Simpson's Divan


Outside of the Café de la Regénce, Simpson's Divan is possibly the best known chess venue in history. Like the Café de la Regénce, many great chess players frequented the establishment.  Oscar Conrad Müller, who started attending the Divan in the 1870s when he was a young man in his 20s, met and befriended many of the famous people who played in the chess rooms.  Müller, who authored the article below, was himself a strong amateur, recognized as the strongest player of the Lee Chess Club where he belonged for nearly a half-century. He participated in many tournments, early on in the minor section, but later on against some great players. He won the Metropolitan Chess Club championship numerous times. He died on January 14, 1935 and about age 75.

The reminiscenses below contain some natural mistakes.  Müller calls the general manager, Edmund William Cathie, Mr. Cattie and the original owner, Samuel Reiss, Mr. Reis and the building was erected in 1828, not in the 'thirties.

(the pictures below weren't part of the original article)

Simpson's Chess Divan
by Oscar Conrad Müller
BCM -Sept. 1931


     Here I soon found what I may be permitted to call "the chess of my life." -

     The building, erected, I believe, in the thirties of the last century, was large and stylish,  three stories high, with at least thirty-six large windows in the Strand - not one frosted window, as I read some time ago in a certain obituary.  As far as I can remember from what I was told by competent people, the chess room was originally started by a Mr. Reis in 1817, in quite a small way, as a chess and coffee-room only.  In the course of time it passed into the possession of a Mr. Simpson (hence the name "Simpson's Divan").  Then a wine and spirit license, and also a tobacco license, were obtained, and long before my time the place had become a world-famous English restaurant.
     At the entrance on the right, you were invited to step into the Cigar Shop, then presided over by a Mr. Hanley, who would sell you either a sixpenny ticket, only admitting you to the chess-room, or a shilling ticket, including a large cup of coffee and a good cigar.  In case you wanted a meal, you found the restaurant in the back of the building, divided into several large halls, where you could, at a decent price, obtain as good a meal, and drinks, as anybody could reasonably wish for.  The whole concern, in my time a prosperous limited company, was under the management of Mr. Cattie, general manager, a very dignified, tall, white-haired gentleman, of Scottish origin, who was later on succeeded by Mr. Wheeler, the previous bub-manager.
     The chess rooms were originally on the first floor and subsequently on the second floor;  they contained a large number of iron tables, and, of course, many chairs, for the accomodation of the players as well as the onlookers.

     The walls of the principal chess room were ornamented with various pictures relating to chess.
     At the entrance you could hardly fail to notice a fairly large picture, showing the Devil playing chess with a rather despondent looking young man.  H. E. Bird told me that in 1858 Paul Morphy when visiting Simpson's, looked at the chess position in the picture quite a long time, finally remarking to Bird:  "I don't know whore move it is, but if it is the young man's turn to play, his game is still full of chances."

