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An Unauthorized Look at Scrabble and the People Who Play It
By Paul McCarthy
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2008 Paul McCarthy
All rights reserved.
The New York Game Rooms
1960s Hustlers Refine the Game
Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect, developed Scrabble while living in Jackson Heights, New York, in the 1930s, but it wasn't marketed under its present name, board configuration, and tile distribution until 1948. The game sold with little fanfare and in small numbers for close to five years. Then, in 1953, Scrabble exploded into the public consciousness as sales went through the roof. It isn't totally clear why. Some say it was due to its sale through Macy's department store in New York and the associated publicity that this engendered. Others felt the boom resulted from the steady, but limited, sales of the game producing a critical mass of players. Whatever the reasons, it remained just a game for the next fifteen years. It wasn't until the 1960s that the modern strategy and tactics of serious Scrabble slowly emerged.
When Selchow & Righter (S&R) instituted organizedScrabble with clubs and tournaments in the early 1970s, even though there were good players in San Francisco, Chicago, and Toronto, it was generally recognized that the top tile pushers were in New York City. There was a reason for that. They developed in the public game rooms, places like the Fleahouse and the Chess House in the 1960s, and Chess City, the Game Room, and to a lesser extent the Bar Point Club and the Olive Tree, a Greenwich Village coffee house, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a phenomenon unique to New York.
The New York game rooms were places where the public could play chess, checkers, backgammon, poker, gin rummy, and sometimes bridge, depending on the time and place. The equipment was rented and the players paid by the hour, says Les Schonbrun, of Oakland, California, who cut his Scrabble teeth at the Fleahouse in the mid 1960s and is the only competitor from that era still active in tournament play. Located on 42nd Street near Broadway, the Fleahouse, also known as the New York Chess and Checkers Club, was where serious Scrabble, not unlike what exists at the tournament level today, was born. A few men, and fewer women, gathered to match wits for a penny or two a point and refine the rules of what for most Americans was a family game.
Except for the nights when Fran Goldfarb played, there wasn't much to look at at the Fleahouse, according to Jeff Kastner, an Arizona marketing executive, who began playing there in 1969. The Fleahouse was owned by John Fursa, a gruff and scruffy looking fellow, who usually locked the doors after midnight and wouldn't let you in unless he knew you, says Schonbrun. And for good reason. The area was also home to numerous porn theaters, sex shops, and various unsavory characters.
You had to walk up a long set of creaky stairs, says Kastner. The place always smelled. "It's hard to describe, but somewhere between a men's locker room and a cheap bar," he says. It was not uncommon for the occasional derelict to wander in. "The tables, chairs, and walls had the look of a rundown school cafeteria," says Kastner, but there were large windows that offered a view of 42nd Street, such as it was. The chess, checkers, backgammon, and Scrabble sets were old and in need of replacement. Fist fights and cursing in various languages were acceptable behavior. "The bathrooms stank of urine and semen," says Kastner. "Need I say more?" Schonbrun remembers it was mostly frequented by hustlers and Eastern European emigrés. Two or three players were explosively violent and you had to be careful around them, he says. "There was a guy named Sal, with a Neanderthal jaw and brow, who was brutishly strong, not a bad chess and Scrabble player, but who shook people down when he was low on funds."
Charles Goldstein, who now lives in Berkeley, California, has similar recollections. Goldstein first went there to play chess when he was still a high school student in the 1960s. Later, while at Brooklyn College, he would drop in to play Scrabble. He didn't play the top people, who he remembers as "old guys who were not very friendly and smoked a lot," although Richie Gilston, an editor at Funk & Wagnalls, did clobber him once. His most vivid memory, though, is of literally being clobbered. "I beat this guy pretty badly," says Goldstein, who would go on to finish fifth in the 1978 North American Invitational, "so he flipped over the board and then punched me in the eye."
Still, this was the place where it started. Schonbrun first went to the Fleahouse with some physics graduate students who liked to play chess. It wasn't long before he discovered his gift for Scrabble. While he was recovering from his first marriage, a friend, Al Tesoro, was avoiding his physics dissertation. They got into sessions that lasted for days. "We didn't take breaks," says Schonbrun, "just had soup and sandwiches over the board, watched the day players come in and leave, come in and leave again."
People like Charlie Hendricks, Paul Brandts, Asa Hoffman, Shelby Lyman, and Richie Gilston played too. And, of course, there was Bernie Wishengrad, who would later win the New York City Championship twice, and Mike Senkiewicz, whomS&R would tap in 1972 to set up tournament Scrabble pretty much as it is today. They played with chess clocks (eighteen minutes for the score-keeper, fifteen for his opponent), the double challenge rule (gain a turn if you're right, lose one if you're wrong) and the Funk & Wagnalls College Dictionary.
