The Chess and Checker Club of New York was on the second floor of a run-down building on “the worst block in town,” 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, upstairs from the sex shops and porno theaters of Times Square, downstairs from a gym. (The Disney Store occupies the site today.) It was better known as the Flea House, after a flea circus operating in the basement of Hubert’s Dime Museum down the block.
The Flea House was a round-the-clock gathering place for postwar émigrés of a certain age and temperament. The owner, John Fursa, charged 20 cents an hour to rent playing pieces (30 cents after midnight, 60 cents after 2 a.m.). He served coffee and salami sandwiches and Campbell’s green pea soup with, oddly, a sugar cube on the side. For chess, you just sat down and played. Fursa would punch a time-clock ticket and place it on the table. But there also was bridge and checkers and, after it took off in the 1950s, Scrabble. You had to ask Fursa for a board and tiles.
When Lester Schonbrun first visited the Flea House, around 1960, he didn’t like it. “It seemed drab and weird,” he told me, “a gray, unhealthy place, with whacky old Eastern Europeans in various stages of emphysema.” I met Lester in 1997, at the World Scrabble Championship. He was a top player, and an irresistible character: scraggly beard; magnifying-glass lenses; baggy plaid-flannel shirts, Tevas with socks, a rumpled baseball cap. He was a soft-spoken intellectual, the son of Hungarian Jews in working-class Queens. And he was a commie! At a tournament a couple of years later, he got a rise out of some players when he announced he was for rooting for China, and against the United States, in the Women’s World Cup penalty-kick shootout.
Lester had felt burned by writers before—long interviews about Scrabble strategy and camaraderie and then, in print, “the one arrogant or thorny thing I wished I hadn’t said.” He was especially peeved about a cameo in S.L. Price’s fantastic 1995 Sports Illustrated feature about competitive Scrabble, in which Lester said he loved the prize money, which was ironic because, you know, he was a commie. (In truth, it was a great quote: “You can’t escape the smoke that’s all around you, even as a Communist.”) But I was a wannabe player, and curious about the early days of the game, before tournaments and word lists, when Scrabble players hustled for money like their chess counterparts, and I promised to do right by him.
So Lester trusted me—“I hope I can find a way to tell you what a powerful, unsung culture the game world of the ’50s and ’60s was for me,” he wrote—and over the next months and years, he did just that, spoon-feeding me his life story in 500- and 1,000-word servings. They were poignant, heartfelt, and wistful, and packed with exquisite details: characters who kibitzed and brawled; disappeared places that reeked of cigarettes and urine; scenes and dialogue out of Damon Runyon.
The Flea House was at the center of it all. After his first, unappealing visit, Lester fell in with a group of Columbia grad students who played chess at an Upper West Side bar called the Gold Rail. When the bar closed at 4 a.m., they would head to one player’s apartment and play timed games called risers, so named because the loser had get up and give way to the next opponent. When the usual host moved out of town, the early-morning action shifted to the Flea House. Among friends, it didn’t seem depressing. One night, one of the regulars arrived at the Gold Rail waving a Scrabble board and a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary. “They play Scrabble at the Flea House,” he announced, “and they use a clock!”
Lester was better at the game than his friends. He played ORGANIZE down from a triple-word score. THROMBIN brought an early rush. But to the Flea House hustlers, he was a fish, an easy mark, spotted as much as 175 points a game. One day Lester played GREASY on a triple-word score, with the last few letters overlapping other words, the Y forming OY, which Lester wasn’t sure about. The guy who was hustling him was impressed, and told Lester he wouldn’t be a fish for long. Lester even earned a nickname, “Tuches”—one regular would greet him by saying, “Lester! Lester! Mein tuches ist dein shvester!” (Translation: “My ass is your sister.”) When word got around that Lester kept a Funk & Wagnalls beside his bed, another player announced, “Tuches sleeps with the dictionary!”