Howard Staunton
  
About the Society
  
HS Memorial Tournament
  
Links

SIMPSON’S DIVAN
By Charles Tomlinson

…On entering the Divan [the visitor] was surprised to find long rows of sofas, the smell of tobacco, many chessboards and shelves full of books. A civil old waiter brought him his coffee, together with Blackwood and some newspapers, and enquired whether he would like a game of chess, which was declined; when lo! a musical clock was set going, which could be heard in every part of the large room.

My recollections of the Divan extend back to the twenties of this century. As its interests in chess were more and more developed, it became less literary, that is, fewer books and papers were taken in, and the musical mechanism was removed altogether, as it tended to disturb the royal game. I remember on one occasion, when the Divan was being cleaned and redecorated, that the proprietor carried out what he conceived to be a clever idea in the interest of the chessplayers. He caused to be sunk into each marble table a mosaic chessboard, the squares of marble being of opposite colours. When the room was reopened, the players would not use these stone squares. We must, they said, have a board raised from the table, with a terrace round it; for these marble things, being flush with the table, a dishonest player might easily coax with his sleeve a captured piece or pawn back again on to the board.

Simpson’s in its best days was a pleasant place. It was the resort not only of well-known chessplayers of London and the provinces, but also of authors, actors, artists, and men about town. In cold weather there was a large fire at each end of the room, and we used to congregate about the one farthest from the door for a chat and a smoke. All sorts of subjects were more or less discussed. When Sir Robert Peel introduced his income tax measure, it was frequently talked over. An old gentleman remarked that he remembered it in Pitt’s time, and how it led to a remarkable case of fraud in the town where he resided. A dashing young fellow engaged the best lodgings, lived in good style and got into society. He returned his income at a very large figure and soon after paid his addresses to the daughter of the surveyor of taxes. This worthy fellow told his friends how good a match it was, “Because,” said he, “I know what his income is.” After the marriage it was discovered that he was a mere adventurer, and his income return a fiction.

Buckle would occasionally join in the talk; he was always very positive, and few cared to contradict him. His rapid talk was not like his play, for this was very deliberate. On one occasion, when playing against Stanley, he occupied upwards of an hour over a single move. When he did move, Stanley said, “Yes, I thought that the knight would be the right move!” “You only thought so; I know it,” retorted Buckle.

Buckle would sometimes invite a player to visit him at his house for a game. He was fond of giving pawn and move, or pawn and two, to a strong player, and the game would usually last late into the night. Next day, Williams, who edited a chess column, would look out for Buckle’s antagonist, and get him to go over the game of the night before, which was then taken down. In this way some of Buckle’s games were preserved, which otherwise would have been lost.

I was talking with Mr. Lewis on the too great length of games, when he stated that the practice of long pauses was introduced by Staunton. “In the old Westminster Club,” he said, “if a game lasted three hours, it was matter of talk for a fortnight. In my match with Deschapelles, all three games were played before dinner. Also with Cochrane’s games on the same occasion. But one of Staunton’s games may last twelve or thirteen hours, and even then be adjourned.” At the time when Harrwitz and Löwenthal played their match, a time limit had frequently been discussed, but not agreed on. Staunton directed Löwenthal on at least one occasion when I was present, if not oftener, to take a quarter of an hour for every move. But Nemesis pursued even Staunton. He told me that in a match, a professional antagonist, whom I will not name, coolly said to him in answer to his remonstrance to his slow play, “I can’t afford to lose this: I must sit you out!”

But Staunton rose above the position in which Fortune had placed him. He cultivated literature with some credit: he was a successful student of Shakespeare, and edited a well-known edition of the works of the great dramatist. His books on chess are admirable examples of sound exposition, judicious arrangement and selection, and good editing. During several years he was the leading player in Europe, and engaged in matches at odds with men of position, for money, it is true, for this was his chief means of support. He also played correspondence games for a stake, and I thought it somewhat unreasonable when the members of a provincial club complained to me bitterly that Staunton asked for the money as soon as he obtained what he called a winning position.

But to return to the Divan. This was in a state of excitement at the end of every week, when Staunton’s chess column in the Illustrated London News came in, and the notices to correspondents were eagerly examined. I remember that much indignation was caused by the reference to a “certain player named Williams,” that player being as well-known in the chess world as Staunton himself.