They also played for money. Against one another it was mostly for practice, bragging rights, and to make things interesting, says Kastner. But when they "hustled fish," people from off the street, they gave handicaps such as money, time odds, free challenges, or spotted points (instead of starting from zero the opponent was given some arbitrary number of points, say 100, before the game began). The idea was to fleece the unsuspecting. Some of these guys were Runyonesque characters, according to Kastner. Hoffman was a chess master who could hustle almost any board or card game, including Scrabble. A good part of the time he slept on chairs in the backroom and spent his days at the track. "He was so notorious," says Kastner, "he was featured in the chess film Searching for Bobby Fischer."
Shelby Lyman was another chess whiz, who hosted the TVcoverage of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship. Bernie Wishengrad was a great handicapper who made his living at the track, while Richie Gilston was a writer/editor, who never had the nerves for tournament Scrabble but was a fine player in his own right. Brandts was also a chess master who often played Scrabble against Schonbrun and Mike Senkiewicz, considered the top two players in New York City. "I learned a lot from kibbitzing those sessions," says Kastner.
There were also a few women players, but they were scarce at the Fleahouse, where the price of admission was an obsession with the game and a willingness to negotiate the neighborhood. Kastner recalls Shazzi Felstein, who placed ninth at the 1978 North American Invitational, Fran Goldfarb, and a "Scrabble Rosie." The sleaziness was a big deterrent to women, says Schonbrun. "Everyone was smoking and sallow-faced," he says. "There was nothing to attract anyone who wasn't totally absorbed with chess, Scrabble, or bridge."
Kastner remembers his first visit to the Fleahouse well. He was a student at NYU at the time and captain of the chess team. It didn't take long for Asa Hoffmann, a chess master, to sidle over and ask if he wanted to play. Naturally, they played for the time and equipment rental. Hoffmann wore army fatigues and pretended to be on leave. A likely fish. "He even had me explain to him how to use the chess lock," says Kastner, who partway into the game realized he was being conned.
The approach to hustling Scrabble fish was similar, according to Kastner. They had to believe that they could beat you, he says, "so you had to play just good enough to win." That meant not playing words that would frighten them away or winning by too much, something that was easier to do in chess, which is mostly skill, than in Scrabble, which also involves the luck of the draw. Kastner found that as he played more, and became a regular, that his reputation preceded him. "So I often had to spot enormous odds of money, time, or points to lure the fish into playing me," he says.
Numerous present-day Scrabble conventions were born at the Fleahouse, but there were also some differences with today's play. As previously mentioned, the time allotment was one of them, with eighteen minutes for the score-keeper and fifteen for his opponent, considerably shorter than the twenty-five minutes allowed each player today. Both parties tally the score today, which cuts down on errors. Still, Schonbrun says that people played sessions back then—anywhere from four to twelve games with the same person, at say two cents a point, so it was the total point spread that people cared about. They alternated keeping score and assumed the errors would average out over the long haul.
The "look-up" rule was different too. It was "you played it, you find it," rather than using an impartial person to look up the word. This flies in the face of the common-sense feeling today that no one wants to give an opponent the opportunity to scan the dictionary and learn the correct spelling of a word, or possibly discover a whole new word that can be formed from the same letters. It made a degree of sense, though, when using the Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary, because for many words, a player had to know where to look. Who would know better, for example, that MARIA (the plural of MARE) was found underMARE, than the person who played it.
The practice can be defended on other grounds. Schonbrun still feels that the possibility that a player might have found something useful was outweighed by the fact that he had only himself to blame if he looked up the word incorrectly and couldn't find it. Steve Polatnick, a Miami lawyer, who began playing at the Game Room in 1978, liked the rule too, and still uses it with friends. He recalls, though, how it was once used against him.
He was new to serious Scrabble and was up against Gary Fredericks, who lay down OUTROPE. Polatnick challenged the play, and Fredericks looked it up. At first he seemed dejected, then "his eyes lit up," according to Polatnick. Fredericks saidOUTROPE was no good, gave up his turn, watched Polatnick play, and then threw down OUTPORE. "I figured," says Polatnick, "that while looking up OUTROPE he had foundOUTPORE, which isn't good either. He gave a brilliant performance and fooled me." Despite being outsmarted, Polatnick recounts the tale with an obvious trace of admiration for Fredericks, even a quarter century after the fact. It was a different time and place, which rewarded a different style of play than today.
Ron Tiekert, one of Scrabble's all-time greats, recalls how he took advantage of the look-up rule when playing the formidable Jim Neuberger at the Game Room. Funk & Wagnalls was famous for its lists. OVER- and -OUT words, among others, were in lists under OVER and OUT, but some lists were less obvious. Neuberger had played DIEMAKER, a nice find, but Tiekert suspected that Neuberger would look under Dif he were challenged and not under M where the MAKER list resided. And he was right. Tiekert challenged and won when Neuberger couldn't find the acceptable DIEMAKER. "To some extent it was a guilty pleasure," says Tiekert, "but ethical in the context of the game rooms."
