Games Without Frontiers

Sy and Margery Epstein were a typical Silver Spring couple — one with 3,000 board games stashed in their home.

Photo by Susan C. Ingram

Story and photos by Susan C. Ingram

The tidy, unassuming midcentury split-level on a gently winding lane in Kemp Mill Estates sold last spring, the contents emptied out, along with a lifetime of memories for the Epstein family. Longtime residents of Silver Spring, the late Seymour G. and Margery Epstein by all accounts lived full lives of honest hard work, children, friends, food, travel and plenty of good times.

The impetus for many of those good times—and good memories—was on display recently, as some of the thousands of board and card games from the couple’s home were offered to the public. Sy and Margery loved to play—and collect—games.

The collection

On a sunny, breezy Saturday morning in early April, the white-block, art-deco 4-H Building at the Frederick County Fairgrounds was abuzz with activity.

That morning, Howard B. Parzow, of Parzow Auctions, was gearing up for the second of several auctions offering Sy and Margery’s collection. Active members of the Association for Games & Puzzles International (AGPI) since 1992, the Epsteins left behind a vast estate—some 3,000 board and card games spanning a century from the late 1800s to the 1980s.

Photo by Susan C. Ingram

Stacks of plastic-shrouded games, a half-dozen or more boxes in each stack, covered long tables filling the 4-H building. The crowd milled up and down the long rows, chatting and noting which stacks might interest them enough to bid.

The “Laramie” game topped a stack that included “Stagecoach West,” “Wyatt Earp,” and “Snuffy Smith’s Hootin Holler Turkey Shoot.” While the 120-year-old “Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York” card games, manufactured by both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, were displayed singly, so buyers could get a good look at the antique graphic art covers.

On another table, superheroes Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman shared a stack. There were World War II games, like “Combat,” detective games, like “Sherlock Holmes” and “Clue.” Pop culture icons Flash Gordon, Robin Hood, Ben Hur, Alfred E. Neuman, Carroll O’Connor and Carol Burnett graced colorful paperboard box lids.

Parzow and staff auctioned the games one stack at a time. The bids were swift; games moved quickly.

Margery and Sy Epstein in an undated photo, Courtesy of Neil Epstein

The couple

Sy Epstein died in 2018 and Margery in 2021. Originally from Trenton, N.J., the high school sweethearts lived in Silver Spring for more than 40 years and had three children and two grandchildren.

Margery ran a tutoring business for 20 years at their home, working evenings after school with students until Sy came home from work, grandson Neil Epstein said.

A metallurgist and scientist, Sy worked at Battelle Laboratories, Brookhaven National Laboratory and then at the Aluminum Association for more than 40 years. In 1998, he co-presented the course, “Safe Practices for Handling Molten Aluminum” at The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society (TMS) annual meeting as technical director at the Aluminum Association. According to the course bio, he was “intimately involved with the industry’s research on causes and prevention of molten metal explosions,” authoring more than 30 papers on aluminum and the aluminum industry.

But this couple with the serious backgrounds was fun-loving, social and drawn to card games, board games and puzzles. As members of the Music Box Society, they also enjoyed collecting antique music boxes.

Neil Epstein, 28, grew up just a mile-and-a-half from his grandparents. He would visit often, after school, for family get-togethers and holidays. Neil lives in West Virginia now, head coach of men’s basketball at West Virginia University Potomac State College.

“We spent a lot of time with both my grandparents,” Neil said. “And then when my grandfather passed away, we spent probably even more time with my grandmother.

“They definitely were fun. My grandparents loved traveling. He worked at the Aluminum Association in Washington, D.C., and got to travel a lot,” Neil said. “They always traveled together for work, and my grandmother would help the wives that traveled, too. So, they had a ton of friends. Anytime friends came over or they’d go out to dinner, they’d play games. Or when we went out to dinner or we came over, we always ended up playing games—sometimes seven or eight games.”

Games were stashed in every nook in the house, Neil remembered. In the shed, in the spare bedrooms, the crawlspace, the basement, above the fireplace.

Anywhere you could think of, they had games,” he said. “But not just sitting around; they were out of sight. If my grandfather said, ‘Alright, we’re going to play XYZ game,’ he would know exactly where it was. To this day, I do not know how he knew where every game was.”

Neil Epstein. Courtesy Neil Epstein

When Neil was a boy, Sy would let him pick out the games. He remembers being able to stand up in the split-level’s crawlspace to make his choice. “But when we finished cleaning out the house in July, I couldn’t walk straight through anymore,” he said and laughed.

“It was definitely really cool growing up, because I knew every time I’d go over there, we’d play some type of board game,” he added. “It was always fun. That brought our family closer together. When we went on family vacations, he’d always bring a whole bunch of games. Some of them were really good. And some were really bad.”

