A wry view of life for the world-weary

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Twenty Six


Early chess clubs of London

For some reason I have never really got on with chess but I recognise it to be a game of strategy and skill. Perhaps I just don’t have the requisite attributes. As the game requires two to play – at least it did before the invention of computers – then it is not surprising that clubs were formed to enable practitioners to exhibit their prowess and find a ready supply of opponents.

Although an ancient game chess really took off in London in the 18th century. The style of play at the time was rather cavalier and opening gambits where pawns and even pieces were sacrificed, daring attacks and deliberate sacrifices were par for the course. Style rather than tactical mastery of position was the key at the time.

One of the first chess clubs to form in London met at Slaughter’s coffee house in St Martin’s Lane from 1747. There were to be found many of the leading exponents of the game and it was the members who first extended an invitation to the great Francois-Andre Danican Philidor to visit these shores. Philidor had already established a reputation as a chess prodigy in Paris, having played two games in public simultaneously whilst blindfolded, something that had never been done before.

In 1749 in his book, Analysis of Chess, was published in 1749 to capitalise the growing interest in the game amongst the leisured classes, Philidor espoused the key role of the pawn in the famous phrase, “les pions sont l’ame du jou”, pawns are the soul of chess, a philosophy which was contrary to the popular playing style of the day. The book also provided the basis for a more analytical approach to the game, espousing the benefits of openings, mating strategies and endgames.

Another club sprang up in the West End meeting at the Salopian coffee house in Charing Cross and a third at premises next door to the Thatched House Tavern in St James’ Street. It was here that Philidor wowed the London cognoscenti with his ability to play chess blindfolded. A contemporary newspaper reported, “He played three different games at once without seeing either (sic) of the tables. He defeated Count Bruhl in one hour and twenty minutes and Mr Maeseres in two hours (the best two players in London). Mr Bowdler reduced his games to a drawn battle in one hour and three-quarters. This exertion of M Philidor’s abilities must appear one of the greatest of which the human mind is susceptible. He goes through it with astonishing accuracy and often corrects mistakes in those who have the board before him”.

Philidor was still at in 1795, the year of his death, playing three games simultaneously whilst blindfolded at Parsloe’s, an event for which non members were charged 5 shillings to attend. With the Frenchman’s death the centre of gravity of the London chess scene moved away from the West End to the City where in 1807 the London Chess Club established itself at Tom’s Coffee House in Cornhill. In 1833 a club was established in Bedford Street in Covent Garden which hosted epic contests between the unofficial world champion, La Bourdonnais, and his challenger, McDonnell, in 1834. This was not enough to maintain the club which dissolved in 1840 but was resurrected some time afterwards as the St George’s Club in Cavendish Square.

By then, though, the game had become well established and many less august clubs sprang up to fill the void.


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