The Famous Warsaw Café of Kiev
In its day, in its particular place, in its brief moment in time, the Warsaw Café was a well-known establishment in Kiev. Even the building itself couldn't endure the ravages of war and the reputation of the Warsaw Café has long been forgotten, but memories linger on in old papers, stories and photographs, largely ignored, but still there for the curious lovers of history.
During the 19th century most casual chess activity in Europe took place in coffeehouses and restaurants. Many are familiar with Simpson’s in London, the Café de la Régence in Paris , Café Kerkau in Berlin and the Café Dominik in St. Petersburg. The provincial town of Kiev’s main meeting place for chess players leading up the 1917 revolution was the Warsaw Café.
The city of Kiev spreads off the banks of the Dnieper river each side joined by an occasional bridge. Kiev’s main street is the Kreshchatyk which runs from the south bank of the Dnieper with numerous roads running off it, though only a few intersecting it. During those pre-WW1 years one could turn off the hustling, bustling Kreshchatyk a few blocks away from the Dnieper, unto the quiet cobble-stoned Lutheran St. It climbs uphill to the Holy Ekaterina Lutheran Church that was built by Kiev's German settlers in the 1830’s giving the street its name. (In the late 1880’s the street was renamed Annenskovska St.) Turning the corner of the Kreshchatyk and Lutheran St. there was a large building (No. 29 Kreshchatyk) housing a photography business. At No. 3 Lutheran St. one found the famous Warsaw Café.
Lutheran St. would have a history of interesting people living in its buildings; in late 1914 Maxim Gorky lived at #6 with his lover, the actress Andreeva, the author V. Paustovsky, who wrote beautifully about Kiev, grew up at #33. Mikhail Bulgakov's sisters attended the girls school at the Ekaterina Church during the same time.
According to Eduard Gufeld and Efim Lazarev, in their book on Ukrainian chess history, the Warsaw Café first opened its doors in the early 1880’s. Its owner, a certain Mr. Ziegmuntovsky, (who’s home-town, Warsaw, gave the café its name) was a chess amateur himself and gave his clients a small sum to purchase a chess set for use at the cafe. This seed grew until a small room with several chess tables was set aside for the players. This gave impetus to the organization of a local tournament that Boris Aleksander Nikolaev (1867-1909) won (another report says he only came 5th). The café became a popular haunt for many of Kiev's journalists, artists and writers. Among its visitors were the well-known Ukrainian playwright, Mykhaylo Staritzky (1840–1904), the soon-to-be famous Russian writer, A.M. Kuprin (1870-1938), and the celebrated director, Nikolai Solovstov. Even the great novelist Ivan Turgenev is said to have frequented the café during his visit to Kiev. Staritzky, particularly, was a regular habitué of the café and his daughter would later recall that he even sometimes performed small simultaneous displays there.
Organized chess in Kiev had a difficult time developing due the stigma of gambling often associated with the game. Kiev’s Sports Society had a long-standing ban on chess, card games and other games of chance for which it would only briefly make an exception for chess in 1910/11. Consequently the friendly environs of the Warsaw Café afforded a central location for chess-players to meet up. Nikolaev solidified his reputation as the pre-eminent local player by winning a local tournament in 1895. He wasn’t challenged until the arrival of a young and ambitious player from Chernigov province, Fyodor Duz-Chotimirsky (1879-1965), a jack-of-all trades who had been orphaned at a young age.
It was not until 1900 that an annual, city-wide championship was organized which was won by Nikolaev. Second place was captured by the famous amateur and chess patron, the Prince Dadian of Mingrelia (1850-1910), who, after retiring his commission in the Tsar’s army, had taken up residence in Kiev in 1895. And so Kiev’s chess community was a cross-section of Russian society with men of affairs, the idle aristocracy, artists, writers and poor laborers meeting each other as equals across the marbled chessboards of the Warsaw Café. Writing over fifty years later Fyodor Duz-Chotimirsky would describe the Warsaw Café as his chess “Academy”.The chess played there may not have always been the best from what the following vignette by Grigory Gelbak published in "Shakhmatnie Obozrenie" (#'s 39-40,Sept.-Oct.,1901):
He clearly recognized its inadequacies though and in 1901 he helped found the Kiev Chess Society which started off with approximately 50 members. One of its first projects was to organize a successful visit to Kiev by the Franco-Russian master David Janowski in that year. It also organized a handicap tournament that would become a yearly tradition. The Society used the rooms of the Kiev Bicycle Association which had its premises on the second floor of the aforementioned building on the corner of the Kreshchatyk & Lutheran (#29 Kreshchatyk) right next door to the Warsaw Café.
