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The New Yorker
Rainy Day Dept.
by Blake Eskin
January 20, 2003
Sid Sackson, in his 1975 book "Beyond Tic Tac Toe," wrote, "Games mean many things to many people; to me, they are an art form of great potential beauty." If so, Sackson, who died late last year, at the age of eighty-two, was a prodigious and versatile master. He designed dozens of ingenious strategy games—Acquire, Can't Stop, Focus—and clever variations on poker, dominoes, and other classics.
Then, there was Sackson's collection, reputed to be the world's largest. "From the first year we were married, 1941, he had all of the boards," Bernice Sackson, a diminutive eighty-year-old with reddish-brown hair, said the other day at her house in the north Bronx. "In 1970, he stopped working as a civil engineer and began collecting in earnest." He maintained a rigorous regimen of toy fairs, garage sales, and review-copy requests. "Scarsdale church tag sales, those were the best," she said.
The collection overtook the house. As Bernice walked from the ground-floor living room, where an urn containing her husband's ashes sits beside three lifetime-achievement statuettes from toy-and-game associations, to the second-floor parlor, she explained, "Our daughter used this room for dating for a little while. But in '72 she got married, and from that time on it was for Sid." So were a first-floor study, the basement, the garage, the upstairs kitchen, and several bedrooms.
Sackson enjoyed what he acquired; he and Bernice entertained regularly, and all game-related activity was chronicled in leather-bound diaries. (June 4, 1977: "Played The Winning Ticket with the Sapersteins. They were quite enthusiastic with it.") He also saw his holdings—although they were never inventoried, fifteen thousand items wouldn't be a bad guess—as a research opportunity. "His big dream was to have a game museum," Bernice said. "He was hoping to have a college acquire the collection, and he would take care of it." Many institutions turned him down, however. "They would always say the same thing: 'Where did you get your degree?' And he didn't have a doctorate."
About a decade ago, Sackson's diary entries became erratic and his command of rules began to unravel—indications of Alzheimer's. "Around 1999, he couldn't recognize his own games anymore," Bernice said. With Sackson in a nursing home, his two children realized that they might have to sell the collection. It was a burden to Bernice and, in the opinion of the couple's daughter, Dale Friedman, a potential fire hazard. Friedman admits that she is "not a game person," explaining that she was somewhat put off by her father's passion: "He would be so hyper—about how you should count every piece, and how you should make sure you didn't have dirty hands—that it took some of the fun out of it." Still, she and her brother tried to realize Sackson's vision. "I contacted a lot of people who said, 'We'd take the top five hundred,' " Friedman said. "I said, 'That's not going to help us.' "
The family also turned to auction houses. Sotheby's wasn't interested, but Friedman found an auctioneer in New Jersey who agreed to handle the sale. News of the auction prompted laments from connoisseurs and Sid Sackson fans—one game lover called the sale "a tragedy for game historians"—but none had the means to save the collection.
The auction, held in Keyport, New Jersey, about a week after Sackson died, was standing room only. Bruce Whitehill, a collector and lay historian who calls himself the Big Game Hunter, drove in from Rhode Island; others came from California and England. Some games were sold individually, but most went in large lots. Those who asked got their purchases rubber-stamped "From the Personal Collection of Sid Sackson"; hundreds of these have since surfaced on eBay.
Bernice stayed home, but she'll have a second chance in the spring; the auction house couldn't accommodate all of Sackson's games at once, and left some in her basement. "Be careful," she said, leading the way downstairs, where thousands of dusty boxes on gray metal shelves—copies of Mazeroni, Sod Buster, Tuba-Ruba, and Fortran ("Input: Reason; Output: Pleasure")—await new owners.