(This 3rd post in the series clocks in at right about 1600 words. I couldn’t find a way to break it in to 2 parts, so I’m posting it in full. I apologize for the length and promise that future posts in this series will be more concisely edited.)
Please read part one, The Story of John and Robin
Please read part two, John & Robin’s mentor, Sid Sackson
"To me, selling [Sid Sackson’s] collection in bits and pieces is like taking a giant beautiful tapestry that took years to make, and undoing all the threads and selling them and the canvas separately.” – Robin King
THE WORLD'S LARGEST GAME COLLECTION
Sid Sackson didn’t collect games. When he saw a game he wanted to play, he bought it. He wasn’t interested in what kind of ratings or reviews it had. He was a student of all games, especially ones with mechanics or components he’d never seen before.
As his games gradually began to take over 3 rooms and a basement in the small Bronx home he and his wife Bernice shared, Sid never thought of them as having any monetary value. In fact, few of his games were in mint condition, anyway. He wore them out playing them.
The shelves and closets began to fill up faster when the game inventor became a game reviewer, first for the wargame magazine Strategy & Tactics, then with Games magazine and Gamers Alliance. He began receiving review copies of games, but all those free games weren’t enough to sate his curiosity. According to Sid himself, “I discovered rummage sales and I really got going. It’s definitely turned into an addiction."
That was Sid Sackson in a nutshell: not a game collector, but a game addict. His ‘addiction’ caused him to amass 18,000 games in his lifetime.
And Sid was a board game junkie. His house full of games became a mecca to gamers. My friend, John McCallion, along with his late wife Robin King, enjoyed the hospitality of Sid and Bernice on many occasions.
Along with Sid’s family, John and Robin witnessed Alzheimer’s Disease take increasing control over Sid’s mind starting in the late 1990s. A lifelong diarist, his entries betrayed the progress of the disease. Even his beloved board games were slipping away from him. According to Bernice, “He couldn't recognize his own games anymore.”
It’s yet another of life’s sad ironies that games and puzzles are touted today as ways to slow the advance of Alzheimer’s. Yet the greatest game inventor – and game player – of his generation succumbed anyway. Sid Sackson died on November 6th, 2002, at the age 82.
Even before his death, as the medical bills for his care and treatment mounted, the family started making plans to sell his games to help defray the expenses. It was a painful process for Bernice, who had been Sid’s partner in games and in life for the previous 61 years.
“His big dream was to have had a game museum,“ Bernice once said. “He was hoping to have a college acquire the collection, and he would take care of it.” In fact, for many years, Sid and Bernice tried to find a university or museum to take their games.
But Sid would have to come along with the collection. No institutions would agree to that, according to Bernice. “They would always say the same thing: 'Where did you get your degree?' And he didn't have a doctorate.”
But at one point, years before Sid died, the Boston Children’s Museum reached out to him. Surprisingly, Sid turned the offer down. Yes, he wanted to donate his games, but he was never ready to donate them. At the time, Sid said with some regret, "I need about half a year to get it all cataloged. And I never seem to get that half year."
As his health began to fail, the family tried to find a single person or institution that would purchase the entire collection. They also contacted Sotheby’s, but the prestigious auction house wasn’t interested. No doubt to them, Sid’s treasure was little more than thrift shop trash.
Some in the family hoped to use Board Game Geek to sell off the games. It would have been a lot of work to sell the games piecemeal, but their thinking was that at least Sid’s games would be in the hands of the people who would most appreciate them, play them, and develop them further.
But then, other members of the family struck a deal with a New Jersey auction house, North River Auction House in Keyport, New Jersey. According to Sid’s daughter-in-law, Mary Ellen, “There was a mix-up with one sibling not knowing what the other was doing and [Bernice] thinking we were both referring to the same party."
As plans were laid by his family to liquidate his collection, Sid died unexpectedly. The auction went ahead, starting Nov. 15, just 9 days after Sid died.
The auction, by all accounts, was a mess, though North River was great to work with. Overwhelmed and short on time, they never contacted experts or sought advice from collectors. They admitted they didn’t know what they had on their hands.
Among other problems with the way the auction was handled, they sorted games into box lots containing both collectible and ordinary items. Or they’d simply put games together based on similar names or publishers. And they never checked inside the boxes for other materials; some games contained letters, checks and other personal documents.
The auction was far from a disaster, however. After all, Dale Friedman, representing the family, noted it was “wonderful to be surrounded by so many people who obviously loved and admired my father.” It was certainly a respectful and well-behaved crowd. The organizer, Mark Csik, praised the attendees, calling them “one of the most civilized and considerate audiences I’ve dealt with.”
There were some 200 in attendance, less than100 of which were actually involved in the bidding. Many game fans came just to see the scope of the collection and gawk at the rarities on sale. Many celebrities of the hobby were there, too, including Will Shortz and Steve Jackson. One collector flew in from Oregon, and a game designer from the U.K., Ian Livingstone, also attended.
