The first set was a gesture of love.
Bernice Meisels and Floyd Sarisohn met as college students in New York City in the early 1950s. He used to play chess with strangers in Washington Square Park. When they became engaged, she gave him a black-and-white plastic chess set from Macy’s as a gift.
"Bernice bought me the one set, and on our honeymoon [in London] we found another set and bought that, and from there on it progressed," Floyd said.
Over the decades, collecting became their passion, and they amassed one of the nation's largest collections of chess sets — more than 1,300 at one point in 2020.
Those sets — along with posters, mugs, sculptures and more — form what they called the Long Island Chess Museum, all located in the Sarisohns' brick-and-white three-bedroom ranch home in Commack.
Bernice Sarisohn died in 2019 shortly after a serious fall at age 87. Floyd, 92, and his son, David, 60, now share the house and watch over the collection. (Neither plays the game avidly. "I know enough to know I'm really bad at it," David joked.)
The museum has been closed during the pandemic, but since the 1980s the Sarisohns have welcomed visitors and school groups to a side-door entrance by hanging a red flag decorated with a king, a knight and a rook.
That flag flew when a visitor was invited inside recently by father and son, both wearing masks to avoid contracting the virus.
Displays ready to battle
The first room visitors enter is a converted garage furnished with custom-built glass display cases specially lit to show off hundreds of chess sets. One of the largest, made of white Italian porcelain, sits on checkered tables along a wall, with kings as tall as 18 inches. A few of the smallest sets sit behind glass across the room. One is made of whisper-thin matchsticks carved into delicate pieces and enclosed in test-tube glass.
And there are so many more. Armies of chess men, women, animals and fantastic creatures stand ready for battle in the dining room, the living room, a room near the kitchen and throughout the basement. The effect is an overwhelming checkmate of the senses.
Sets are made of glass, stone, eggshells, wood, metal, cloth pillows, ceramics, leather and even spark plugs. The Sarisohns once had a chocolate set, but ate it.
Colorful characters and themes fill the shelves: Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the Lion King, Tweety Bird and Yosemite Sam, the Simpsons, Disney villains, Star Wars and Star Trek, Shrek, the Little Mermaid, jack-o'-lanterns, Santa and even bottles of cologne. Classic counterparts face off everywhere: Tom and Jerry, cops and robbers, cats and dogs, rabbis and priests, Sherlock Holmes and nemesis James Moriarty.
"Every two-sided conflict that you can think of, somebody's made a chess set out of it," David says. "The creativity of some people just boggles my mind."
But among the fun and games are many serious sets with historic or artistic value.
A large porcelain set is a replica of one President Richard Nixon commissioned to give to leaders of the Soviet Union. Elsewhere, Floyd pointed to a prized pale blue Wedgwood set from the early 1800s, among their oldest.
In a corner of the basement behind glass are chess pieces in startling erotic positions. "If we're having young children, then this cabinet gets covered up," David confided.
Floyd and Bernice Sarisohn bought their house in 1957, bringing with them from Queens perhaps a couple hundred sets, Floyd said. Many were displayed on six shelves of a tall wood-and-glass cabinet.
"My earliest recollection growing up in this house is the cabinet in the dining room," David said, pointing to it. "That was filled with chess sets, and you know, 'Don't touch the chess sets, because they're delicate!' "
Meantime, Floyd made a career in the law. He served at times as a Smithtown justice of the peace, a Suffolk County district court judge, a staff lawyer for the state attorney general and chairman of the Smithtown Democratic Committee. He established a private practice in general law and fully retired only this past September.
David explained that the explosion of the collection — and the transformation of their home into a museum — occurred as he and his older sister, Ruth, went to college and started their adult lives.
Boost from collectors group
With another collector, George Dean, a physician in Michigan, the Sarisohns founded Chess Collectors International, a group that holds conventions around the world. The first was in Miami in 1984. Others followed in London; Munich; New York; Paris; St. Petersburg, Russia; Washington, D.C.; Vienna; Florence, Italy; and more.
