The Fleahouse Blues

| 21

Amidst the bright lights of movie theaters, near Hubert's museum and flea circus, and above the garish fast food eatery there were some large windows. Painted signs on glass read
               'The New York Academy of Chess and Checkers.' 
                                         'Games Arranged.'
                                              '10¢ per hour.' 
 I climbed a narrow stairway and found myself in a long dingy room crowded with men and thick with smoke. A few checker players were in the back,
but most of the games being played were chess...  
-Bill Hook


   My dear friend, Deb, a voracious and eclectic reader, finished reading Bill Hook's memoirs, Hooked on Chess. As usual, she did a bit of research on her own concerning some of the things mentioned in the book. One of those things mentioned was the Chess and Checker Club of New York, aka The Fleahouse -  pictured on the cover of the book.
   Deb sent me pertinent text from various sources Mr. Hook's book, the NY Times articles shown below, as well as the New Yorker article, and Andrew Soltis' article for Chess Life,  along with some information on the Log Cabin Chess Club.  Outside of a bit of knowledge about Lisa Lane I'm not well versed in that era of chess, so I nosed around a bit to try to get a handle on things so I could try to tie all this information together and present it in some coherent fashion.


New York Times, Feb. 16, 1960



          Many at Club Led to Safety by Off-Duty Patrolman

      A chess playing patrolman was given credit yesterday for averting panic and saving scores of lives when fire broke out in a West Forty-second Street chess and checker club.
      Patrolman Herbert Roberts, who was off-duty, was playing chess in the Chess and Checker Club of New York on the second floor of 210 West Forty-second Street when the fire was discovered shortly after 5 P.M.
      The blaze started in the read of the club. It was believed caused by fire in a grease duct of a Hector's Cafeteria, which occupies the street floor. The top floor of the three-story building is occupied by the Hartnett Music School.
      The 150 men in the club began to panic. Some ran toward the rear, seeking to go down the fire escape, but flames and smoke drove them back. Of the two doors in the front, one was locked and sealed off with an iron grill.
      As the men began to press around the one exit, Patrolman Roberts led a group to the windows at the front. He directed the men to smash the windows and get out onto a narrow iron balcony along the face of the building. From there, about thirty men clambered onto the marquee of the New Amsterdam Theatre next door.
      After seeing this group to safety, Patrolman Roberts crawled through the smoke to the men milling around the exit. He calmed their dears and directed them out inn an orderly fashion.
      He was the last to leave. He then went to the movie house and advised the manager to empty the theatre because of the fire next door.
      Firemen responding to an alarm turned in at 5:20 P.M. led another group to thirty men who had gathered on the balcony down the aerial ladder. No one was injured.
      The fire caused traffic to be diverted off Forty-second Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenues for almost an hour.


 NM Lonnie Kwartler ['s GreenLaser] had written Sam Sloan a note (published online by Sloan) concerning The Flea House (Sloan refers to Kwartler as "an old-time denizen of the Flea House, who grew up to become a reputable public school teacher") in which NM Kwartler states:   . . .The Fleahouse (one or two words) reflects the location of a flea circus on 42nd St. There was still one down the street to the west.
. . .Regarding Harold Fischer: I called him a Canadian checker player, but I do not recall his nationality. I remember now that he had a sign in his place stating that he won championships in Canada and New York. He had Fursa's club before Fursa. I heard that Fursa worked for Fischer and obtained the club in some unethical way. I was not able to check that. John gave up the club for health reasons. Collapsing can be convincing. His main worker, Cal, got it."

"Cal" would be Cal Morris. Mr. Hook maintained that Morris was an able manager who fit well in the chess scene at the Fleahouse, but who was forced to sell after an unexpected rent increase that was beyond his means.


