of Cafés, Politics, Arts and Chess

| 44 | Other

     Cafés or Coffee Houses probably originated in 16th century Turkey and quickly expanded into Persia, Arabia, Egypt and other Islamic nations.  Even there they were havens for political idealists, philosophers, artists and game players.  As cafés moved to Europe, about a century later, they became  meeting places for revolutionaries, the avant-guarde , chess, draughts, whist, card and billiard players. 

"Almehs (Egyptian courtesans) Playing Chess in a Café"
by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Chess in a Cairo Coffee House

     I'm most interested in the chess aspect of cafés, but there seems to be a connection among all these factions.  The first European café of note was the Procope Café.


     Procopio Coltelli modeled his café after the Turkish prototypes but with greater style and a French flair. Also called the l'Antre de Procope because of it's dark, caverous ambiance,. . .

Après midi, dans l'antre de Procope,
C'était le jour où l'ont jouait Mérope,
Seul en un coin, pensif et consterné,
Rimant une ode, et n'ayant point dîné, etc.
(Voltaire's Tragedy, "Mérope," appeared in 1743.)

. . .the Procope opened in 1686.

    There were other cafés in Paris prior to the Procope - The first coffee was sold in Paris by an Armenian named Pascal in 1672 from his "maison de coava" or coffee-house, on Rue du Louvre.  Pascal's was frequented by "Knights of Malta, foreigners and travelers familiaer with the Orient" but still it was referred to as the Beau Café. Another Armenian named Maliban opened a coffee house on Rue de Bussy in 1675 that also served tobacco. 

     Yet another Armenian, named Gregor, took over Maliban's, introduced literature, poetry and theater to the clientele and in 1685  moved the café to Rue Mazarin, right next to the  Comédie-Française

     The Procope, located across from the Comédie Française, was far more opulent and sophisticated than the Armenian establishments and attracted philosophers, sophists, politicos, musicians, actors, artists and, of course, chess players.

Diderot and Voltaire at the Procope

     Known to be a favorite hangout for Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, all members of the French intelligentia who engaged in chess at the Procope, the coffe-house thrived as a chess venue until the middle of the 18th century when chess players, as well as the intelligentia gravitated toward another coffee-house, the Café de la Régence.  However, the void at the Procope was filled with radicals such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones Jean-Paul Marat, Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Jacques Danton and even Napoleon Bonaparte. The Procope has the distiction of surviving, although today it is a restaurant, not a café.

     The Café de la Régence is probably the most recognized name in the area of coffee-house chess.  Many sources claim the Regency was founded in 1681 but this seems inaccurate. In the 1680s a Frenchman named Lefévre sold coffee from the location in the  Palais-Royal at 161 Rue Saint-Honoré but sold his business in 1718 to another Frenchman, named Leclerc who called his establishment the Café de la Régence in honor of Philippe d'Orléans, Regent of the Kingdom.

The exterior of the Café de la Régence
(note the date on the sign)
The interior of the Café de la Régence 

     The Regency was home to François Antoine de Legall de Kermeur, usually considered the stongest player in France until Philidor, also a denizen of the Regency, who supplanted him in 1755. Around the same time in the early 1740s as when Philidor first dicovered the Regency, Diderot and Rousseau did also.
George Walker described the café along with some of its history in 1840. Here are some excerpts:

     "Voltaire, the two Rousseaus, the profligate Duc de Richelieu, Marshal Saxe, Chamfort, St. Foix, Benjamin Franklin, Marmontel, Philidor, and Grimm, are but a few of the men of note who constantly frequented the Régence in early times."

     "Jean Jacques Rousseau was wont to play daily in the Régence, attired (poor creature!) in a fur-cap and flowing Armenian robe."

     "Voltaire was strong in chess, since we know a first-rate could give him but the knight; whilst Rousseau was decidedly inferior in skill. Fancy the two playing together! the witty lord of Ferney confounding his brother sophist with the ingenuity of his "coups," and sending forth St. Preux, sulky and checkmated, to write a fresh chapter on the persecutions of the strong. Around, are Holbach, Diderot, Grimm, and D'Alembert, taking a rise out of the unsophisticated Swiss; while old Legalle, Philidor's chess-master, looks down upon the group with the supreme indifference of a mere one-idead, first-rate chess-professor. What cares Legalle for the Encyclopedists? -- for Julia or Montmorency? -- his soul is in the heaven of MATE, and all besides to him is vanity. "Philosophers as you are," mutters Legalle, "I should like you to play altogether, -- a crown the game!" "

     "Citizen Robespierre, in the powder and ruffles he so closely clung to, is playing chess with Fouché, now poor and of mean repute. Fouché was so wedded to chess, that he is said to have bestowed a place in the customs upon Deschapelles, in return for teaching and practice. In the tableau before me, citizen Fouché is all smiles and compliments before the great dictator; while the sly, cat-like eye of Robespierre sweeps at each glance both board and hall, to see if the latter hold any of the denounced, -- any heads which are due to Madame la Republique -- any job of work for neighbour Samson. "Friends depart;" while the lingerers around subdue their voices, and strain for a smile. Fouché himself shivers in his shoes, and his fingers shake as they move the pieces. One youth alone meets Robespierre's glance, and quails not. Napoleon, the young lieutenant, is there among the spectators, and like carvings of bronze are his impassible features. Buonaparte at one time played chess in the Régence daily; while waiting, like the sailor whistling for a wind, to get employment of the Directory."