Kiev's Luthern St. intersects Kreschatik St. on right front of photograph
That's about where the Warsaw Café was located.
The building on the left is the same building on the right in the first photograph. However, this is the Lutheran St. side. The Warsaw Café would have been located approximately where the awning extends across the sidewalk.
With the inauguration of an annual city championship and founding of the Chess Society organized chess was on a good footing to harbor greater ambitions for its players than ever before. Consequently, it sought to host the 3rd All-Russian Chess Championship in Kiev under the patronage of the prime mover behind the Bicycle association Count Mark Leontievich Graf. During the months leading up to the tournament, Russia's top-player, Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908), was invited to Kiev for an engagement at the Kiev Chess Club. Two days prior to his visit a dispute had broken out in Kiev’s chess circle with Prince Dadian of Mingrelia on one side and Duz-Chotimirsky on the other which culminated with Dadian challenging Duz and the clubs directors to a duel. Chigorin gave some simuls and played some consultation games. Prince Dadian invited Chigorin to his home but, on being apprised of the stormy events just prior to his visit, he chose not to accept. The Prince was deeply insulted and famously retaliated by having Chigorin barred from the Monte Carlo tournament that took place the following February.
Chigorin won the event ahead of Bernstein, Schiffers and Yurevich. Much of the press was caught up with the behavior of Vladimir N. Yurevich (1869-1907) who, as mentioned by Lashin (the pen name of Pavel Pavlovich Bobrov), held court at the Warsaw Cafe during the tournament. A former student of Chigorin, he divided himself between playing chess, writing poetry and political agitation. Yurevich caused two scandals during the tournament when he was accused of reneging on a pre-arranged draw with Rabinovisch and was later claimed to have concocted his game with Lebedev in order to win the brilliancy prize. When Chigorin reported in "Novoe Vremya" column that Lebedev had given the scheme away, Yurevich wrote a letter to the editor threatening to sue Chigorin and accusing him of buying his game from Lebedev.
The revolutionary upheavals in Tsarist Russian in 1905 did not fail to affect the sedentary chess life of Kiev. Duz-Chotimirsky became deeply involved in socialist agitation and was arrested four times by the secret police. After his fourth arrest, during which hundreds of anti-Tsarist pamphlets were seized from his apartment, he was ordered to leave Kiev.
The events of 1905 had an opposite current that led Yurevich to come to live in Kiev during 1906 he continued his political agitation and flamboyant life-style there. A Kiev newspaper writing about him in 1917 said, "Thousands of Kievans know him...". One story of his reckless behavior had him showing up at a restaurant near the Warsaw Café and yelling at the waiter,
- "Nikolai, ahh Nikolai!"
- "What do you desire?"
- "Get me coffee"
- "Which- white, or black?"
Yurevich took a pause, and then loudly exclaimed:
"Black...black as Nicholas II's heart..."
In the summer of 1907 he was arrested for writing an anti-Tsarist article and tragically died in Kiev's prison in October of that year. With the sad death of Chigorin in early 1908 Russian chess-players were moved to organize a chess tournament in his memory in 1909. Kiev was represented by Duz-Chotimirsky and Bernstein from nearby Zhitomir. Bernstein took a creditable third. While Duz finished well down in the scoretable, he created a sensation by defeating the joint winners Lasker & Rubinstein. An almost certainly apocryphical story had Lasker being annoyed by Duz reading a Japanese translation of a book by Nietzsche during their game.
