October 17 2011
A professional gambler of my acquaintance makes a habit of breakfasting at least once a month in the reassuringly traditional surroundings of Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. The venerable institution, part of the Savoy Buildings and seemingly impervious to changing culinary fashions, remains a byword for great joints of beef wheeled into the dining room on a silver trolley and carved at your table. They also serve a slap-up full English, including sausages, bacon, eggs and black pudding, under the title of the Ten Deadly Sins. But what really intrigues my gambling friend is the high-powered mind games that once took place there.
Simpson’s features in several stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, including The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, in which Holmes and Watson tuck in while discussing how to thwart the villainous philanderer Baron Gruner. “It is clear that I must plan some fresh opening move,” says Holmes, “for this gambit won’t work.” The choice of words was deliberate. To Conan Doyle’s readers, Simpson’s Grand Divan Tavern, to give it its proper name, was synonymous not only with hearty fare and a comfortably English ambience, but also with chess.
Simpson’s was opened in 1828 by Samuel Reiss and was initially a smart coffee house where patrons could enjoy cigars, newspapers and conversation. But they were not the only social pleasures indulged in.
HE Bird, writing in his 1893 classic Chess History and Reminiscences, described how the luxurious couches, tables and mirrors were found to “offer the most admirable facilities for the quiet and comfortable enjoyment of chess”. The most intellectual and diverting of games was very popular in 19th-century Britain, and legendary players such as the Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz, the American Paul Morphy and the Englishman Howard Staunton duelled at length in the Grand Divan restaurant. When the caterer John Simpson became Reiss’s partner in 1848, the place really took off, and the chess games continued until 1903 when Simpson’s closed for refurbishment while the Strand was widened outside. When it reopened a year later, the game was no longer paramount.
But in the past few years chess has made a welcome return to the Grand Divan. The Staunton Memorial Dinner, sponsored by the equity fundraiser Darwin Strategic and featuring the Grandmasters Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and England’s Nigel Short, was held at Simpson’s in September 2010, and this winter it will be the setting for the Gala Dinner at the climax of the London Chess Classic, at Olympia from December 3 to 12. In honour of its history the napkins and plates at Simpson’s have a chess knight emblazoned on them, while diners can enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail in the art-deco Knight’s Bar, or hire the Bishop’s Room for a function.
You don’t have to be a player yourself to appreciate the way the thought processes and terminology of chess have entered the language, especially in the sporting and gambling worlds. Fitzdares will be offering odds on the London Classic, for which the World Champion, India’s Vishy Anand, is likely to start as favourite. But his recent head-to-head statistics are not as impressive as those of the Russian Veselin Topalov, and the latter could be the smart bet at around 7-4 with Fitzdares.