resident whom I run into every now and then. He swears that it's true. He had an afternoon to kill one Sunday in late August, before taking call that night, so he went to the Hamtramck Street Festival. Hamtramck is a small city completely surrounded by the city of Detroit. Until 20 or 25 years ago, it was populated nearly almost entirely by families of Polish origin--immigrants and their descendants. Then, as in other Rust Belt cities, time and unemployment produced some drastic changes. The city became poorer; physical decay became more evident. Immigration from Albania, Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Bangladesh reduced the Polish majority. Still, it's the only city in North America that has a park with a statue of Pope John Paul II. "A touch of Europe in America" say the bumper stickers.

A standard feature of the festival is the Checker Man, a man in a wheelchair, apparently paraplegic, who challenges all comers to a game of checkers. If he beats you (the usual case), you pay him $1. If you beat him (as if that could ever happen), he pays you $5.

Dr W played the Checker Man--and beat him. He declined the $5. (Residents' salaries must be better than they once were.) The news of this upset quickly spread up and down the street: people eating Polish food or listening to polkas nudged each other and said, "He beat the Checker Man," as Dr W walked by. For the remainder of the afternoon, he received some admiring glances, which he acknowledged modestly. He'd been lucky, that's all. No big deal. Anyway, his life was made up of more important things than beating the Checker Man.

Dr W went straight to the hospital from the festival. Ten minutes after putting on his scrubs, he was called by a nurse to a room in which he found an angry mother pointing at a sweating intern. "He stuck my son 4 times and still hasn't got the blood." Mrs K's count was accurate. The harassed intern was apologetic but the blood still needed to be gotten. "Let me try, Mrs K," said Dr W. "I'm Dr W, the resident on call tonight."

Mrs K looked him over doubtfully and asked, "Yeah, how do I know you're any good?"

"Any good?" repeated Dr W . . . "I just beat the Checker Man."

It worked, Dr W said. *