     There was also a large oil-painting, representing a collective group of the best players, headed by Steinitz, as they were in the seventies.  This interesting picture is now in the possession of the City of London Chess Club.
     A third picture illustrated the famous match at the Café de la Regénce in Paris, in 1841, between Staunton and Saint-Amant.  A group of amateurs, most of them standing, is looking with keen interest at the players, who are seated at the chess table, engaged in a game.  A copy of this picture is also to be seen at the City of London Chess Club.
     A fourth and smaller picture, handing close to the first named, represented the great Paul Morphy himself.
     The chess boards, rather large, were of the best old mahogany, and the pieces, of proportionate size, were made of boxwood and ebony,  very solid, and of curious but general old pattern, over a hundred years old even in my time, so that many people, perhaps without knowing it, used the same pieces as celebrated players had used long before.  Every Saturday evening Mr. Cattie saw to it that all the boards and men were cleaned, washed and oiled, so that they looked wonderfully well on the following Monday.
    Neither the amateurs, nor the professionals, nor the mere onlookers were ever allowed by Mr. Cattie to raise their voices unduly, and I have witnesses several instances when offenders were ordered out of the rooms by him.  The result of this seeming severity was that the conversation was always hardly ever disturbed by their cogitations.
     The habitués frequenting these chess rooms included many brilliant and famous men of that period;  some of them famous by chess alone, and other known all over the world for their achievements besides chess.
    Apart from off-hand games, which were going on nearly all the time, even on Sunday evenings after 6 p.m., there were frequently "exhibition games" and, at intervals, tournaments, handicap-tournaments, and individual matches, so that the best professional as well as the best amateur talent had a chance to
     I remember a dictum of Steinitz,  which he often used in his conversation:  "Chess can hardly hope to flourish without patrons."  In grateful memory, therefore, I mention first of all some of the gentlemen, who in my time patronized Simpson's, the game of chess, and the chess-players there.
     There was, in the first place, Sir Robert Steele of Calcutta, a portly gentleman, of genial disposition.  He himself was a strong player, and whenever he was in London he frequented Simpson's almost daily and arranged innumerable exhibition games between the best players, chiefly between Bird and Blackburne, for which he used to pay handsomely.  He also subscribed most generously to nearly all the tournaments held in Great Britain during his lifetime.
     Much the same must be said of Mr. Evelyn of Deptford, a decendant of the famous diarist of that name; and of Mr. Baldwin, a special admirer and supporter of H. E.Bird.  In this cnnection I must also mention here the names of Sir George Lewis and Horace E. Chapman.
     Other generous donors, and at the same time excellent players were Mr. Barnes, of Caterham Valley, whose brother, I believe, played at Simpson's with Morphy;  also Philip Hirschfeld, himself a master of the game since the 'sixties.  He was, in his time, connected with Baron Kolisch, and he was the cheif supporter and friend of  Zukertort, with whom he used to play frequently.
    I can also remember Lord Russell of Killowen, who in 1866 had brought about and paid for the championship match between Steinitz and Anderssen, won by the former;  Captain Perry, retired from the Royal Navy in the first half of the last century and the oldest frequenter of Simpson's; Sheriff Spens of Glascow;  His Grace Archbishop Benson of Canterbury, and a son of his;  Captain Beaumont, Mr. Arthur Balfour, Mr. Bonar Law, Colonel Vickers, of Sheffield,  Lord Randolph Churchill, and others.
     Also His Royal Highness, the Duke of Connaught, was now and then seen at Simpson's in my time.
     I now come to the bevy of the Masters.  The title of Master, properly speaking, should only be bestowed on players who have been successful in memorable contests.  Of such players we had quite a number at Simpson's in my time.  The list is, of course, headed by William Steinitz, champion of the world from 1866 to 1894, when he lost the title to Emanuel Lasker.  The great and numerous successes of Steinitz are recorded in his biography and in contemporary chess literature.  The best book on Steinitz known to me is that by Ludwig Bachmann, Schachmeister Steinitz, a monumental work in German.
    The question whether chess was exhaustible, or even near exhaustion, was often discussed at Simpson's when Steinitz remarked on more than one occasion: "The game itself, I think, is fairly inexhaustible, but the players, of course, are easily exhausted."  He also said frequently: "Slow chess is good chess."  In recent years I have been told that Steinitz was rather irritable and morose.  I always found him on the contrary, very amiable, but of rather a quiet and retiring disposition.  He was, however, frequently, and much against his liking, interviewed by certain journalists, and when he did not entirely satisfy their curiosity,  they would afterwards say in their papers that he was irritable and morose.  He did me various good turns, which I have not forgotten yet, and he will forever live in my memory as a kind friend and one of the greatest chess masters of the last century.  The lst time I saw him was during and after the Aquarium Tournament in 1899, when he spent a week or so in my house before returning to New York, where he died in 1901.
     The senior of the British masters (he was born in 1830) was H. E. Bird, always a humorous and cheerful old soul, in spite of the gout which aften tormented him in his later years.  He also was invariably very friendly to me, and on many occasions I acted for him as his "substitute," as he would say.  He was a very versatile and ingenious chessplayer;  fond of playing very quickly and in tournaments, and in particular, in "exhibition games" he was often successful. Even against Steinitz, Blackburne, and Zukertort he occasionally won games in my presence.  He also wrote numerous books on chess, the most enduring of which will probably be his collection of "Masterpieces."  Bird, who was a very rapid player himself, had a grievance against Morphy, which he once expressed to me thus: "One afternoon Morphy turned up about one o'clock and offered to play me a skittle game.  I accepted the challenge and the game actually lasted, owing to his slow play, till nine p.m., when I lost it."
