TSR The Beginning: 1968 and Meeting Gary Gygax and the Gygax Family

Roughly two years before Luke Gygax was born I walked through the front door of the Gygax residence at 330 Center Street in Lake Geneva. This was at the invite of Gary through his gamer friend and a very recent acquaintance of mine, Larry Zirk. Very few people from that time know of Larry Zirk, so I will tell the story of our meeting and how that would, soon thereafter, lead me to Gary's doorstep.

Note from Morrus -- this is the first in a series of monthly articles by TSR veteran Rob Kuntz. Don't forget to also check out the monthly columns by
Jim Ward, Ed Greenwood, and Jonathan Tweet!

Larry lived on the same side of the street, two properties down Center, from Gary's residence--a 1 minute walk between. He worked as an assistant manager at Schultz Bros. Co. variety store (a regional chain encompassing 5 states that ended in 1988) on Main Street adjacent to the Clair Hotel (the latter which was purchased by TSR prior to its move there from the Williams & Marshall Street location).

It is worth noting, as an aside, that Shultz Bros. was one of two "dime stores" that Gary would later frequent in his search for toy figures to use as fantastical creatures for his Chainmail Fantasy supplemental rules; and that I accompanied him on a great number of those forays, then, as it was (solely) him and myself who had locally (Jeff Perren who lived in Rockford, IL had his own collection) invested in 40mm Elastolin miniatures to play-test the original Chainmail rules (first occurrence of the rules being 1970, Geneva Medieval Miniatures rules, Perren & Gygax, in Panzerfaust Vol. V., #1).

Back to meeting Gary via Larry.

My (single) mother had been institutionalized August of 1968. Prior to that my brother had been placed in foster care. My Aunt Minnie traveled from Delevan (7 miles away) every weekend to see to my extended needs while the upstair's neighbors, a young, married and pretty liberal couple, saw to my immediate needs. I went to school and pretty much came home. As I had a key to their apartment I would often be there by myself.

One day while awaiting their arrival I began flipping through their stack of magazines, which included issues of Playboy. After perusing the usual in the November issue of Playboy I finally settled on a pictorial Christmas game list of many offerings. One caught my eye: The Dogfight board game (WW1 air combat) by Milton Bradley. I already had their Battle Cry (American Civil War) that my brother and I had played and enjoyed so I (naturally) wanted this new game!
#1 Nov 1968 PB.jpg
So when my aunt showed up about a week in advance of my upcoming birthday in September, I immediately asked (i.e., "begged") to visit the stores in search of said game. Off we went to Shultz Bros. (first stop).


The assistant manager, a young, black-haired gentleman, attended us as we perused their game section. Not finding Dogfight we inquired about it. They didn't have the game but he suggested another one on the shelf, Jutland by Avalon Hill, a WW1 naval battle game. He then noted that he and others gathered nearby on Center Street to play these games at Gary Gygax's house; and that if I wanted to learn them then he'd give me his own telephone number and arrange for a visit to do so. I looked at my Aunt Minnie. She considered for a while and then agreed and phone numbers were exchanged. Fate could have swung the opposite way but it had not. Before departing, Larry--for this was indeed Larry Zirk--noted that there was one other place in town that carried these games and he gave us directions to it. Since I had not been interested in purchasing Jutland, off we went


Second stop was a very small variety store on Wells Street near the Dairy Queen--the Jack in the Box--whereat we located and bought AH's Afrika Korps (WW2 combat between the Allies and Germans in North Africa).

Later, with my pre-birthday gift secured (and with all thoughts of Dogfight permanently grounded), I rang Larry to tell him of the purchase and to thank him; and he suggested I read the rules and study the game (for what would turn out to take 1-2 weeks) and he'd call back. During our second call he inquired about my progress with the game and I stated that there was more to it than Battle Cry but that I was not giving up fully understanding it.

Larry stated that he had arranged for me to visit the aforementioned Gary Gygax who would show me how to play these games. He noted that it was up to me and also said that he lived nearby and once off work he would pop by to see how it was going. I agreed to an upcoming weekend meet-up without pause. I really wanted to crack this game!

