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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Simpson’s Divan

Simpson's in the Old Days

      Today Simpson's-in-the-Strand is one of London’s oldest restaurants, but to chess players it’s best known as haunt for early greats of the chess world.
       After a modest start as a smoking room and then a coffee house, Simpson's achieved a dual fame, for its traditional English food and as the most important venue in Britain for chess in the nineteenth century. Chess ceased to be a feature after Simpson's was bought by the Savoy Hotel group of companies at the end of the century, but it’s still around today and is famous for its traditional English food.
       As a coffee house it was a place where gentlemen smoked cigars with their coffee, browsed over the daily journals and newspapers, indulged in conversation about the politics of the day and…played chess.  Members paid one guinea a year but there was also a daily entrance fee for others: 2.5 pence  or 7.5 pence with coffee and a cigar.
       Chess matches were played against other coffee houses in the town with runners in top hats carrying the news of each move. The Grand Cigar Divan soon became recognized as the home of chess in England. It was one of the top London restaurants, becoming an established attraction with patrons including non-chess players like Charles Dickens, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.
       Simpson introduced the practice of wheeling large pieces of meat on silver trolleys to each table and carving them in front of guests – a custom that still prevails today. 
       Shortly before his death in 1864, John Simpson sold the restaurant to Edmund Cathie, and in 1865 a prospectus was issued for "Simpson's (Ltd)" with capital of 100,000 pounds to purchase and extend the Divan Tavern.
       In 1898 Richard Carte, owner of the Savoy Hotel acquired Simpson's. Carte died in 1901, and his son, Rupert  took over the business and Simpsons was closed for redevelopment. All the old furniture and fittings were sold off and it was reopened in 1904 under the name Simpson's-in-the-Strand, Grand Divan Tavern.  It remains today.

Simpson's Today
      Simpson’s continues to be a favorite in London’s restaurant scene and is particularly renowned for its style of food which is described as ‘fine English food.’
My Favorite meal - breakfast!
       Today with its crystal chandeliers and French-polished paneled walls it’s nothing like it was in Staunton’s day though.  It still serves roasts carved from the trolley with daily specials, potted shrimp, lobster soup, and steak and kidney pudding.  They also serve game like roasted wood pigeon breast with green beans, new potatoes and bacon. Welsh rarebit, smoked Scottish salmon or roast rib of 28-day aged Scottish beef surrounded by roast potatoes, Savoy cabbage, Yorkshire pudding and horseradish are also on the menu.  They also serve breakfast.  They dress code is smart casual. 
       That’s today.  Yesteryear things were different.  On entering you found long rows of sofas, smelled tobacco and saw many chessboards and shelves full of books. An old waiter brought coffee, cigars and some newspapers, and asked if you would like a game of chess.
       On one occasion, when the Divan was being cleaned and redecorated, that the proprietor carried sunk into each marble table a chessboard and when the Divan was reopened, the players would not them!  use these stone squares. They said they had to have a board raised from the table.  Their reasoning was simple: the marble boards, being flush with the table, would allow a dishonest player to easily might easily slide a captured piece or pawn back again on to the board.  I guess chess players have always had to worry about cheating.
       In cold weather there was a large fire at each end of the room where patrons would congregate for a chat and a smoke.
       When Henry Buckle was around he 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 Charles Stanley, he took nearly 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.
       Other famous patrons were Bird, Blackburne, and Gunsberg. Then there was James Mason, who it was said was remarkably quiet while playing chess, all his energies being devoted to the game, and in this respect he differed from many other noted masters who it was said often assumed an air of carelessness and indifference.  Mason was also capable of giving sound views on the political questions of the day, in which he took a great deal of interest.
       Rev. G. A. MacDonnell often came where he was one of the most popular men at the Divan. Besides being an exceptionally fine player, be was gifted with a good sense of humor and had endless anecdotes to tell of the players of the previous generation…Boden, Buckle, Falkbeer, and Staunton.
       Another remarkable man who frequently appeared was James Mortimer.  Mortimer was a former secretary of the American Legation in St. Petersburg and Paris, a friend of Paul Morphy, the editor and proprietor of the Figaro, as well as several other journals, and the author of several plays.  He was an enthusiastic player who took part in every first-class tournament held in England for many years.
       Men distinguished in various professions were often visitors:  comedians and clergymen, journalists and doctors, elderly merchants and youthful clerks, pompous family lawyers.   
       Simpsons on the Strand was resurrected as a chess venue, perhaps for the last time, for the Short v. Kasparov match in 1993.

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