     The celebrated English player, J. H. Blackburne, used to come to Simpson's frequently, when he had no engagements in the North, as he used to say.  He also was full of good humour.  He had hardly seen me at Simpson's for the first time, when he pointed out to me a large building opposite Simpson's, carrying the inscriprion Y. M. C. A.  He then asked me solemnly whether I knew what these initials were for. When I replied that I was ignorant of their meaning, he said: "Young Masters' Chess Association."
     A curious little incident occurred one day in connection to Blackburne.  A stranger came in and asked to be introduced to Mr.Blackburne.  It was winter, and I stood near the fireplace, watching the proceedings.  Blackburne came from the next room, where he was playing dominoes with Zukertort, and after the usual introduction and preliminaries, the stranger agreed to play a game with Blackburne for a shilling. They tossed for the move, and the stranger won the toss; but made no move whatsoever for at least 10 minutes.  He then slowly lifted his hand, as if to move the K P but retired it again, rather hastily, and looked intently at the board for at least another ten minutes.  Then Blackburne got up, placed a shilling on the table, and said: "Sir, you are too strong for me, you have won the game.  Here is your shilling."  So saying, he returned to the next room, where Zukertort was still waiting for him.  The stranger was quite upset.  He also got up and vanished from the room quickly, leaving the shilling untouched on the table.  I then handed the shilling back to Blackburne, and the incident was closed.
     The next great master who frequented Simpson's was Dr. J. H. Zukertort, the first prize-winner in Paris in 1878, and in London, 1883.  He was a highly-educated man, rather nervous and of a lively temperament.  In the few years I had the pleasure of his company, I learned many things from him, also a great deal of good chess. On a certain occasion he told me: "You always make the best moves - one or two moves too late."  This criticism was well deserved and also is applicable to a good many other players.  Zukertort, who in Germany had been closely connected with the great Adolf Anderssen, once told me the following anecdote, which he had from Anderssen himself.
     After the London Tournament in 1851, where Anderssen had won the prize, the Professor, on his return to Breslau, travelled by railway.  But the railways of Germany were then only in their infancy, and at a certain station Anderssen had to wait something like twelve hours for the next train.  He asked the station master whether there was anything remarkable in the adjoining little town, and the station master said: "We have a good old inn here, where a chess club meets every evening."   "Chess?" said Anderssen. "I believe I have a small notion about that game myself," and he went with the station master to the inn and the chess club.  After a while the station master proposed a game to Anderssen, who accepted, rather reluctantly, and, receiving the odds of a Rook from the station master, played very clumsily and quickly lost two games to the latter, to the exhilaration of the local players, who regarded the station master as their champion.  Then Anderssen, winking his eye to the onlookers, demanded in his turn the privilege of conceding the Rook.  On the local players insisting on this, the station master had to accept the challenge, and in less than two hours Anderssen who now played with lightning rapidity - and precision - had won seven or eight games!
     When at last Anderssen's train came in, the local enthusiasts were with hi on the platform, and one of them ventured to say: "We believe you must be Professor Anderssen himself.  We have seen a picture of his in the papers, and you look uncomonly like him."  Anderssen, however, replied evasively:  "I have played, it is true, with players who did play with Anderssen, but they all took odds from him."
     So saying, he stepped into the carriage and was soon lost to sight.
     Zukertort complained to me several times about the first prize he won in Paris in 1878.   That prize consisted of an object d'art, a Sevres vase, estimated value 5,000 francs, and was given by M. Jules Grevy, the president of France, himself a keen chessplayer.  Zukertort, in order to convert it into much needed cash, had to travel for three days in a fiacre all over Paris until at last he was able to sell it for much less than its estimated value. Most unfortunately, Zukertort had a sudden stroke at Simpson's one afternoon in 1888, whilst playing chess with a barrister, a former pupil of mine.  He was conveyed to Charing Cross Hospital, where he died the next morning, without recovering consciousness, at the age of only forty-four years.
     James Mason, long associated with America, but living in London since the 'seventies, was another famous master at Simpson's.  He is well known as the author of some excellent books on chess.  In his time he played some notable and even superlative games.  That with Winawer in Vienna, 1882, is a fine example of his best style.  I was not long at Simpson's, when one day, he confided in me, in an undertone:  "Steinitz has invented chess altogether, and Zukertort has invented P-K4."
     My friend I. Gunsberg, first prize-winner in several international tournaments, also played at Simpson;s at intervals and so did W. H. K. Pollock, a highly-gifted and brilliant player.  He had an Irish friend and rival in the person of J. A. Porterfield Rynd of Dublin, a lawyer, who frequently came to London, visiting Simpson's ans playing chess with the best talents available.
     Another eminent master was Amos Burn of Liverpool, first prize-winner at Amsterdam in 1889; and there was F. J. Lee, then a rising player of promise;  also Samuel Tinsley, a strong player;  Leopold Hoffer, an intimate friend of Zukertort;  G. H. D. Gossip, a moderately good player, but a prolific writer on chess;  likewise James Mortimer, a most versatile gentleman, a journalist, and a playwright, who was at one time a friend of Napoleon III.  Mortimer used to play and enormous number of skittle games with Zukertort in the evening, when the latter was disengaged.  There was also L. van Vliet, who arrived in London in 1888 and was later on chess editor of The Sunday Times for many years.
     Among professionals at Simpson;s was Leon Febvret, formerly schoolmaster in France and then a refugee in London since the days of the French Commune in 1871.  During the thirty years he lived in London he only learned English to the extent he could read, and probably understand, the contents of a newspaper, but in private conversation he preferred his native French.  He was "the old Frenchman"; but we also had a "young Frenchman," M. Rolland, and a Russian, Jasnogrodsky, who later went to the U. S. A.
     Last, but not least, I can refer  but briefly to the great Emanuel Lasker, who  arrived in London in 1890, twenty-one years old, and after some phenomenal successes won the championship of the world from Steinitz four years later in 1894, then then held it most successfully for over twentysix years!