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John Saunders's Chess Pages

The Gambit Chess Rooms (1898-1958)

Last Edited: Sunday April 29, 2018 3:21 PM

Reprinted from British Chess Magazine, 1958


News from the British Isles [BCM, February 1958, p42]

Chess Resorts in London.—The closing down of the well-known Gambit Chess Rooms on January 18th [1958], following on the recent change of ownership of the Mandrake Club and the temporary closing of the National Chess Centre, has deprived devotees of the game of their last public haunt in London. In consequence the news of the opening of a new centre will be welcomed by all London players. Mr. Boris Watson, former co-proprietor with Mr. H. Lommer of the Mandrake Club, will be opening the “EN PASSANT” COFFEE HOUSE AND CHESS ROOM, at 405 Strand, W.C.2, towards the end of this month. There will be a chess room for twenty-two boards and a smaller one with eight boards, with ample room for extension if necessary. Near by Simpson’s was once a chess name of world-wide repute. May another arise! Prospects for chess-players visiting London from the country and from abroad are, at the moment, bleak. We wish Mr. Watson all success in his new enterprise.


The “Gambit” Demolished – or Merely Deferred?  [BCM, March 1958, p57]

At ten minutes to six on Saturday, January 18th [1958], the “Gambit” was quieter than usual, but otherwise normal. The three rows of tables – cast-iron trestles, with marble slab tops, not that anyone noted that – were occupied but not full. Cosmopolitan murmurs came from the fireplace end – there was a fire, too – where the boldly hand-printed notice sellotaped across its four corners to the massive mirror read (though no one was reading it) –

OWING TO THE IMPENDING
DEMOLITION OF THE PREMISES
THE “GAMBIT”
WILL BE CLOSING DOWN
ON SATURDAY JANUARY 18TH 1958
AFTER 60 YEARS OF EXISTENCE.

Captain Ann Sunnucks is a pawn down, but seems happy nevertheless. Bridget, successor to the ageless Eileen of indelibly cantankerous memory, is serving tea, digestive chocolate biscuits, fruit cake, and the occasional cheese sandwich. She, too, is sorry about it all. The thirty or so other occupants of the room are all men – men with hair, men without much hair, joking men, brooding men, choleric men, condescending men, a Neapolitan assortment of chessplayers. A. Y. Green comes in and takes the only vacant board to play D. E. Lloyd – soon both Queen’s Rooks are in jeopardy and neither King is safe. Smokers, non-smokers, bespectacled players, tieless players, suited or sports-coated players, a jumble sale of players. Mr. Levy cheerfully snaps down some moves at his opponent. Mr. Woolf coughs, the clock is five minutes fast.

The proprietor of the “Gambit” is (still is) Mr. G. H. White. There are, as far as he knows, no original documents in existence relating to the beginnings of the “Gambit” but it was opened in 1898 by a small number of bank employees, who were after a few months bought out by Miss E. C. Price, who retained it until 1945, when Mr. White, with assistance from G. Teitz, B. H. Wood, and G. Wood, took over the bomb-damaged premises. Bombs or no, the “Gambit,” like the “Windmill Theatre,” never closed. Mr. White soon became sole proprietor.

An ebullient longitudinal streak with a teenager’s white woolly skull-cap enters – Rushbrook by name, Stock Exchange by profession. “What did you think of the game?” he says, and he means the England-Wales Rugby International (this explains the skull-cap) at Twickenham that afternoon. “Coxy” Lester, who has been skittling at the “Gambit” for generations, is silent except for an occasional croak. Nor is there a sound from Gosling.

In the early days Gunsburg, Blackburne came to the “Gambit.” When Simpson’s Divan folded up (they instituted a charge of 2s. in order to “keep the wrong sort out” and cut their own economic throats within eighteen months) everyone came to the “Gambit.” When Bonar Law wanted a game a message was sent to the “Gambit” and a party would go down to Westminster. Miss Price, who was to be five times British Ladies Champion, would play anybody. The “Gambit” has always been in the City, in Budge Row, in the middle of the triangle formed by the three underground stations, Mansion House, Bank, and Cannon Street, but until 1913 they were at No. 13. In that year they moved to No. 3 where they have stayed ever since.

There is no lightning tournament tonight. The buzzer is kaput and no one knows how to mend it. A marauding player goes in search of a missing white Knight and is foiled by Mr. Khan. The three partitions of the eternal glass sideboard opposite the tea counter still contain on the right the Portland sets, in the middle half a dozen miniature bottles of Schweppes Indian Tonic Water, and on the left Golombek’s Capablanca’s Hundred Best Games. Some of yesterday’s orange squash is still in the jug.

Mr. White, a heavily built, quiet man, who frequented the “Gambit” for thirty-three years before he bought it, reminisces. The simultaneous displays of Alekhine (four games blindfold and thirty ordinary victims) and of Capablanca, the radio match against Russia held there in 1946, the post-Hastings displays of Szabo, Bronstein, Pachman, Alatortsev, Ragozin, when as many as 400 people crowded into the confined ground-floor and basement rooms. Mr. White knows that the “Gambit” and London chess have been largely synonymous, but he does not say so.

