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The History and The Culture of Chess
Kiev’s Warsaw Café
Kiev’s Warsaw Café
During the 19th century most casual chess activity in Europe took place in coffeehouses and restaurants. Many are familiar with Simpson’s in London, the Café de la Régence in Paris , Café Kerkau in Berlin and the Café Dominik in St. Petersburg. In the provincial town of Kiev’s main meeting place for chess players leading up the 1917 revolution was the Warsaw Café.
The city of Kiev spreads off the banks of the Dnieper river each side joined by an occasional bridge. Kiev’s main street is the Kreshchatyk which runs from the south bank of the Dnieper with numerous roads running off it, though only a few intersecting it. During those pre-WW1 years one could turn off the hustling, bustling Kreshchatyk a few blocks away from the Dnieper, unto the quiet cobble-stoned Lutheran St. It climbs uphill to the Holy Ekaterina Lutheran Church that was built by Kiev's German settlers in the 1830’s giving the street its name. (In the late 1880’s the street was renamed Annenskovska St.) Turning the corner of the Kreshchatyk and Lutheran St. there was a large building (No. 29 Kreshchatyk) housing a photography business. At No. 3 Lutheran St. one found the famous Warsaw Café.
Lutheran St. would have a history of interesting people living in its buildings; in late 1914 Maxim Gorky lived at #6 with his lover, the actress Andreeva, the author V. Paustovsky, who wrote beautifully about Kiev, grew up at #33. Mikhail Bulgakov's sisters attended the girls school at the Ekaterina Church during the same time.
According to Gufeld and Lazarev, in their book on Ukrainian chess history, the Warsaw Café first opened its doors in the early 1880’s. Its owner, a certain Mr. Ziegmuntovsky, (who’s home-town, Warsaw, gave the café its name) was a chess amateur himself and gave his clients a small sum to purchase a chess set for use at the cafe. This seed grew until a small room with several chess tables was set aside for the players. This gave impetus to the organization of a local tournament that Boris Aleksander Nikolaev (1867-1909) won (another report says he only came 5th). The café became a popular haunt for many of Kiev's journalists, artists and writers. Among its visitors were the well-known Ukrainian playwright, Mykhaylo Staritzky (1840–1904), the soon-to-be famous Russian writer, A.M. Kuprin (1870-1938), and the celebrated director, Nikolai Solovstov. Even the great novelist Turgenev is said to have frequented the café during his visit to Kiev. Staritzky, particularly, was a regular habitué of the café and his daughter would later recall that he even sometimes performed small simultaneous displays there.
Organized chess in Kiev had a difficult time developing due the stigma of gambling often associated with the game. Kiev’s Sports Society had a long-standing ban on chess, card games and other games of chance for which it would only briefly make an exception for chess in 1910/11. Consequently the friendly environs of the Warsaw Café afforded a central location for chessplayers to meet up. Nikolaev solidified his reputation as the pre-eminent local player by winning a local tournament in 1895. He wasn’t challenged until the arrival of a young and ambitious player from Chernigov province, Fyodor Duz-Chotimirsky (1879-1965), a jack-of-all trades who had been orphaned at a young age.
It was not until 1900 that an annual, city-wide championship was organized which was won by Nikolaev. Second place was captured by the famous amateur and chess patron, the Prince Dadian of Mingrelia (1850-1910), who, after retiring his commission in the Tsar’s army, had taken up residence in Kiev in 1895. And so Kiev’s chess community was a cross-section of Russian society with men of affairs, the idle aristocracy, artists, writers and poor laborers meeting each other as equals across the marbled chessboards of the Warsaw Café. Writing over fifty years later Fyodor Duz-Chotimirsky would describe the Warsaw Café as his chess “Academy”.The chess played there may not have always been the best from what the following vignette by Gelbak published in Shakhmatnie Obozrenie (#'s 39-40,Sept.-Oct.,1901):
He clearly recognized its inadequacies though and in 1901 he helped found the Kiev Chess Society which started off with approximately 50 members. One of its first projects was to organize a successful visit to Kiev by the Franco-Russian master David Janowski in that year. It also organized a handicap tournament that would become a yearly tradition. The Society used the rooms of the Kiev Bicycle Association which had its premises on the second floor of the aforementioned building on the corner of the Kreshchatyk & Lutheran (#29 Kreshchatyk) right next door to the Warsaw Café.
With the inauguration of an annual city championship and founding of the Chess Society organized chess was on a good footing to harbor greater ambitions for its players than ever before. Consequently, it sought to host the 3rd All-Russian Chess Championship in Kiev under the patronage of the prime mover behind the Bicycle association Count Mark Leontievich Graf. During the months leading up to the tournament, Russia's top-player, Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908), was invited to Kiev for an engagement at the Kiev Chess Club. Two days prior to his visit a dispute had broken out in Kiev’s chess circle with Prince Dadian of Mingrelia on one side and Duz-Chotimirsky on the other which culminated with Dadian challenging Duz and the clubs directors to a duel. Chigorin gave some simuls and played some consultation games. Prince Dadian invited Chigorin to his home but, on being apprised of the stormy events just prior to his visit, he chose not to accept. The Prince was deeply insulted and famously retaliated by having Chigorin barred from the Monte Carlo tournament that took place the following February.