     The list of chess-players who played at some time at the Café de la Régence reads like a who's who in chess in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Along with Philidor were Leger, Bernard, Carlier, and Verdoni.   Deschapelles, La Bourdonnais, Boncourt, St. Amant, Schlumberger,  Staunton, de Rivière, Kieseritzky, Harrwitz, Morphy, Anderssen, Rosenthal, Janowski, Albin, von Scheve all played there.  Just as with the Procope, the Regency had its political intrigue.  In 1793 Jacques-Louis David, the French Neoclassicist made his sad sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine from the balconey of the Regency. Frederich Engels and Karl Marx became acquainted at la Régence in 1844. 

     In 1882 "La France Pittoresque" published an article entitled, "Les cafés artistiques et littéraires de Paris" in which it mentions some of the famous people who frequented the Regency:
     M.Grévy, the President of the Republic, has long been a fervent of the Regency, he played or followed the contests. We often see Mr. Paul Bethmont and Mr. Audren of Kerdrel , senator. A deputy, Mr. Fernand Gatineau , remains on the terrace, the failures seem to interest only moderately.
     Players that are following games with the most attention are: Mr. Rosenthal, a Pole; Mr. Festhamel who, in the Illustrated World, the fire of National Opinion, always poses the most difficult problems; M. the Viscount de Bornier,  the author of the Daughter of Roland is, based on reliable hearsay , in a short time become a player of remarkable force;  Mr. Chaseray, auctioneer, who escapes the fatigues of the Auction House before a chessboard; the sculptor Lequesne; M. Baucher, son of the riding instructor;  Mr. Charles Jolliet, whose voice fills the room, Mr. Auguste Jolliet from the French; M. Prudhon of the same theater;  Seguin; Charles Royer, a scholar who wrote some very remarkable prefaces for several volumes of Lemerre.  Mr. Royer is the nephew of Mr. Garnier-Pagès, whose long white hair falling over his huge collar is sometimes seen at the Regency;  Mr. Maubant, the Comédie-French;  M. de la Noue, son of former Minister of the Empire;  Mr. Billaut, a retired officer;  Mr. Coulon, pushing pieces with military composure.

     There were similar coffeehouses in other parts of Europe.

     In central Europe several cafés was nicknamed "Café Meglomania" ("Café Grössenwahn") -  Griensteidl in Vienna, Café des Westens in Berlin (popular as the meeting place for Else Lasker-Schüler, then wife of Berthold Lasker - see Berlin Schach-Cafés) and the Café Stefanie (or Stephanie) of Munich.


     Author/artist Richard Seewald wrote an essay called "In the Café Stefanie" which can be found in the compilation "The Era of German Expressionism" by Paul Raabe. Seewald described the chess aspect: "In the smaller room the chess-players sit crouching silently over their boards: Gustav Meyrink, who popularized magic and horror, is playing with Roda Roda, who substitutes for the officer's uniform he used to wear the obligatory red waistcoat and the monocle in his rubicund bulldog face."

chess at the Café Stefanie

     The Café Stefanie attracted bohmeians of all sorts, poets, authors, artists,activist as well as chess players. Men such as author Gustav Meyrink, playwright Frank Wedekind, artists Alfred Kubin and Paul Klee all went there. Hugo Ball, founder of the Dada movement (at another coffeehouse, the Café Voltaire in Zurich) , with his wife Emmy Hennings the cabaret performer and poetess, frequented the place for a time while Else Lasker-Schuler often popped in while in Munich. As Peter Watson, in "The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance," put it: "The Café Stephanie, known as Café Megalomania, was where the poets and artists met, played chess, borrowed money, and tried not to lust after Lotte Pritzel, 'the most endearing amoralist ever known.'"

Erich Mühsam wrote in "Unpolitische Erinnerungen" : "The Café Stefanie was located on the periphery of the Arts District, located in Munich's Latin Quarter. It was the haunt of artists, writers and budding geniuses of every kind, whether many foreign artists, Russians, Hungarians and Balkan Slavs, or just what Munich natives refer to in the collective name of "rascal".  A corner table was reserved for a number of celebrities, some payed chess, others discussed the day's events in the fields of literature, art and theater. There I met Max Halbe know and Max Dauthendey who had for years at the corner table almost daily chess played with Roda Roda and Gustav Meyrink of the General Counsel and with  Professor Eugen von Stieler of the Munich Academy of Fine Art  as well as with the "Major," the painter and writer August Hoffmann-Bestenhof,the painter Max Nonnenbruch and many others."