But the excitement at the Divan was, perhaps, at its height (during the match between Harrwitz and Löwenthal). The former repaired to the Divan after the day’s play, and went over the moves of the game before an admiring host of friends. Harrwitz was so elated at having won the first two games that he declared in my presence that Löwenthal should not win a single game. Boden encouraged him by saying: “I had rather throw a five-pound note into the gutter than that you should lose this match.” Staunton, who got hold of everything that occurred in the chess world, got hold of course of this boast of Harrwitz’s, and in his next chess column remarked, “We understand that Mr. Harrwitz intends his contest with Mr. Löwenthal to be a maiden match.” The players met in a private room in an hotel near Spring Gardens, and in the following week I was present when Staunton dropped in, and Harrwitz went up to him and denied ever having made the remark which called forth Staunton’s sarcasm. Staunton simply smiled, and said nothing. Of course I was equally silent, from a reluctance to get into hot water with the Divan party. Here the feeling ran very high, and it became so embittered as to lead to very discreditable conduct on the part of some of its inferior members. As the match inclined decidedly in favour of Löwenthal, one man said, in my hearing, that he had sent an organ boy to play before the window, so as to distract the attention of Löwenthal, who was known to be very nervous. He also did not like smoking and had stipulated beforehand that visitors should not smoke; but some of the Divan party had made it a point to smoke as near to Löwenthal as possible, and I even saw one man light his cigar at Löwenthal’s candle, and puff the smoke into his face. I was never more convinced of the necessity for a chessplayer to be a gentleman.

But to return to more genial reminiscences. Among the players at the Divan were some very pleasant men. I do not think that I ever got over the odds of pawn and two, which these gentlemen gave me; but I played even with Captain Evans, whose game was not, I thought, equal to his reputation.

Little Alexandre, who had worked the automaton, and talked pleasantly of Mouret who had preceded him, and also of some other earlier players, said he could not give me pawn and two; but he had become old and feeble, and was probably in bad circumstances, his Thousand Chess Problems and Encyclopedia of Chess having but a scanty sale.

Williams was a pleasant, gentlemanly antagonist, and he published some specimens of his Divan play in a little volume which he sold to the benignant amateur. It is entitled “Horae Divanianiae, a selection of one hundred and fifty original games by leading masters, principally played at the Grand Divan.” It was published by the author at the Divan, in 1852, and it has a long list of subscribers, showing how greatly Williams was respected. The book, we say, was purchased off the author by the benignant amateur. I have seen a man take the odds of a knight, and score game and game and a draw, and then retire well satisfied with himself. One day when this occurred, Williams protested that he could not afford to give a lesson in such terms. Of course, under such a protest, none but a shabby man would refuse to pay the fee.

Daniels was also a most pleasant antagonist, he was chatty and intelligent, and his game had a flavour of originality about it which was rare among the professionals. There was a man named Finch, for example, whose moves were all stereotyped, as well as his traps and catches. He generally tried to evade giving odds by complimenting the amateur on his strength. On one such occasion an incident occurred which became a standing joke in the Divan. A clergyman introduced to Finch by Simpson, sat down before him and assented to the customary “Play for a shilling?” He lost about a dozen games, and then got up and deposited a shilling on the board, and would not be persuaded that a shilling a game was intended.

Daniels died early of consumption, and was greatly regretted.

Williams also died early. A subscription was got up in the Divan for the benefit of his widow and children, and I hope it was liberally supported. He had been a medical man in Bristol and was a distinguished member of the chess club there. Williams became so fascinated with the game that he gave up his practice for a precarious seat in the Divan.

I have also a melancholy recollection of Labourdonnais, who, broken in health and in fortune, was engaged by the proprietor of the Divan, at two guineas a week, to play all corners. The engagement did not last long. He was attended in the kindest manner by George Walker, who, when he died, conducted his body to its last resting place in Kensal Green Cemetery, near the remains of his old antagonist McDonnell. The last illness of Labourdonnais was said to have been occasioned by the great mental strain of a blindfold game with Boncourt. He said he felt as if something had given way in his brain. What a contrast between this single game and the twelve simultaneous blindfold games which I saw conducted by Blackburne in the old Divan!

The professional players were subject to a somewhat heavy tax about Christmas time. They had to subscribe each a sum of about two guineas to the waiters’ fund. As the players were more or less dependent on the waiters for their customers, no one dared to put his name down for a smaller sum.

British Chess Magazine, 1891

***

“ MODERN SIMPSON’S”
By A.G.

This description of Simpson’s Divan in the ‘90s is redolent of the snug, leisurely atmosphere of a bygone age. Incidentally, a pretty theory could be evolved about the relationship between London weather and the development of nineteenth-century chess in England.

The weary wayfarer, crossing the Strand on one of the sloppy days of early spring, cannot but admit to himself that he has a “bad game.” The position is somewhat complicated. He has stepped up to his ankles in mud, and placed himself en prise to an omnibus. With the true instinct of a chessplayer he at once recognizes the perils of his situation. Nothing but a master-stroke can avail him. He therefore makes a combination to dash across the roadway, and after a narrow escape of being taken en passant by a hansom, he castles safely into the Divan.

