Have you ever wandered down Strand and noticed two large hanging chess pieces outside a famous restaurant?
Then when you spot them, you look around and see more references to chess in the arch above the door.
Why so much chess on the front of the restaurant?
Simpsons was opened in 1828 as Samuel Reiss’s Grand Cigar Divan, catering to smokers, and players of both chess and billiards.
The place also developed as a coffee house, and there were also chess matches between various coffee houses, but over time Simpsons emerged as the leading place for the best players.
In 1848, Reiss joined forces with the caterer John Simpson to expand the premises, renaming it “Simpson’s Grand Divan Tavern”, and it transformed into the restaurant that it has remained ever since.
However, the cigar divan remained and chess was still played there.
Almost all the top players of the century played there at some stage, including Wilhelm Steinitz, Paul Morphy, Emanuel Lasker, Johannes Zukertort (who had a fatal stroke while playing there), and Siegbert Tarrasch.
Such was the prominence of the game in the late 19th century that matches were reported in the newspaper’s sports pages.
In the 1870s though, the famous chess room was moved from the ground floor to make more space for the restaurant, and in the 1890s it was said that Simpsons was fading as the preeminent site for chess due to the opening of more chess clubs elsewhere across London.
Simpsons was bought by the owner of the Savoy Hotel in 1898, and in 1903 the restaurant closed for refurbishment caused by the slicing off its front due to road widening, reopening in 1904.
Although many reports said that chess didn’t return, it was still played, if on a much smaller scale.
Although the chessboard above the door dates from 1904, the foliage chess pieces hanging in front are much newer. There used to be generic hanging pot plants, until 2017 – when the restaurant closed for refurbishment, and opened a few months later, with the new giant chess pieces hanging either side of the doors.
A memory of the restaurant’s heritage as the home of English Chess.
These days, if you search for chess and Simpsons, you’re more likely to get a chess set featuring yellow cartoon characters, and not the restaurant that was once the premier site for chess in the UK.
Illustrated London News – Saturday 07 April 1877
Penny Illustrated Paper – Saturday 20 June 1885
St James’s Gazette – Saturday 24 October 1891
Morning Post – Friday 13 February 1903
The Bystander – Wednesday 06 September 1905