Besides kibitzing with fellow collectors about interesting items, Floyd and Bernice zealously hunted new discoveries. They also livened convention dinners by dressing as a chess king and queen.
"Back when they were traveling, the joke was everywhere they went, they would find a chess set somehow, some way, and it wasn't a good vacation unless they came back with at least one," David said.
When eBay came along, the collection really grew.
"Mostly it was my dad finding things," David recalled. "He'd say, 'Bernice, want to buy this?' And mostly she'd say, 'Yes.' Without her willing cooperation and abetting him, there would never have been nearly as much."
The Sarisohns have been happy to share their treasures, too.
When the World Chess Hall of Fame moved its collection of chess sets, books, furniture, artwork and memorabilia from Miami to a new home in St. Louis a decade ago, the Sarisohns helped out.
"Floyd came to St. Louis and had us go through some items in the collection and then was just always there to offer great suggestions for exhibitions, and just was an overall cheerleader and supporter of ours," said chief curator Shannon Bailey.
The Sarisohns have donated several chess sets to the museum, including a valuable Tiffany black-and-silver metal set with a leather board. For a show on chess in the comics, the Sarisohns provided comic books and sets. "He ended up donating all of them to us in the midst of the exhibit," Bailey said. "He is so generous. He'll say, 'I'll lend this to you,' and then say, 'Well, no, this is donated.' "
Sarisohn enjoys politics-related chess sets. In 2012, when the Hall of Fame was preparing a show on U.S. presidents and chess, the couple provided a set with Watergate figures, and another from a White House scandal of the late 1990s featuring President Bill Clinton, intern Monica Lewinsky and prosecutor Ken Starr.
Bailey came to know the Sarisohns as friends, even visiting the Commack museum.
"They were so supportive," Bailey said. "They were always smiling around each other. She had some health issues, and Floyd was always there taking care of her. It was just a great little love story that was incredible to witness. But she could hold her own, too. She was a firecracker. She was never afraid to say what she thought."
The loss of Bernice has left a void.
"She enjoyed it as much as I did," Floyd said of the hobby. "I did the buying, but she enjoyed it, and the friends we made all around the world … I enjoyed that I had a partner in it. And when Bernice passed away a year or so ago, then my interest began to wane."
Now it's time to downsize.
Auction during the pandemic
Last year, the father and son shipped dozens of chess sets to St. Louis to be auctioned during a Chess Collectors International convention in September. With the coronavirus limiting attendance, some buyers participated via computer.
Sets included pieces made of wood, glass and ceramic. A set made of apricot pits carved into grotesque faces was probably the most interesting, said expert appraiser Susan Kime of Link Auction Galleries, which conducted the sale. That set brought $1,900.
Kime said there is a strong market for chess materials. The ancient game found new popularity when people discovered it at home or at chess websites during COVID-19 shutdowns. That enthusiasm was felt at the auction.
"We were surprised at the level of interest internationally and here locally as well," she said. "But it was a very strong sale, and that was even before the Netflix special 'The Queen's Gambit' came out. … I almost wish the sale was a few months later because interest is really tremendous at this point. I think I heard that there is a run on chess sets."
About 125 Sarisohn sets sold at the auction. It might have been more, but beforehand, Kime had to rule out several ivory sets that the Sarisohns acquired decades ago. Recently enacted laws restrict the sale of ivory objects to protect elephants. Kime said she was legally able to auction only ivory sets more than a century old that are designated as antiques.
The Sarisohns donated 29 newer, unsellable sets to the chess museum, Bailey said.
"Those, when we were buying them, were probably the most expensive sets in the house," Floyd said. "The ivory ban decimated that portion of the chess collecting market."
During the museum tour, Sarisohn said he hopes to welcome visitors by appointment after the pandemic abates. But he added that the museum can't go on forever. "I'm getting too old to keep these," he said, looking around the basement.
David walked to a shelf to point out the original set his mother bought his father, the same one his father used to teach him the game.
"That's the only one that I insist that I must keep," David said. "This one over here, the black and white …
"That has an emotional attachment for me," he said. "The rest, I like some of them, some of them I couldn't care less about, but for the right price, everything else is for sale."