And truth to tell he could hardly have found a more comfortable place of refuge for a wet afternoon. The very atmosphere of the place is inviting. Delicate fumes of tobacco mingle with the aroma of coffee, and there is moreover the sound, pleasant to a chessplayer’s ear, of wooden pieces being placed more or less emphatically on their squares; while seated at the tables there are experts engaged in the rigor of the game, but not so deeply absorbed as to prevent them from chatting with the bystanders and making chaffing observations to their opponents. Certainly the writer in the Daily News who recently displayed his ignorance by asserting that chess is a melancholy game, chiefly practiced by old men at clubs, could never have been to Simpson’s Divan. For here is good-fellowship and good temper, occasionally diversified, it is true, by the passing shade of sorrow that indicates the loss of a queen, or the impossibility of avoiding mate—misfortunes which are soon forgotten in the excitement of another game.

For the benefit of those who are only able to regard a visit to Simpson’s as a pleasure to come, it may be well to briefly describe the room, which being undoubtedly the chief chess rendezvous of London, may without presumption be designated as the headquarters of the world. If any justification for this title be required, it is only necessary to remark that chess has made more progress in this country than in any other, and as a consequence there is frequently more chess talent gathered together on a single afternoon at Simpson’s than could be found in the whole breadth of some of the continental countries. The room, which is fairly spacious, is situated on the second floor of the building occupied by Simpson’s. The lower floors are devoted to dining rooms, and there is a cigar shop on the street level.

The chess divan is a lofty apartment, with three high windows looking out upon the busy Strand, and under these windows there is a row of tables provided with boards and men of a somewhat antiquated and peculiar pattern. In the centre of the room is another row of tables similarly provided, and at the back is a recess containing a library which includes much useful literature, as well as many interesting works on chess. The tables in the recess are piled with current magazines, and this part of the room, it may be observed, is principally frequented by non-chessplayers, who here indulge in coffee, cigars and philosophical conversation after lunch. Indeed it is not until after the luncheon hour that the Divan begins to assume anything like an animated aspect.

A few early comers drop in and look over the papers, the most notable of these usually being the gentleman familiarly but not disrespectfully known as the “Old Frenchman.” Whether he is really old or not is probably unknown to anyone but himself. The writer has known him by the same sobriquet for the last fifteen years, and is prepared to vouch that his appearance has undergone no change within that period. M. Fevrett, for that is his name, has come to be regarded as quite an institution at Simpson’s Divan, where he generally practices the calling of a professional chessplayer. He is a little man, with bent shoulders, iron-grey whiskers, and wide felt hat. It is curious that notwithstanding his long residence in the country, he has never acquired a knowledge of our language. He has the mercurial disposition common to his race, and under the exciting influence of the game he causes a good deal of amusement by his running comments in his own language. In fact he has excited the emulation of many imitators, and one of his favourite expressions: “Voilà ce que je n’aurais par voulu” is very commonly heard on the lips of London chessplayers when they get into difficulties.

Of late, three of the most notable frequenters of the room have been absent, namely Bird, Blackburne, and Gunsberg. The former is only just recovering from a very serious illness, Blackburne has gone to Havana, and Gunsberg has been engaged at New York in a contest with Steinitz. The absence of these gentlemen is greatly felt, but none of them has been so keenly missed as the veteran champion Bird. Probably he has enjoyed more games at Simpson’s than any other living player; enjoyed we say advisedly, for if there is one thing more remarkable than another about Bird’s play, it is the keen sense of enjoyment with which he enters into the excitement of the game. His broad good-humoured visage reddens, his eyes grow keen, and evidently as far as his own feelings are concerned he might be once more the elegant youth of forty years ago, elaborating brilliant combinations for the overthrow of Boden or Staunton.

Perhaps this is one reason why his games always excite so much interest. The beauty and ingenuity of his play are well-known, and so it comes about that whenever Bird sits down to a game at Simpson’s Divan, there is sure to be a goodly crowd of bystanders to watch his intricate manoeuvres. We all hope soon to see him back in his old place again. Blackburne and Gunsberg also will receive a welcome at Simpson’s on their return from the West. But even with these three giants away, there are still plenty of leading masters to be seen at the Divan, by anyone who cares to spend an afternoon in the fascinating atmosphere of that establishment.

There is James Mason, with his imperturbable face, playing in his usual sound and solid style against a hapless amateur, who vainly struggles for a draw. Mason is remarkably quiet while playing at chess, all his energies being obviously devoted to the game, and in this respect he differs from many other noted masters, who are apt to assume an air of carelessness and indifference which disconcerts aspiring beginners by giving them the idea that they are undervalued. Under other circumstances Mason is quite a different individual, being very fond of animated and convivial conversation. He is also capable of giving sound views on the political questions of the day, in which he takes a great deal of interest. I remember some time ago introducing an artistic friend to the mysteries of Simpson’s Divan; he had hardly been there five minutes before he called my attention to Mason and asked who he was. The information being given, he exclaimed: “I should like to paint his head, it is one of the best I have ever seen.”