During this same year Kiev's local Sports Club relaxed its policy of prohibiting chess and organized a chess section. Russia’s main chess magazine characterized the Warsaw Café as rooms as “small and unsuitable though this is made up by its central location..". The city championship of 1909 was won by the veteran Nikolaev ahead of Grekov, Bogolyubov, Lesh & Omeliansky. But as soon as the tournament ended the Kiev Sports Club reversed its policy and disallowed chess again. And so the Kiev's restaurants & cafes again became the regular meeting places of the city's chessplayers .
Here is the only game that could be found that was played at the Warsaw Cafe for certain:
A new generation of players Bohatirchuk, Bogolyubov, Grekov, and Evenson started cutting their teeth there from 1908/9 on. Grekov in a 1924 article seemed to say that Kiev tournaments during 1911-14 were not played at one location but in people's apartments and in Cafés though the games were treated just as seriously as regular tournament games would be. When Capablanca came to town in early 1914 he gave two simuls & a drew a consultation game against Bohatirchuk, Bogolyubov & Evenson; all of this took place at the Kiev Commercial Assembly at No. 1 Kreshchatyk. Bohatirchuk also wrotes that during WWI there were no serious tournaments but many casual games were played at the Warsaw Café, “where it was always possible to find an opponent". When Alekhine came to town twice during the war the newspapers listed "the Kiev Chess Club" as being at an address further down the Kreshchatyk.
Alexander Kuprin - 1901
by Alexander Kuprin
I had traveled all over Sweden, Norway, toured Germany, roamed England, sauntered the dirty streets of Rome for a long time and, at last, after two years of wanderings, arrived again in Russia. I was free as a savage then, unconnected with anyone, very often hungry, loitering about the streets of a big southern city, breathing a full breast and smiling affably at the sky and the sun. So here one day, idling, I came across a big dark cafe, I frightened off the doorman’s sleepiness in the first room and passed further in, to a door, from which the caustic smell of tobacco smoke and bad coffee emanated.After entering into the small, neglected, badly illuminated room, I made one step and stopped, amazed. Among clouds of smoke, at a mass of yellowed, marble tables sat strange taciturn figures and, lowering their long noses to the tables, they thought. The bent shoulders, the strange collars in the form of shaggy pelerines and the pompous gloomy looks - all this surprisingly reminded me of a number of the same birds with long beaks, with collars around long naked necks, sitting with the same foolish-sad looks- the Marabou bird.
- Marabou! - I gaily and affably exclaimed.
The figures did not stir, but from out of the cloakroom came the somber doorman, resembling also, for some reason, a second-hand Marabou and with a hoarse voice he answered:
- There are none here!
- Who are not here? The Marabou?
- Exactly. We all know of them. But they are not here.
I was unusually cheerful. I approached a long-nosed, dusty old man who hid his stooped shoulders in the swollen collar of a coat, and slapped him on the shoulder, kicking up a column of dust, and loudly yelled into his ear:
The old man moved away fearfully, looking at me with faded eyes and, having shifted them over to his neighbor, squealed:
- Go away!
All of the Marabou, except the doorman, sat at the chessboards. Some people did not play, but sat at the sides of the players, also stooped, nodding their long noses and unblinkingly watched the yellow and ebony pieces which were arranged in strange combinations which were unintelligible to me.
- Marabou, - I burst out laughing. – Ha-Ha! Marabou!
After England, Italy- all wide, boundless light and open space, this dark room filled by silent, hunched birds with long lowered beaks, in clouds of gray, fetid smoke seemed incredibly strange and wild to me, as though made-up. I took a free chair, squeezed myself between two smoky spectators and buried my nose in the board with finely-molded pieces and tried to imagine myself also a Marabou bird for a few minutes. I knew from hearsay that there are queens, knights, rooks and pawns, and by a strange habit, born of idleness, of reading through any nonsense on the last pages of newspapers, I had often looked through the chess columns which mystified me, I kept in my memory that almost all games began with the mysterious move: Pawn e2 - e4.
One of the players, amid the silence, quietly raised a hand and moved a small piece forward one square...
All spectators and the opponent stirred raptly, and I, blinking an eye critically, loudly said:
-What a move!