New York Times,  May 18, 1966

Harold Fischer,
Checkers Expert
Ex-Operator of Clubs Dies
-  Won Canadian Title

     Harold Fischer, a checkers master, who established several unusual chess and checkers clubs in the Times Square area died on Monday in  Toronto. His age was 57.
     Mr. Fischer, a sufferer from muscular dystrophy, died of pneumonia.
     Last November, he sold his chess club at 109 West 42d Street to George Brady, a checkers champion, and went to live with his brother, Fred, in Toronto. He formerly lived at the Commander Hotel, 240 West 73d Street.
     Canadian-born, Mr. Fischer became a checkers phenomenon in his youth. He won the Canadian championship in 1925. He subsequently came here and operated the Manhattan Chess and Checkers Club at 212 West 43d Street in partnership with John Fursa.
     The club, which was largely Fischer's idea, was unusual in that anyone could walk in off the street and, for a fee, engage in a game of  checkers, chess or bridge, provided opponents or partners were available. Many exhibition matches were also staged there.
     Besides his brother Fred, Mr. Fischer leaves his wife, Catherine; another brother, Harry, and two sisters, Mrs. Lina Nick and Mrs. Sadie Rodney.
Fischer is the actual spelling used in the obituary. As Bob Podoff, who was writing about the checkers champion, Samuel Gonotsky correctly stated: "The time was 1946 and I frequented Harold Fisher's (not Fischer) checker club, called  "The New York Academy of Chess & Checkers" in Time Square every Saturday."
- Fischer is the actual spelling used in the obituary. As Bob Podoff, who was writing about the checkers champion, Samuel Gonotsky correctly stated: "The time was 1946 and I frequented Harold Fisher's (not Fischer) checker club, called  "The New York Academy of Chess & Checkers" in Time Square every Saturday." [parenthetically, Sam Gonostsky, a part-time Western Union messenger,  was the (checkers only) operator for the chess/checker automaton Ajeeb when it was owned by Mrs. Elmore and exhibited at Hamid's museum on Surf Avenue - not Hamid's Million Dollar Pier-  in Coney Island]



Describing Harold Fisher, Bill Hook wrote:     

 The New York Academy of Chess and Checkers had been opened a few years before by a Canadian Checkers champion named Harold Fisher, and so it came to be known as "Fisher's." He was a genial, bald, stoop-shouldered man, and well liked. Fred and Willie helped him run the place. Fred was his brother-in-law, whose bulk, broken nose and rolling gait made him seem like a former club-level boxer, which he may well have been. Willie was tall, thin, had thick glasses, and always wore a cap, suspenders, and a tie-less colorful shirt. He had twinkling eyes, a ready smile, and a very soft voice, but he rarely initiated a conversation.
     Fisher's was always well patronized; it was consistently crowded, even during the war years when few men of military age were around. The informality of the place was an appealing factor; the 'club' had no membership and anyone cold walk in and play for a modest fee, or just watch if the so chose, no sales pressure was ever applied. And somehow it worked! Of course, the club's prime location brought many people to that area. The transportation lines converged on a district densely packed with fine restaurants, theaters including the Metropolitan Opera House just two blocks away, cinemas and countless stores and offices.
     Two major contributors to Fisher's clientele were the nearby garment industry and jewelry trade district. These businesses were traditionally practiced by Jews, stemming from the olden days in Europe when other professions were closed off to them. With their natural predilection to chess, Fischer's attracted many Jews, who thereby contributed to the club's cultural enrichment. Yiddish was often spoken, and over the years I picked up a lot of words and phrases. An onlooker was called a kibitzer, for instance, and a poor player was a patzer. I actually got to the point where I evoked the opening phrase of the Kaddish (prayer for the dead) when my opponent had a busted position. Lest this seem like bad manners to you, it was in keeping with the tradition of 'coffee house chess,' as I came to learn. (Yes, coffee was available.)

Additionally, Mr. Hook informed us that,  After Fisher partnership with Fursa ended with Fursa retaining ownership of the club, Fisher immediately opened another place a block away, but was able to lure only a small number of players away. then Larry Evans, in partnership with Aaron Rothman, bought out Mary Bain's club. so at this time there were 3 clubs operating within 2 city blocks on 42nd street.


Bill Hook noted:
Once each year the strongest clubs in the New York area played a series of round-robin matches on eight boards. This was called the Metropolitan Chess League, and the participating teams were the Manhattan, Marshall, Fisher's, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, London Terrace and Log Cabin clubs. The Manhattan and the Marshall clubs usually took turns winning. . .
. . .  was the captain of the Fisher's team for a while, and we always looked forward to our match with the Manhattan in that they represented in our minds a somewhat haughty establishment, and we were the gallant proletarians, out looking for a big upset.
 One year we were to host the match, and it was a daunting prospect, since the Manhattan would have Pal Benko on 1st board, and he was then winning most of the weekend Swiss tournaments. But we hit upon the idea of putting Sam Richman on our first board. It was clearly our intent to offer Sam as a sacrifice to Benko, and that would make us relatively stronger on all the lower boards. Richman had never been a tournament player to our knowledge, but there was a semblance of logic to the pairing in that after the death of Treyeman, Sam was sort of king of the coffee house players. He was very pleased by our asking him, probably unaware of his sacrificial role. Of course he couldn't handle either the clock or Benko's play, and lost very quickly, apologizing as he went back to his customers. But the tactic worked! We won the match 5 to 3 and I. A. Horowitz devoted his New York Times column to "42nd Street chess."
    We were euphoric.


