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!”
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.
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.)
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.