And they all slowly turned up their noses at me, the neck of one of the players even seemed to creak as it turned.
- Marabou! – I declared. - You made a bad move.
-Would you be so kind as not to make loud remarks and not give advice, - one of the players squeaked plaintively.
- It is insulting to me, that this gentleman has made a move which in six moves will bring great harm to him!
- To me that is quite... I shall keep quiet...
And again a deathly silence hung above the small yellow marble tables.
At the next little table one of the players lifted a yellow hand, crooked as the paw of a Marabou, and pushed some piece. It was necessary for me to interfere there also.
- My God!.. - I exclaimed in horror. – What is he doing! What is this man doing?!
- Do not interfere! Do you really not know that strangers have no right to interfere in a game?
- In a game? I know it - in a game. But this? Can this really be called a game? It’s a disgrace!
- Be quiet.
- I am silent.
The room seemed to me a big cemetery. The dead had come out of their graves and started a terrible, silent game that they had hidden in their collars.
- Marabou! – I declared.- You think too much for such an awful game. You should be more cheerful!.. Well, old fellow, why did you, for example, make that move? You needed to put the knight right here. One of the players nervously rocked his head, and another, making a move, objected irritably:
- How can it be put there? Indeed, it will be killed by a pawn!
- Let it. Who cares!
-Perhaps it is not important to you, but I will lose a knight for nothing.
- No, not for nothing. After ten moves you will have a huge advantage in position. This gambit was in Professor Lobachevsky's own variation.
- Well, I don’t look that far...
- What’s the point.
One of those who followed the game with curiosity glanced at me and said:
- Here, there is a table that is free... Would you like to play a game with me?
Incited by the unruly demon of prank, I lifted my head pompously and said:
- If you play the same as these gentlemen, I refuse.
- Because with people who sew boots, I have very specific relations: I only order footwear from them and I do not engage in any other games! However, to entertain myself, I shall show you this game: let the ten best players play against me simultaneously on ten boards. It won’t be much work for me to come out the winner...
My interlocutor looked at me dumbfounded and, having shuddered, asked:
- Tell me ... What is your surname?
- You see...For the time being I would not like to reveal my surname for reasons of a delicate nature.
- And you suggest playing with ten of our players simultaneously?..
- But are you aware that some of them have taken prizes in competitions in St. Petersburg?
I shrugged my shoulders and answered in a tone of incredible contempt and arrogance:
- Oh! This is entirely unimportant to me.
In these last words I was perfectly sincere: I was really indifferent about it. The gentleman who spoke to me rose and began to clap his hands loudly. The Marabou began to stir, lifting their noses.
- Gentlemen! This young man here proposes to play with ten players simultaneously!
- Even with twelve, - I said indifferently.
All of them started to move. Many of the players stood up and approached closer to me, staring at my face with wild amazement.
- Who is this? – asked one old man, having fixed me with a look dimmed by the years and chess.
- Are not all equal? A player!..
- And you will play simultaneously against twelve?
- Add players such as your champions to those, - I said contemptuously, crossing my arms across my chest.
Several men among those playing wrote down their games, conversed in whispers and, having approached me, declared:
- We agree!
The room took on a lively air. All the Marabou abandoned their little tables, extended from their collars their long naked necks, slammed them in again and started running about... from somewhere appeared a sheet of paper, and on it some of the Marabou started to write their surnames with hooked hands. I sat at one of the little tables, surrounded closely by the agitated, chattering crowd, and indifferently smoked a cigarette, casting glances at the ceiling. To the side some person fussed, occupied with devising one common table and installing twelve boards. Some young man in a red tie, obviously an unskilled, poor player, inspected all the boards with superstitious horror and having approached me, sympathetically, with moist eyes, shook my hand.
- Good-bye, - I said simply.
- No, not good-bye... But I very much sympathize with you... One against twelve! This is brilliant! Will you really win?
I slapped him on the shoulder in a friendly manner.
- It is nothing, old boy, cheer up. This business is not as terrible as you think. What, gentlemen, is it ready?
- It is ready. Players, I ask you to take your places. Welcome, Sir!