New York Times  June 9, 1963
By Al Horowitz

   The Chess and Checker Club of New York on 42d Street, in the center of Times Square, is a world unto itself. For some it is a sanctuary, for  others a way of life. For many, a testing ground to prove their mettle.
   This club links three eras. Here you will find the last veterans from the East Side coffee-houses. These old-timers who never read a chess book and whose only opening is "the old army game," the Giuoco Piano, are fierce competitors, ready to give or take any outlandish odds. As fiercely as thay assail their opponents with verbal barbs, they turn sharply upon their kibitzers.
   Then, there is the quorum of experts, masters and occasional grand masters, whose ranks are often spiced by a visiting chess celebrity from Europe or South America.
   Thirdly, there is the vast array of picturesque young players, brilliant and edgy, always primed for action. These are the rapid-fire, rapid-transit, "five-minute-clock" players.
   The regular run-of-the-mill chess lovers who never miss their daily session find the club a duffer's haven. The world's famous and would-be famous are seldom absent. From the opening time, about 11 A.M., until early morning, the atmosphere is electric, raffish, sharp - and unpredictable.
   Anything can happen and usually does.
   Recently, at the club's quarters, a grievous blow was dealt an eight-man team from the famous Manhattan Chess Club by the home team, 5 -3. The Chess and Checker Club winners were Harry Baker, Joe Balint, Harold Feldheim and Bill Hook. The defeated James Gore, Brian Owens, George Shainswit and Paul Brandts, respectively. Manhattan winners were Pal Benko and Alexander Kevitz, who defeated Sam Richman and I. Kerman, respectively. S. Tomchin, Chess and Checker drew with R. Steinmeyer, Manhattan, and J. Serenyi, Chess and Checker, drew with Dr. H. Sussman, Manhattan.



In his Chess Life Article, Andy Sotis referred to some of these things:

   Then it tried to gain respectability. It took out ads in magazines that read
"A Famous Chess Rendezvous . . . Games arranged . . . Refreshments served / NO MEMBERSHIP FEES."
   It also got good press. Harold Feldheim, a USCF expert and Fleahouse denizen, was reputedly one of Al Horowitz's ghosts. That may be why this game was featured in Horowitz;s New York Times column of June 2, 1963
 [here he included a game between Harold Feldheim (w) and George Shainswit (b), won by Feldheim]

.  .  .

[writting about how the Fleahouse was doing the unthinkable - winning the Metropolitan Chess League tournament]

The Fleahouse win the met league? sacrilege!

I remember how the only obstacle in its path to the title the year was my team, the Marshall Juniors.  Before our crucial match our captian, Dave Daniels, another Horowitz ghost [writer], delivered the best pep talk I can recall. It ended with: 
 "If we let this lice- ridden, flea-bitten, pack of mongrels win the Met league, we might as well give up chess."
   We lost anyway."


 The Stanley Kubrick film, The Killing, was filmed in part at the Chess and Checker Club of New York or "the Academy of Chess and Checkers,"  later known as The Flea House.  Kubrick, a former chess hustler and frequenter of  The Flea House and other such venues,
. . . delved into his Greenwich Village experiences to flesh out characters like Maurice, the wrestler who provides a diversion during the robbery. An old chess buddy, Kola Kwarian, played him, and Kubrick set the scene where Johnny meets him at the "Academy of Chess and Checkers," based on th New York "Flea House" where Kubrick used to play.
(from Stanley Kubrick by John Baxter)

To eke out his unemployment insurance, Kubrick began hustling chess games, a popular practice among the younger players. [Alan] Kaufman [who would later be executive director of the American Chess Foundation] and his friends would play at The Flea House until they had won enough to pay for a meal, then, after dinner, hustle enough for a movie. Kubrick preferred to play Washington Square area, near MacDougal and West 4th Streets. The fixed concrete boards were free - at The Flea House players paid by the hour and the open air offered the maximum number of kibitzers - spectators and potzers - patsies. By timing his games carefully, Kubrick occupied a shaded board by day but switched to one under a street light as night fell. He remembered a typical take for a twelve-hour day as around $3 - 'which goes a long way,' he told his friend years later, 'if all you are buying with it is food' - but he almost certainly made much more.
     - also from Stanley Kubrick by John Baxter

According to Bill Wall, 
The Academy of Chess and Checkers was a mock up of the 42nd Street Chess and Checker Parlor in New York City. Both Kola and Stanley were regular chess players there."
"Clay goes to the Academy of Chess and Checkers (the Flea House), looking for a buddy of his. He passes by several chess games in progress until he reaches one being overseen and kibitzed by big 250 pound Maurice Oboukhoff ( [played by] Kola Kwariani (1903-1980) ). The club is run by a guy named Fischer. Clay interrupts the kibitzing to talk to Maurice. They go to an empty chess table by the window where Clay offers Maurice $2,500 to start a fight diversion for a robbery at the race track. When Clay asks Maurice how's life been treating him, Maurice says, "About the same as always. When I need some money, I go out and wrestle. But mostly I'm up here, wasting my time playing chess. But I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I didn't have this place to go to.