     The Café Central in Vienna, opened in 1876, is located in a complex of buildings designed  by architect Heinrich von Ferstel and completed in 1860.  Up until it was shut down after WWII, the Café Central was known informally as "Die Schachhochschule" or "The Chess School."
     Franz Werfel described in an unflattering manner the chess area in his novel  "The Pure in Heart" :  An inner room, the chess room, faced the street.  A shameless beam of summer daylight streamed in from there, disturbing and offensive!  This twilight, a painful amalgam of two worlds, a blend of unhealthy earth and sloppy heaven, weighed on the soul.

      While the Café Central was a pre-WWI hangout for Leon Trotsky and other Russians, Vladmir Lenin would sometimes visit for chess from his exiled home in Zurich and even Joseph Stalin visited there.   In his "Theory of the Café Central,"  journalist Alfred Polgar wrote this Hemmingway-ish description : The Café Central is indeed a coffeehouse unlike any other coffeehouse. It is instead a worldview and one, to be sure, whose innermost essence is not to observe the world at all... The Café Central lies on the Viennese latitude at the meridian of loneliness. Its inhabitants are, for the most part, people whose hatred of their fellow human beings is as fierce as their longing for people, who want to be alone but need companionship for it.... It is a true asylum for people who have to kill time so as not to be killed by it. It is the beloved hearth of those to whom the beloved hearth is an abomina­tion, the refuge of married couples and lovers from the fear of undisturbed togetherness, a first-aid station for the confused who, all their lives in search of themselves and all their lives in flight from themselves, conceal their fleeing ego behind a newspaper, dreary conversations, and card playing, and press the pursuer-ego into the role of kibitzer who has to keep his mouth shut.... The only person who partakes of the most essential charm of this splendid coffeehouse is he who wants nothing there but to be there. Purposelessness sanctifies the stay. Perhaps the guest doesn't really like the place or the people who noisily populate it, but his nervous system impe­riously demands the daily dose of Centralin.

     Savielly Tartakower, when not at the Wiener Schachklub, could be found at the Café Central. According to Hans Knoch,  Savielly's brother Arthur, also a stong player, was playing chess at the Café Central when he received word of his parents death in a pogrom in Rostov-on-Don.   Rudolf Spielmann, Richard Réti, Ernst Grünfeld, Heinrich Wolf and Milan Vidmar were all known frequenters of the Central.  Andor Lilienthal mentioned his encounters with Capablanca in the Café Central in 1929 in his book, "“Chess Was My Life."

     Other known "Central-ists,"  circa 1913, include Josip Broz Tito, Adolf Hitler, Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus, Goethe, Mahler, Alfred Polgar and Stefan Zweig (author of "Schachnovelle" or "The Royal Game").   The bourgeois atmosphere of this splendid coffeehouse seems to disavow any radical political association, but the fact that many future world leaders did, in fact, frequent the place possibly confims Polgar's schizophrenic theory.



     While the most famous coffeehouses seem to be a central European monopoly, there were cafés spread throughout the world, though they tended to be a bit tamer and less avant-garde or radical.  One example might be the Eldon Café in Glasgow, Scotland. The Chess Scotland site offers an insightful piece called, "Reminiscences from P.B. Anderson" but there is no presense of artists, musicians and revolutionaries.  

     The same is true with most other cafés, such as England's Cave's Oriental Cafe, located at 184 Snargate Street, Dover and listed in the 1908 issues of "The Chess Amateur" under "Chess Resorts."



. . . and also true Boston's Oriental Coffee House and Casino, located on Washington St. between Dover and Elliot streets, an attempt to replicate the Café de la Régence in America in 1881. It consisted of a "gentlemen's room" with "lady waiters" and a billiards section;  a "ladies' room" for women-only unless a man was accompanied by a woman and a stage with a piano in place of the billiard section; a reading room;  and a game room for cards, checkers, chess, backgammon and dominoes.

      Oddly perhaps, the Boston Oriental Coffee House Company was orignially designed to be a part of the temperance movement to vie with the 2000 saloons in the Boston area.  It was deemed a success and by 1892, there were 4 locations in Boston serving 2400 patrons a day.
     An ad for the Coffee Houses (which developed into more restaurants than coffee houses over time) read:

ORIENTAL COFFEE-HOUSE COMPANY (incor. 1881). Casino, 985 Washington st.; Alhambra, 11 Green .st. Open all the time, day and night. Both connected by telephone. Aims to substitute the coffee-house for the liquor saloon. Philanthropic in purpose, but purely business-like in method. Provides coffee at 2, 4, and 6 cents per cup, and meals at low prices. Reading, smoking, pool, and billiard rooms. Betting not allowed.)



     Of course there have been, and still are, many other chess cafés- some well known, some not so much- such as, Slaughter's Coffee House in London, the Salopian at Charing Cross, Tom's Coffee House in Cornwall, Percy's on Rathbone Place, Huttman's on Bedford St. in Covent Garden, the Café du Levant of Madrid, the International Café of New York, the Café Dominik of St. Petersburg, the Warsaw Café of Kiev, and each one has it's own story to tell if any of us are willing to listen.

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