The role of arbiter was taken up by the old man with the dim eyes. He seated the players on one side of table, and me on the other side, where there were no chairs.
- If you please! It will be necessary for you to walk, following the moves, from this end to this one.
- I do not want to, - I answered proudly. - I will play without looking at the boards. - And I departed to the most distant corner of the room.
The twelve selected Marabou sat down, like trained birds, strictly in a row and now fixed their professional, severe noses at the boards.
- The first move is yours, Sir. - The dim old man addressed me.
It seemed to me, that my joke was finished. The Marabou, as I had desired, had been brought out of their dreamy state. But how I was to take my leave of them, - I could not devise. In reserve I had the first move which had remained in my memory from the mysterious newspaper chess columns, and I imperiously exclaimed:
- Gentlemen! The first move: e two - e four. I ask you to make it for me.
Twelve hands rose to the pieces, and twelve pieces on twelve boards were advanced two squares forward. And the rough and thin voice of the first opponent on the right began to creak: “e7 - e5”. I looked closely from afar at the boards and, having understood nothing, I became thoughtful. It seemed that it was already time for me to take flight. But, ironically shrugging my shoulders, I decisively declared:
- b one - b three...
All eyes rose to me, astonished.
- Possibly you wished to say: b one - c three?
- I want to say that I consider it mandatory, - I said coldly through clenched teeth.
- But such a move cannot occur!.. The Knight cannot be advanced along a straight line!
I smiled poisonously.
- Yes? Do you believe so? And do you not know of the Marabou Gambit?
The room began to hoot:
- There is no such gambit!
- Re-a-ll-y-?.. You here sit in this nasty, sooty smoke-hole and, having forgotten everything of daylight, you have in dull stagnation given up as a bad job all the gains made lately in this great, clever, noble, truly royal game, called chess...
- He is a madman, - said someone from the corner.
- A madman! - I cried angrily, jumping up madly. - Yes! At all times, in all cases, all innovators, inventors, prophets, martyrs of science, philosophers were called madmen. But what has this changed? Has progress been stopped? The Eiffel tower still shines an unattainable height, and subways ever more and more enmesh the earth's crust with an iron net. I assert that the Marabou gambit exists! It permits moving the knight along a straight line, and if you refuse to recognize it, I shall throw in your face a public, loud accusation: gloomy moles, concealed cowards, owls, frightened of a fresh stream of air and a sheaf of sunlight which has rushed in my person into this dead, thickening atmosphere of decay and ashes! No! Enough!... To the outside!
Among indignant shouts and cries of dozens of voices I easily and coolly approached the cloakroom and put on my coat. Several Marabou jumped around me, swinging their hands like wings, and squealing with rusty voices, but I paid no attention to them, put on my hat, severely and quietly straightened it and slowly passed through the gloomy, dark room usually populated by strange, dozing humanoid birds which had now been sent into a stormy, indescribable frenzy.
The fresh air of the street lovingly accepted me and, blinking delightedly, I began to laugh to the high sun.
Published in "Ogonyok" (No.49) on December 5th, 1909.
The Marabou Stork [Leptoptilos crumeniferus, or Marabu in German] stands about 5 feet tall, weighs around 20 pounds and sports a 9.5 feet wingspan. Considered one of the world's ugliest birds, this African carrion and scavenger, once a scarcity, owes its population boom to the rubbish and trash that has abounded with the increased, and wasteful, population growth of the 20th century.
It loves the arid climates but lives on the savannahs close to rivers and lakes. Hanging around with vultures, it will often frequent fishing villages and slaughterhouse and trash dumps.
When necessary or simply convenient, the Marabou Stork will treat itself to live rodents, snakes and smaller birds.
Alexander Ivanovich Kuprin, an almost-forgotten, but far-from-minor Russian writer, chose the Marabou Stork as the title of his 1909 short story story, Marabu, based on the legendary Warsaw Café of turn-of-the-century Kiev.
Now, it so happens that Kuprin was friends with Fyodor Ivanovich Duz-Chotimirsky, a one-time friend and later detractor of Prince Dadian (both of whom played at the Warsaw Café).