Again, according to NM Lonnie Kwartler  Saturday night TCM showed "The Killing." I saw it in a drive-in in 1958. A few year later, I met Nick. [Nicholas "Kola" Kwariani] I was "one of the few" who knew his name. He told me he was born in 1900. He gave me a check in his later years that had a Queens address (which I didn't save long after his death). The self-described "Great Richmond," who died in 1970, also told me he was born in 1900. I knew his [The Great Richmond's?] name was Sam Reichman. Muggings also shortened his life, I think.


Bill Hook, "Hooked on Chess"
During my first year at 42nd Street, a man named Sam Richman made a singular impression upon me. He was perhaps 35 at the time, tall, had a thick head of black hair, and one eye had an ominous black spot in the corner, which belied his essentially gentle nature. I later learned that Sam had been married and owned a delicatessen in Brooklyn in the 1930's. A strong player, he plunged into a series of increasingly high stakes games with George Treysman, lost his delicatessen, and then his wife left him. His life in ruins because of chess miscalculations, he then
chose to become a hustler for the rest of his life!
   I observed Sam for almost 30 years on 42nd Street, often giving odds that were too generous. The erect, imposing man with black hair gradually changed: his hair grayed; his posture stooped; he limped and when he lost some teeth, his face became a sunken caricature of his former noble features. A sad chess tale, but surely a variant of our own deterioration if we survive long enough. The more important things to consider with Sam Richman, is that he was an honorable, talented, good person who was well liked, and thereby thrived in his own way during his many years on 42nd Street. 


Mr. Kwartler elsewhere mentioned:  The Flea House designated the Chess and Checker Club of New York, which was located on 42nd Street near Times Square. It was a place where players could come and play chess, checkers, Russian checkers, Spanish checkers, dominoes, go, backgammon, scrabble, gin rummy, and bridge. The strength of the chess players ran the gamut from unrated to grandmaster. The range of customers was wide whether from the perspective of social (or antisocial) class or nationality. At times there were organized tournaments, simuls, and team matches. However, the place was best known for unrated chess played with or without stakes. The terms for these were sociable or hustling.

The Flea House from "The Killing" -



The New Yorker  of  Dec. 6, 1999 listed this story:
   SKETCHBOOK: The Chess Parlor on Forty-second Street. 
   by Edward Sorel

Missing Pieces

     "I was never much of a chess player, but in the early fifties I used to hang around the Chess & Checker Club of New York. Occupying the second floor of a decrepit walk-up next to the New Amsterdam Theatre, on Forty-second Street, it was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. At night, the neon of a dozen theaters made the street entrance easy to miss, but after 4 A.M., when the marquees went dark, the light from the club's large windows became a beacon, attracting the dispossessed as well as the chess possessed.
     John Fursa owned the place. He was not amused when some of the regulars referred to it as "the fleas house." In fact John kept his
establishment fairly neat. He regularly emptied ashtrays, collected abandoned coffee cups (china), and supplied plenty of hangers (wooden) for coats. There was a prohibition on betting and no embargo on bringing food from Grant's, the all-night fifteen-cent-hamburger joint on the corner. Sometimes John would shatter the quiet with an explosion of expletives, signalling that another chess piece was missing. Someone, he said, was stealing them, one or two at a time, with the clear intention of accumulating a complete set. As far a I know, he never did catch the culprit.
     Inept as a detective, John did better as a matchmaker, finding partners for patrons who showed up solo. Some nights, however, there was no one who played as poorly as I did, so I stood around watching the masters. One of them was an intense young man with heavy-lidded eyes. Years later, I saw his photograph in Sight & Sound, above a caption identifying him as Stanley Kubrick, director of "The Killing."
     In time, Forty-second Street morphed into a gantlet (gauntlet?) of porno theatres and sex shops, and in the eighties the club closed its doors. Now, with the street Disneyfied, nothing as unprofitable as a forty-cent-an-hour chess parlor is likely to reappear. Pity. It was a good place to enjoy solitude without being alone. -E.S.

Mr. Hook also wrote of the gradual deterioration of 42nd Street and the club itself :   The metamorphosing from The New York Academy of Chess and Checkers, to Fisher's, to Fursa's, to the final despicable "Flea House" seemed to point to its downfall.


                      a bit more information at FleaHouse Blues in my Chess Journal.