There were other differences with play in the '60s and today's play. Tiles were drawn from a shallow box, where they rested face down. Another chance for the hustler to get one up. Les Schonbrun says he had been around for a while, was already one of the best players in the club, but one day discovered he wasn't privy to the blank scam. He had just won a session against a seasoned player who stalked off saying, "You're the luckiest fish on earth." Schonbrun was puzzled and asked another regular what the guy was talking about. This regular picked out the blanks, which were face down in the box. "I guess he thought he could beat you if he got all the blanks," he told an astonished Schonbrun.
The blanks were a cinch to spot, according to Schonbrun, if you knew what to look for. The tiles were made of a light-colored wood, but the blanks were always a little lighter. The blanks rested on each of their sides about half the time, so they got half as dirty as the other tiles, which were always face down. At one point the "split blank rule" solved the problem. At the beginning of the game each player was given a blank to use when he saw fit. Schonbrun recalls that it did solve the problem, but "that no one loved it that much, either." When tile bags came in, the split blank rule went out, and many of the players were glad to see it go, he says.
A further variance with today's play was board orientation. It's inconceivable to most players now, but in the 1960s and through much of the 1970s, serious Scrabble was played on cheap cardboard sets, not the lazy-Susan type boards with nonslip, indented cells for the tiles, that everyone uses today. To avoid jostling the letters out of position, the boards were never turned. Instead, the players sat across from one another, with the board at right angles, so each could read the tiles equally well. Ron Tiekert, who began playing at the Chess House in 1971, says he played his first 5000 games that way.
Tiekert only played at the Fleahouse a few times, but recalls another difference between play then and contemporary play. There was no tile tracking—the tallying of tiles as they are used, so a player knows which tiles remain. "They might count out the tiles at the end of a game, time permitting," says Tiekert, but they neither constructed a tracking sheet during the game nor used the preprinted tracking sheets (which list all the tiles) that are favored today. Early players also tended to emphasize "tile turnover," playing as many tiles as possible, to increase the chances of drawing the blanks (the most valuable tiles), an approach that is no longer considered good strategy.
Another place where a lot of Scrabble was played was the Chess House, located in a spacious townhouse on 72nd Street between Broadway and Columbus Avenue, says Kastner. The first floor accommodated about forty people, who paid a dollar and a quarter an hour to play Scrabble, chess, checkers, backgammon, Go, and other board games. Kastner recalls a backroom for contract bridge, a full kitchen, and a room on the second floor for poker, gin rummy, and table tennis. In 1976, when he took over from Mike Senkiewicz as manager of the Manhattan Chess Club, Kastner got very cozy with the Chess House. "It was my main haunt," he says, "especially after I moved to the neighborhood. I was there from about six p.m. to the wee hours most nights." It was owned by Charlie Hidalgo, a strong chess player. Some of the people who played there were Frank Kuehnrich, Joe Richman, Steve Brandwein, Linda Gruber, the late Steve Pfeiffer, and beginning in 1971, a green but eager Ron Tiekert.
It was at the Chess House in 1974 or 1975 that Gary Brown witnessed the famous OUISTITI match between Schonbrun and Senkiewicz. "They were like gods to serious players," says Brown. Schonbrun was visiting from Oakland, California, where he had resided since 1970. On this particular night he was losing badly. He was drawing poorly and Senkiewicz had just plopped down CLARETS. The game looked like a drubbing, according to Brown. The S of CLARETS, though, sat on the fourth square over from the left on the bottom row, setting up a triple/triple possibility, the highest scoring play in Scrabble. But Schonbrun had IIIOTTU. He took a lot of time with it, says Brown. "We were all looking, at each other thinking, 'What's he doing? He's got nothing.'" Then Schonbrun slapped downOUISTITI (a South American monkey) for 122 points. "It was the only time I've seen people applaud," says Brown. Now players study eight-letter bingos (a word of seven or more letters) regularly and OUISTITI, while a good find, would not be that surprising, "but back then," says Brown, "it was just amazing."
As the popularity of chess waned, the Chess House became the House of Games and eventually folded in 1976 or 1977. It was replaced by a club that popped up in 1973 called Chess City, located at 100th Street and Broadway. Jim Neuberger played Scrabble there, along with Steve Williams, Bob Richardson, Ann Sanfedele, Paul Avrin, Stu Goldman, Steve Pfeiffer, and Rick Rutman, among others. Neuberger recalls playing there on the night of the blackout of 1977. "We all continued playing by candlelight," he says, "while we could hear crowds looting in a store below. It was pretty scary."
Many of the top players got their starts at Chess City, says Brown. He gives the credit to the late Mike Martin, who worked there. To conjure up Martin, says Brown, just think of Dustin Hoffman playing Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. "The gray suit, the expressions, the vocabulary, the mannerisms. That was Mike Martin," says Brown. He had an uncanny ability to gauge how much stronger he was than a new player and would offer just the right spot, say fifty points, to make the game interesting. And since they were playing for a penny a point, says Brown, "It was good, because you could learn a lot without the fear of losing a lot." As the newcomer improved, Martin would decrease the spot. Ron Tiekert and Steve Pfeiffer started that way, says Brown.
Excerpted from Letterati by Paul McCarthy. Copyright © 2008 Paul McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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