A weighted Rook thuds to the floor. All the sets are Jaques sets. Miss Sunnucks now has a passed pawn. “J’adoube” from the fireplace end. Someone is humming. Mr. Bloom enters and in a few minutes he is playing bridge, yes, bridge, in the far left-hand corner, with Sheldrake, Calder-Smith, and someone else. At seven o’clock conversation suddenly livens with the amiable arrival of Dr. Fazekas. He wishes (and who can stop him?) to diagnose his Hastings defeats in his best anti-bedside manner. He has a willing audience, for it is fun to be present at a Fazekas post-mortem, if one uses ears as much as eyes. The sight of a player in Grade 3b evokes the lugubrious observation “Stone in de dead cold ‘Gambit’.”

Mr. White recalls a feat by Koltanowski: a large demonstration board was brought out and on each of the sixty-four squares some name or number or other piece of information was then placed by the spectators. Koltanowski studied this for a couple of minutes, turned his back, and called out a complete Knight’s Tour of the board naming each square by the information on that square. Mr. White asked him to book a date for a return visit the following year, so that it could be better publicized. “Half a minute,” said Koltanowski, “I must make a note of that. I’ve got a terrible memory.”

More ladies have arrived. Mrs. Green is playing. Miss Margaret Wood comes in at ten past, eight. “Taxi!” shouts Mr. Rushbrook – no one knows or bothers to ask why.

The London Draughts League and three pairs of domino players also used the “Gambit.” There had been no fires, and one burglary. One day a man died over a game: “It doesn’t matter,” said a Kiebitzer looking at the board, “he had a lost game anyway.”

The man in the grey suit has moved neither pawn nor muscle for twenty minutes. Is it his move or his opponent’s? One or two players begin to leave. Dr. Creed puts on his overcoat and goes out. Bridget comes round collecting half-crowns. The fire is still burning but no one has even been noticed putting coal on it. It is past ten o’clock. Two raincoated men enter like Scotland Yard plain-clothes detectives and are identified as Mr. Woolverton and Dr. Sturgeon. Dr. Fazekas gives them his Hastings losses.

Mr. White would start up again tomorrow if he could. It is all a question of finding suitable accommodation. “Suitable” means – in the City, two reasonably sized rooms, and a long lease. He has his spies out and nothing is likely to escape him. He has lost hundreds of pounds (did he say thousands?) in the “Gambit,” but he knows it is an institution whose continued existence depends on him – possibly on him alone – and he will not let it down if he can avoid it. But the cost of property in the City (Mr. White knows all the details) is appalling. Despite this, Mr. White remains the most hopeful of the “Gambit” crowd. During the last week all who wished to be informed of a new “Gambit” put their names and addresses in a book. Mr. White says there are a thousand of them.

Until that happens there will be lost souls in the City at lunch-time during the week. Mr. Broadbent, who had been lunching there pretty regularly for a number of years, said in one of his rare comments recently that the only chess he really enjoyed these days was played between one and two o’clock. Now, like the war-time cats bemusedly contemplating the wreckage of yesterday’s familiar buildings, chess-players will nod to one another in the street and get back to their jobs more punctually, but they and London chess will be poorer – to the extent of one old familiar “Gambit” and one strange new office-block.

(Any errors of reporting in the above will, we hope, be generously ascribed to the subjective approach of ... A. J. ROYCROFT.)

(Any further errors creeping in 58 years later may be ascribed to the scanner owned by J.C. Saunders and not to the venerable and, as yet, thankfully undemolished A.J. Roycroft)

© 1958 John Roycroft


Footage of the Gambit Chess Rooms

Recently released online, here is some footage of the Gambit Chess Rooms in 1946.


Addendum

The Gambit was in Budge Row, just across the road from Cannon Street station. It had an Irish waitress named Eileen with a high-pitched voice who offered teas. There were normally around 30 people there, 50 at lunchtime. Kriegspiel was popular. The policy used to be no female customers, but this had been relaxed by the mid-forties and I remember playing Eileen Tranmer in a tournament game in the basement, which was reserved for serious chess and hosted our side of the Britain v USSR 1946 radio match where Alexander defeated Botvinnik.

The high point of the Gambit week was the Saturday 'Gambit Guinea'. that sum a worthwhile amount then, being the first prize in the lightning tournament played at ten seconds per move with the timing done by a spoon on a mug. There were sections leading to a final knock-out round of four or eight winners. Usually several British championship players and county top boards took part. I only won it once, but Michael Franklin was much better and took the Guinea several times.

The Gambit was knocked down by developers who built 14-storey Bucklesbury House, headquarters of Legal & General and regarded as an architectural eyesore. For decades afterwards when walking along Cannon Street I glanced wistfully at what used to be the cafe entrance. Recently this building has had its come-uppance and has been boarded off (thus closing down Budge Row) in preparation for a 22-storey replacement. Leonard Barden, English Chess Forum, 9 February 2010.