(originally published on my website in Aug. 2007)
A dear friend of mine sent me a scan of a page from a WWII era issue of Chess Review depicting an article called Skeletons in the Chess Closet by Clyde Hall. Normally, I prefer text to a scan, but in this instance, seeing the actual page directed my attention to an advertisement in the original issue that I would have missed otherwise -
I've written about different chess clubs and cafés, from the Café de la Régence to The Manhattan Chess Club to Lisa Lane's Queen's Pawn to the Franklin Chess Club to Kiev's Warsaw Café to San Francisco's Mechanic's Institute, over time and these places still pique my interest. Not being NYC savvy, I had never heard of Chumley's and didn't realize it was, in fact, a landmark. Just this past April it closed due to severe structural problems but seemingly has plans to re-open some indefinite time in the future. I looked into the history of Chumley's hoping to find some chess stories. What I found was it's unusual history and an unexpected and indirect connection to chess.
Chumley's entrance at Pamela Court
The building at 86 Bedford St. was erected around 1830 as a blacksmithery. During the Civil War it supposedly housed runaway slaves and eventually became a place of gathering for left-wing factions. It became a tavern and actually burned down in 1905 only to be rebuilt. In 1922, Leland (Lee) Chumley used the site as a speakeasy, serving up alcohol and gambling. Like most speakeasy's it had to keep it's existence, if not entirely secret, at least non-obvious, so no sign or identification marked it's out-of-the-way entrance - at Pamela Court accessed via a small passageway from Barrow Street. While speakeasy's went the way of zoot-suits, Chumley's retained the tradition of no signs and the inconspicuous entrance, making it hard-to-find, but often-sought-out. Both during and after the Prohibition, Chumley's was one of the more popular hang-outs for writers, both aspiring and famous. On the walls are mounted covers from numerous books that they claim were written in part in that tavern. Portraits and photographs of well-know customers fill another wall. Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings, Norman Mailer, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Philip Wylie, William Seabrook, Heywood Broun, Elmer Rice, Howard Scott, Eugene O'Neill, Allen Ginsberg, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Willie Pogany, cartoonist C. D. Batchelor; Rex Stout, Stark Young, Edna Ferber, James T. Farrell - all came to Chumley's.
The April 12, 1935 edition of the NY Times read:
Lee Chumley — “Soldier, Artist, Writer and Covered Wagon Driver” — dies at 50. Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., he studied art in Denver and Chicago. “During the last 10 years he was well known in Greenwich Village and was usually seen dressed in a floppy hat, open shirt and wavy necktie.”
See: Remembering Chumley's
Chess and other games were played at Chumley's as the ad above indicates. A 1959 article claimed, "Chess and checkers are the favorite timekillers here and manager Ray Buillano sometimes participates in as many as four checker or chess games simultaneously while doubling behind the bar."
A curiosity in the very next year involved Chess at Chumley's -
According to a June 2, 1960 story in the NY Times (page 22):
SLAIN OVER CHESS GAME;
Writer Killed During Fight in 'Village' Bar
June 1, 1960: Clinton Curtis, 43, a freelance writer, is killed in a brawl over a chess game at Chumley's. Michael L. George, a 34-year-old seaman whom Curtis had just defeated, broke a beer glass against Mr. Curtis's neck, cutting his jugular vein, the police said.
However, the most intriguing story involves a famous chess master not playing chess.
The chess master was Edward Lasker. While not directly related to the Great Emanuel Lasker, Edward was a superb player and a mathematician in his own right. Lasker was born in Kemplen (located just 30 km from Düsseldorf), Germany in 1885, emigrated to the U.S. at the start of WWI and took up residence in NYC.
From an article entitled How The Young Edward Lasker Learned About Go by Jerald E. Pinto and published in the June, 1981 issue of The American Go Journal, we learn that Edward Lasker became interested in the game of Go while a student in Berlin.
One day I was at the library of the University of Berlin. At that time, that is, in 1905, I was a student of electrical engineering. With me at the library was a fellow student, a mathematician, and we happened on a large magazine with a treatment of Go. [Oskar sbc] Korschelt [who helped popularize Go in Europe sbc], the author, gave many old Japanese games and explained the game quite thoroughly, but what struck us was the article's title :Das Go Spiele, ein Konkurrent des Schachs, that is 'Go: A rival of chess' [published in the journal Mitteilungen der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Natur und Völkerkunde Ostasiens in 1880 sbc] which seemed a humorous claim. Well, we glanced through the article and learned the rules in the few minutes that takes.
Then one day at the cafe in Berlin where the Chessplayers used to gather in the afternoon my friend Max Lange and I saw a Japanese reading a Japanese paper, on the back of which we noticed a Go diagram. We thought 'Well, that's remarkable'; we knew, of course, about chess columns, but Go columns? We didn't know what to think, so we waited until the fellow was gone and took the paper down from the newspaper rack. We put ourselves to deciphering the diagram. The problem lay in decoding the Japanese numerals the diagram used, but although we hadn't actually played more than a game or two of Go, we worked things out without too much trouble. So we went through the game, but after 120 or 150 moves things came to a stop, and there was some notation.
We waited until a few days later we saw another Japanese customer at the cafe, whom we approached to ask whether he would mind telling us what that notation meant. Oh, first it seemed obvious to us that it must say 'White resigns', since Black had an enormous army and there didn't seem to be any reasonable continuation for White, or else something like 'Game adjourned'. Well, the gentleman said, 'Certainly, "Black resigns!" When we heard that we decided that we would really have to give a good look at the game, and we took the newspaper. About 3 weeks later Max Lange called to say that he had found a sacrificial continuation for White ending in the capture of the Black army 22 moves later. Then we really started to play Go in earnest.
Now it should be explained that the Max Lange referred to here wasn't the Max Lange, the great player, writer and analyzer (who had died in 1899) but rather his son, Max Lange the second, who was born in 1883. Max Lange the younger even moved to Japan in 1920, an unfortunate decision since three years later he was killed (along with about 140,000 others) in the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. Lange had written one book in 1914 entitled, Das Schachspiel, und seine strategischen Prinzipien, which attempted to apply mathematical principles to the understanding of chess.
So, what does all this have to do with Chumley's?
As Lasker himself explained:
In New York I met two men who knew the game of Go. One was Mr. Karl Davis Robinson, and the other Mr. Lee Foster Hartman, the editor of Harper’s Magazine. But when I went to live in Chicago and did not return to New York until 1925, where we formed a little Go Club with Mr. Robinson, Mr. Hartmann and a few others who we had interested in the game. Some German players who had immigrated here after the war also joined, and gradually we developed into quite a lively group of Go enthusiasts. We met once a week at Lee Chumley’s, a well known restaurant in Greenwich Village. In 1934 I wrote an elementary book on Go which Alfred Knopf’s publishing house brought out, and many new addicts were brought into our circle through the book.
In his article How Go came to America, Milton N.Bradley of the Long Island Go Club, credits this little Go group that met at Chumley's, during the Prohibition, with being the first concrete and effective effort to establish Go in America.