Serious gamers who knew and respected Sid had already come to terms with the auction’s necessity. Livingstone, attending with Steven Jackson, thought it was “a landmark in gaming history and we should be there.” Many were disappointed that the sale didn’t do Sid’s legacy justice. As one commented, “It was sad to see Sid’s life work being sold off in such an underwhelming way.”
Estimates of the collection’s size ranged from 16,000 to 20,000. But most pinned the number at 18,000. Attempts were made to track the sales throughout the weekend. On Friday evening, Sid’s books were put up for auction. There were about 500 volumes, which brought in around $4000, or $8 per book.
Throughout the next day, Saturday, some 13,000 games came under the gavel, bringing in around $60,000. Csik said that was about twice as much as he expected, a depressing thought, as he must have had really low expectations. The rest of Sid’s games were sold at a second auction a few months later. But the crowds then were smaller, and the bids lower.
As smoothly as the auction went, it was not without controversy. Buyers had the option to have their purchases stamped for authentication, and there were ongoing debates about whether such a stamp was appropriate.
In retrospect, it primarily appears obvious that those who wanted their games stamped ‘from the collection of Sid Sackson’ did so for the purpose of reselling the games for a profit. It’s a fact that hundreds of such stamped items turned up on eBay in the months after the auction.
However, fans and collectors, who appreciated the true value of owning part of Sid’s collection, didn’t need the stamp for validation.
John and Robin didn’t attend the auction of Sid’s life work. (Most of his prototypes and all of his writings were later donated to the Strong Museum of Play.) They knew Sid’s original wish for his games, and they couldn’t bring themselves to see Sid’s lifework scattered to the four winds.
Too, they were sad that Sid never took it upon himself to organize his collection so it could be properly donated. On the other hand, if Sid had earlier donated all his games to a museum, what would his family have done to pay the medical bills?
John’s collection (and it’s just as much Robin’s collection, too) pales in comparison to what Sid had gathered in his lifetime. Still, any collection of that size (almost 3000 games) represents a large part of someone’s life. It’s just that John, still trying to cope with the loss of his wife and partner, wants to excise that part of his past.
Even though he could just take all his games, and books and magazines, and throw them in the trash – despite John’s current state of mind it would never come to that – he realizes that they hold value to others, just as they held great value to Robin.
He wants to keep his collection together, but he also wants to get it out of his life. As much as it pains him to contemplate, John has to take steps to find a home for the collection. He doesn’t want to repeat what happened to Sid.
His wife Robin was right. Sid’s life work, his “tapestry,” can never be rewoven. As game fans commented at the time, “It was a tragic sight.” “A tragedy for game historians.” “The prospect of this incredible collection being split up was unthinkable.” But the unthinkable happened.
Stephen Glenn, a game designer – no, in honor of Sid let’s use the word inventor from now on – who published an interview with Sid and later wrote about the auction for Games magazine, summed up the whole series of events perfectly: “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”
Part 4: John at the Crossroads
After I posted Part 2 of this series, I received a couple nice Comments from readers who actually own parts of Sid’s collection. They seemed to feel like they had to defend their ownership. But no true fan of Sid’s has to defend their choice. Anything purchased by a true collector at that auction meant that there was less for the vultures to pick up and resell on eBay. Profiteering off of Sid’s legacy is shameful and unworthy of a true fan of gaming. ‘Thank you’ to all those who have purchased a piece of Sid’s legacy and have kept it alive.
All of these sources were extremely helpful to me in the writing of this post. I apologize if I have lifted a phrase or two word-for-word without attribution. (And I apologize for the random order of this bibliography. My brain finally went on the fritz....)
Stephen Glenn's interview with Sid.
Bruce Whitehill, “Sid Sackson: America’s Grand Game Inventor,” Knucklebones, May 2006, pp. 40-41.
"Sid Sackson: A Remembrance," by Greg Costikyan, preserved at Through the Looking Glass (ttlg.com)
The Strong Museum of Play, Rochester, NY, is the home for his personal papers
"The Rise and Fall of the Great Sid Sackson Gaming Collection," by Michael Barnes
Eskin, Blake, “Sold Separately,” The New Yorker, January 20, 2003,
Zetlin, Minda, “The Guru of Games,” originally published in Games Magazine, Feb./Mar. 1987,
Tributes to Sid Sackson from Gamers Alliance, where he posted reviews
Matthew J. Horn, The Games Journal, Feb. 2003
8 articles about the auction by Erik Arneson (Guide)
Thorough biography prepared by the Strong Museum of Play, Rochester, NY
“Endgame,” Stephen Glenn. March 2003, Games Magazine
“Sid Sackson’s Games Auction, “ Ian Livingstone. March 2003, Counter Magazine