In the fall of 1903 the 3rd All-Russian Championship took place in Kiev. Six of the 19 participants were from Kiev: M.L. Lowtsky, S.K. Izbinsky, F.I. Duz-Chotimirsky, P.P. Ben’ko, B.A.Nikolaev, and V.V. Breev. Only Lowtsky distinguished himself by sharing 6th place while Izbinsky was the only other to score fifty percent. The other four took up the bottom places in the scoretable.
The tournament games took place in the rooms of the Kiev Chess Society in the Popov Buiding at No. 29 Kreshchatyk. The progress of the tournament and the surrounding events were vividly described by the chess reporter of the Moscow daily newspaper, Moskovskie Viedemostie, who used the nom de plume, LASHIN. He gives a lengthy description of the Warsaw Café’s role in one of his reports:
Chigorin won the event ahead of Bernstein, Schiffers and Yurevich. Much of the press was caught up with the behavior of Vladimir N. Yurevich (1869-1907) who, as mentioned by Lashin, held court at the Warsaw Cafe during the tournament. A former student of Chigorin's he divided himself between playing chess, writing poetry and political agitation. Yurevich caused two scandals during the tournament when he was accused of reneging on a pre-arranged draw with Rabinovisch and was later claimed to have concocted his game with Lebedev in order to win the brilliancy prize. When Chigorin reported in Novoe Vremya column that Lebedev had given the scheme away, Yurevich wrote a letter to the editor threatening to sue Chigorin and accusing him of buying his game from Lebedev.
The revolutionary upheavals in Tsarist Russian in 1905 did not fail to affect the sedentary chess life of Kiev. Duz-Chotimirsky became deeply involved in socialist agitation and was arrested four times by the secret police. After his fourth arrest, during which hundreds of anti-Tsarist pamphlets were seized from his apartment, he was ordered to leave Kiev.
The events of 1905 had an opposite current that led Yurevich to come to live in Kiev during 1906 he continued his political agitation and flamboyant life-style there. A Kiev newspaper writing about him in 1917 said, "Thousands of Kievans know him...". One story of his reckless behavior had him showing up at a restaurant near the Warsaw Café and yelling at the waiter,
- "Nikolai, ahh Nikolai!"
- "What do you desire?"
- "Get me coffee"
- "Which- white, or black?"
Yurevich took a pause, and then loudly exclaimed:
"Black...black as Nicholas II's heart..."
In the summer of 1907
he was arrested for writing an anti-Tsarist article and tragically died in
Kiev's prison in October of that year. With the sad death of Chigorin in early
1908 Russian chess players were moved to organize a chess tournament in his
memory in 1909. Kiev was represented by Duz-Chotimirsky and Bernstein from
nearby Zhitomir. Bernstein took a creditable third. While Duz finished well
down in the scoretable he created a sensation by defeating the joint winners
Lasker & Rubinstein. An almost certainly
apocryphal story had Lasker being
annoyed by Duz reading a Japanese translation of a book by Nietzsche during
A new generation of players Bohatirchuk, Bogolyubov, Grekov, and Evenson started cutting their teeth there from 1908/9 on. Grekov in a 1924 article seems to say that Kiev tournaments during 1911-14 were not played at one location but in people's apartments and in Cafes though the games were treated just as seriously as regular tournament games would be. When Capablanca came to town in early 1914 he gave two simuls & a drew a consultation game against Bohatirchuk,Bogolyubov & Evenson, all of this took place at the Kiev Commercial Assembly at No. 1 Kreshchatyk. Bohatirchuk also writes that during WW1 there were no serious tournaments but many casual games were played at the Warsaw Café, “where it was always possible to find an opponent". When Alekhine came to town twice during the war the newspapers listed "the Kiev Chess Club" as being at an address further down the Kreshchatyk.
Unfortunately, the Warsaw Café did not survive the viscitudes of the Russian Civil War (1917-21) when Kiev’s government changed hands more than 10 times. In 1919, communists controlling the city renamed the street Engels Street after the famous theoretician Friedrich Engels. Communist support for chess allowed it to take a place in various worker’s clubs and, of course, children’s Pioneer Palaces. But perhaps Engels St. still had some drawing power for chessplayers since it again became a meeting place for chess amateurs when Vesolod Rauzer took up residence on Engels in a small two-bedroom apartment where he would analyze and play skittles games with his friends, and two other future Soviet masters, Konstantinopolsky and Zamikhovsky. They would play late into the night until Rauzer's mother, Varvara, would yell,”Stop banging the pieces Vova!”.
Sadly, the building that housed the Warsaw Café, along with almost every other building on the street, was destroyed during WW2 when the retreating Red Army engineered remote controlled radio demolitions of many of Kiev’s main streets.
After the break up of the USSR the government changed many of the street names including that of Engels St. which reverted to its old name, Lutheran St., in 1992.
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