Remembering Lester Schonbrun, and the New York Games Parlor Where He Found a Second Home

Bringing out the dead.
March 28 2014 10:26 AM

“Tuches Sleeps With the Dictionary!”

Remembering Lester Schonbrun, and the dingy Times Square games parlor where he found a second home.

(Continued from Page 1)

It was the games, but the people, too. Venal chess hustlers like Israeli Jack, “who goaded people into playing him by being obnoxious.” Volatile young stars like Jackie Beers, a Bobby Fischer pal who, Lester remembered, “was generally seen confronting people who had signed a petition to keep him out of the place,” and Joe Tamargo, who once announced that he had ripped the transmission from an ex-girlfriend’s car but whom “at least you could talk to.” There was Sam Richman, who was said to have lost his deli in a chess game. And Tiger, a scrawny guy with a dangling Camel who always played chess against Nick the Wrestler, a bald giant who had a role in the 1956 Stanley Kubrick film The Killing. A scene was shot in the Flea House. Kubrick was a regular for a time.

Nick the Wrestler in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.
Nick the Wrestler in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.

Still via MGM

Lester would leave dinner parties early to go to the Flea House. “Good food, good company, intelligent people,” he wrote. “As soon as the food was gone I started itching to be at the Flea House. Sometimes I could see the hurt feelings on the faces of my friends.” He went anyway. He even went on the day he was married at City Hall. His new (second) wife didn’t mind much; she had her own passion, making pots. One day, walking to the Flea House through Times Square, Lester wound up as an extra in Midnight Cowboy. The Flea House was an addiction, as powerful as any drug. “I can remember my heart pounding with joyous anticipation as I went up the smelly steps, two at a time,” he wrote. It was also an escape, from the work and bosses and routines and demands he so disdained. It was like Nick the Wrestler says in that scene in The Killing: “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have this place to come to.”

Lester and the Flea House players were among the first to discover that Scrabble was a complex, sophisticated, strategic game—part language, part math, part psychology. They were unlocking the game’s secrets, the stuff competitive players take for granted now: which letters to play off, which to keep, when to play a phony, how to win. They extracted the two- and three-letter words from Funk & Wagnalls. They realized that the key to success was making bingos—plays using all seven letters, to earn the 50-point bonus—and that the keys to making bingos were finding prefixes and suffixes, forming common words from frequently occurring letters, and winning the race to the blanks. No word probability lists or computer study programs. Just a dictionary, curiosity, analysis, repetition, and lots of time. (One of Lester’s sessions lasted three days and three nights.) 

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Lester was also present at the creation of Scrabble’s tournament culture. With a 17–1 record, he won the first New York City tournament, staged by the proprietor of another games parlor, the Chess House, in the late 1960s. The victory paid $35. By then, the Flea House hustlers wouldn’t play Lester even straight up. He was one of the best in the place, and by extension New York, and therefore most likely anywhere at all. “When I started to have status, it meant a lot to me,” he told me. “I knew it wasn’t because I kissed anyone’s ass.”

Lester and I began corresponding as my own obsession with the game was growing. My heart would race as I climbed the subway steps at West Fourth Street or biked over the Brooklyn Bridge to Washington Square Park and its outdoor Scrabble scene. If I was lucky, one of my characters would be there—the tattooed Vietnam vet Richie Lund, a star of that SI story; the curmudgeonly Joe Simpson, always in fatigues and a beret, who one day years later would turn TAWNY into MULLIGATAWNY for 116 points and anagrammatic immortality; the tortured genius stand-up comic Matt Graham. I envied Lester the Flea House and wanted to see a parallel. But 2000 wasn’t 1965. Sleazy Times Square was gone, the Flea House was gone, doing what Lester did—living in a $40-a-month SRO “like a bear with furniture,” floating from one computer-programming job to the next, vanishing for days-long sessions—gone, gone, gone. 

Lester left for San Francisco in 1970, and the Flea House closed in the 1980s. Scrabble went mainstream. Lester played in 367 tournaments over 35 years, placing as high as second in the National Scrabble Championship. He settled in Oakland, married again, this time for good. He made peace with his aversion to jobs and authority and the ruling class. The armchair commie could still write a satirical polemic about post-9/11 America and vent about the moral hypocrisy and racial dynamics at play in the Barry Bonds steroids prosecution. (“What’s juicing compared to an owner moving a team to increase profits?”) But he could also go to work every day as a legal secretary and enjoy the ballgames every night. 

Lester was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 2011, was saved by surgery, and played more Scrabble. In January he sent me an email with a one-word subject line: “Curtains.” The cancer was back. A month later, Lester died. He was 78.

I mourn now for Lester, and for his lost culture too. At the Flea House, in the beginning, he resented the arrogant chess masters who would hustle the innocent and sneer at them at the same time. “But gradually I found myself sticking up for the hustlers when talking to my friends,” he wrote. “It’s like the scene in The Godfather when Al Pacino says to Diane Keaton, ‘Who’s being naive?’ ” Lester saw the straight world as “dominated by world-class super hustlers who are also hypocrites.” The games world could be cruel and snide, but at least it was objective, at least its hustlers had no pretensions about what they were doing. “If you were good,” Lester wrote, “little else mattered.” Lester was very good. And for a long time, little else mattered.

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