So on a Saturday in mid-October, 1968 this recently turned 13 year old walked in the afternoon sun to Gary’s house, a mere three blocks away. I was ushered into his residence by Gary and introduced to Bill Hoyer (then the International Federation of Wargaming’s president and who was living in Chicago; and a future TSR/RPGA employee). Both of them had been busy setting up the game Afrika Korps on a card table in the living room. I excitedly exclaimed (not knowing, then, that Larry had informed them of my purchase of same), “Hey! I have Afrika Korps too!’ Unfortunately I pronounced ‘Korps’ as ‘corpse’.


Gary chuckled as Bill grinned along, “Hah! It’s not a “corpse” yet.” They then explained the word differences to me and further instructed me to watch a game of it being played between them. And so I was hooked...

I left Gary’s before Larry arrived so he called me later to ask me how it had gone. After describing my meeting he suggested that him and I play a game of it at his house. I agreed, but school got in the way of that meet-up until mid-November... And then I was finally playing the game; and I was playing the Germans led by Rommel who I had been reading up on in our family encyclopedia set.

Sometime during the game Gary arrived. It was Lake Geneva’s first seasonal snow and he wore a thick, dark coat and what appeared to be a black ushanka-hat, both flecked with new snow.

After gauging the play between us Gary suggested that he teach me a little by making a move on my behalf. Larry and I assented and Gary proceeded to deftly and quickly move the German chits. Upon finishing he had isolated and surrounded the city of Tobruk (a major German objective). Larry cleared his throat, “That’s enough help...” Gary laughed lightly in response. Gary finally bade us good night and left; and we soon wrapped up my learning under fire experience.

Larry would soon be gone from this circle. He married a fine woman and moved away and his gaming diminished prior to that move and we saw less and less of him.

But for a precocious kid seemingly lost it turned out to be the opposite--instead of “The End” it was “The Beginning”. I continued to accept Gary’s invites to come over and play games and I soon became part of the Gygax family. Which begs a question: How can one truly be lost when surrounded by such wonderful serendipity and the good people associated with it?

© 2019. Robert J. Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.
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Robert J. Kuntz

Robert J. Kuntz

TSR Veteran
Thanks Zenopus. It is a very beautiful area and the Library itself is well designed with private reading stacks and areas in the basement, the latter whereat I spent many, many hours. Tom Wham also repaired and would rebind books for the library. Great to hear from you!

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Interesting stuff.

Totally side note, and meant without the slightest hint of judgement, it's funny how different things are now. Could you imagine a 13 year old going to an adult man's home to play games? Never minding leaving a 13 year old largely unsupervised? This is stuff that just would not happen anymore.
Incidentally, I'm a public school teacher. I play D&D with quite a few youths. When I introduce myself to parents I let them know I am an active teacher. That way they know I have been background checked and they know my place of employment.

The parents are very relaxed with me because of this. I use this to help my Local shop and I will DM for kids whenever I get the oppurtunity.


Great story Rob, thanks for sharing. I look forward to more articles in this series.

As a married man with kids I always marvel at how Gary was able to devote so much time, often impromptu it seems, to his hobby - more than a little jealous lol.

Great story Rob, thanks for sharing. I look forward to more articles in this series.

As a married man with kids I always marvel at how Gary was able to devote so much time, often impromptu it seems, to his hobby - more than a little jealous lol.

Hey thanks! More on the way here and elsewhere. I have been building a bible, in between my "regular" writing, for a book--Lake Geneva Days--of which my first column is a tiny sampling from it. In it I cover in detail the Gygax family life including what I referred to my wife, Nathalie, the other day as Gary's nerves of steal and patience while surrounded during his writing/designing by a highly fluid, and sometimes chaotic, atmosphere. Combined with his insurmountable energy it was a wonder to behold.


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I stayed at the Lake Geneva Playboy Hotel last year, aka the Grand Geneva Resort. It's a Marriott Vacation Residence or somesuch these days, but they have a little museum display to the heady times of Kuntzian Debauchery.

CY 1980 LG Calendar...

The great Debauch, lead by Garrison Ernst, takes hold at Castle TSR on Sheridan Springs Road (also the back door road to the PB Club). Sir Robilar is dragged along at the King's behest...

MORE in Lake Geneva Days. I'm innocent I tell yeah! ;)

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