Indeed one can easily understand that the keen dark eyes and intellectual contour of Mason’s head would make a very interesting study for a painter.

No less picturesque is the massive brow and plentiful grey beard of the Rev. G. A. MacDonnell, who often comes to Simpson’s whenever he can snatch a brief respite from his clerical duties. Mr. MacDonnell has for a great many years been a prominent figure in the chess world, and his brilliant weekly comments on the progress of the game, under the nom de plume of “Mars,” are well known to the public. It is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the most popular men at the Divan. Besides being an exceptionally fine player, be is gifted with an inexhaustible fund of humour, and there is no man who more frequently “sets the table in a roar.” Mr. MacDonnell has endless anecdotes to tell of the players of the last generation—Boden, Buckle, Falkbeer, and Staunton, and those who have heard him imitate the pompous manner of the latter, cannot but admit his dramatic ability. So life-like, in fact, are Mr. MacDonnell’s impersonations of these former masters, that one seems actually to know them from his descriptions.

Another remarkable man who frequently appears at Simpson’s is James Mortimer. His history is a romance. A former secretary of the American Legation in St. Petersburg and Paris, the friend of Paul Morphy, the editor and proprietor of the Figaro, as well as several other journals, and the author of several plays, Mr. Mortimer’s experiences have been exceedingly interesting and varied. He is an enthusiastic chessplayer, and has taken part in every first-class tournament held in this country for many years past. Mr. Mortimer’s games are well worth watching, for even in those that he loses he almost invariably produces some ingenious or brilliant combination. He has an impetuous disposition and is occasionally irritable under defeat; but this slight infirmity is easily condoned by those who know and esteem him.

Among the other frequent habitués of the rooms are Mr. Lee, Mr. Van Vliet, and Mr. Muller, all of whom are comparatively new recruits to the ranks of the masters. Besides these, it frequently happens that continental, American, and provincial celebrities are to be seen at Simpson’s, for it is seldom indeed that any chessplayer comes to London without making a point of visiting the classic Divan. With such an array of talent as an attraction, it is not surprising that a great number of amateurs are continually finding their way to the room. These include men of every degree and representatives of every class of life. Men distinguished in various professions are often to be seen: comedians and clergymen, journalists and doctors, elderly merchants and youthful clerks, pompous family lawyers and briefless barristers, all animated by the same desire, either to see the masters play or to try their own skill against them at the modest outlay of a shilling. That small sum is all that it is customary to stake upon the games, so that it is open to anyone to obtain the best possible practice without the smallest chance of being accused of extravagance.

It has often been suggested, and not without justice, that the masters would better consult their own interests, as well as their dignity, if they did not make chess so cheap. One cannot well understand how a shilling can repay them for all the mental labour needed in a contest with a strong amateur, especially as there is always the possibility of making a slip and losing the game. And yet it is a fact that the unfortunate Zukertort was playing for a shilling at the time when he was seized with the apoplectic stroke that led to his decease. It is, however, needless to recall this sad event. The chessplayer is, as a rule, endowed with the artistic temperament, thinking but little of tomorrow or yesterday, and enjoying himself in the present, amid the endless complications and delights that his chosen pastime never fails to afford.

…An eccentric gentleman, I will call him Mr. C., used to cause a great deal of amusement by the extraordinary velocity of his moves; he boasted that he had won every game he had played with Zukertort, the fact being that he had played only one, which by some accident he had happened to win, and after this he steadfastly refused to play Zukertort again.

“I have beaten you every game,” he used to say, “and if I played you again, I might not be able to say so any more.”

One day he was playing Blackburne, and the latter somehow got into a hopeless mess. Mr. C. was boiling over with excitement, and Blackburne, seeing that there was nothing else to be done, had recourse to a little artifice. He took up his opponent’s bishop and put it down with a bang, exclaiming “Check!”

“I take it off,” said Mr. C. excitedly.
“ You can’t take your own piece,” retorted Blackburne.
“ Oh, of course not,” said the bewildered C., who thereupon moved his king and was mated, amid the laughter of the bystanders.

I remember an equally amusing incident which happened when two beginners came in and sat down to play. I was occupied at a board close by, and an occasional glance at their proceedings showed me that their skill at chess was confined to a knowledge of the moves. Their game proceeded quietly and laboriously for some time, until at last one of them remarked: “I think you are mate. You can’t go there and you can’t go there. You can’t move at all, you are mate.”

“So I am,” said the other, after carefully scrutinizing the board, and then taking another look at the position he added: “But you are mate too.”

“Well, I mated you first,” said his opponent.
“ No, that you didn’t,” was the reply.

On this a dispute arose, but how it was eventually settled I do not know, for just then my own game required so much attention that I was unable to notice anything else….

British Chess Magazine, 1891.