Sy was also partial to collecting beer cans, World War II ephemera and magazines, said friend Charlie Gross, who volunteered for the task of cataloguing the thousands of games in the Epstein home.

Gross remembers meeting the couple at the Association for Games & Puzzles International’s annual convention in Baltimore in 1998.

“They were both very sociable. They would look to make friends, but I’m a little more introverted in getting to know new people,” Gross recalled. “They kind of hosted the convention.”

Drawn in by the Epsteins’ sociable nature, Gross also connected with them as fellow collectors.

“We were both always looking for a bargain,” he said and laughed. “And we were both game collectors. I’d buy things from Sy, and he would buy things from me.”

Sy’s collecting was broad, Gross said, but also evolved.

Mike Michalik and his son Theo, from Frederick, checked out the games before bidding on and winning a 1920s framed “Toon In” radio game board. Photo by Susan C. Ingram

“He did collect everything. But he focused on World War II games and baseball games,” he said. “What that means is, he would spend more money on a World War II game and a baseball game than he would on generic games.”

Another connection? He and the Epsteins were Jewish, and “that’s always a connection, sure,” Gross said. “Similar life experiences, but neither of us were very religious.”

Chabad of Silver Spring, Kemp Mill Synagogue and Silver Spring Jewish Center were around the corner from the Epsteins. The neighborhood shopping center has a kosher grocery store. There’s a kosher Chinese restaurant and a kosher pizzeria, all walking distance. And while Neil said the Epsteins celebrated Jewish holidays, they weren’t regular synagogue-goers.

“They were Reform. I grew up half-Jewish. We celebrated all the big holidays with them, like Passover, Yom Kippur, Chanukah,” Neil said. “They were all about the social aspect. Everybody coming over and getting together.”

When family and friends got together, Margery did all the cooking and put out a spread. And games were played.

“On a lot of holidays, she cooked brisket, she made challah bread, she made matzah ball soup. And gefilte fish, we used to eat all the time,” Neil said. “On Passover, you know, we’d hide the matzah and go all over the house trying to find it. My grandmother could make anything, she was a really, really good cook.”

“My grandpa was a hard worker, and he was really funny,” Neil added. “He loved to eat a lot of food. We bonded over eating.” They also bonded over Orioles, Redskins and Nationals games.

Howard B. Parzow, of Parzow Auctions, gears up for the second of several auctions offering Sy and Margery’s collection. Photo by Susan C. Ingram

The auction

Back at Frederick County Fairgrounds, auctioneer Parzow said when he drove to Silver Spring for a look at the Epstein collection for auction, he didn’t realize he’d met the couple decades before when he bought a “Route 66” game from them.

“They were dealers and collectors. I bought the game from them, but after that I lost contact,” Parzow said. “Years later [about 40] I got a call from their son. And when I got to the house, I said, ‘You know, I think I’ve been here before.’ It was weird. It was déjà vu.”

The collection is being auctioned over a number of months, about 500 games at a time. Collectors and enthusiasts alike were excited by the breadth and depth of the collection.

Mike Michalik and his son Theo from Frederick like checking out Parzow’s auctions because he offers “a wide range of things. So, you never know what’s going to be here.”

They found the Epstein collection “intriguing.”

“They’re colorful, and they’re nice display items. I’m not a game collector by any means,” Mike said. “But sometimes the subject matter hits you. I did see a game that had a radio theme, from 1925. I have a podcast, because I used to work in radio. The game mentions the station I worked at in Pittsburgh, KDK.”

Later, the two were beaming after winning the bid for the 1920s framed “Toon In” radio game board that also happened to have a Washington, D.C., backdrop.

Michele Cuseo made the trip from Emmitsburg, Md., for the auction. A semi-retired artist and writer, she buys and sells on ebay, and was interested in the range of graphic arts displayed on the games.

“I enjoy antiques, history and art,” she said. “This is a good auction.”

Cuseo buys and resells the games, but sometimes deconstructs and reframes game artwork.

“Vintage board games are extremely amusing. The artwork and the graphics are outstanding,” she said. “This collection is awesome. You hardly ever see a collection together like this.”

The legacy

As many of the Epsteins’ games move out into the world, the family tradition of playing board games continues, Neil said. He and his father still play when the two get together.

And for Neil, there’s another layer. He remembers and appreciates watching his grandparents long, love- and fun-filled relationship. She took care of everything inside the home, and he worked outside the home. It was a relationship that worked for decades.

“They just had a really, really amazing relationship. And they were married for over 60 years,” Neil said. “My grandmother was a social butterfly. My grandfather was a jokester. You know, they were definitely like the yin and yang together. They were perfect for each other.”

“If I can ever find the amount of love they had for each other,” he added. “I’d be a very lucky person.”


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