7 great places to play chess in London

By Leon Watson / On / In Chess news

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It is arguably the most anticipated match for a generation – when Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana play for the World Chess Championship in London next month players and fans around the world will be holding their breath.

Is the champion under real threat of losing his crown to his younger opponent, after a year when it is fair to say he hasn’t been at his best? It seems so, this will be close.

>> Why The College, Holborn, is the perfect 2018 World Chess Championship venue

But before all this kicks off we thought you might want to know the top spots to play chess in London – just in case you’re planning on attending or going on a holiday.

So grab your Oyster card, or a black cab, and let’s take a quick journey through London to find out about its historic chess venues and the newer arrivals:

1. Simpson’s-in-the-Strand

Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, established in 1828 as a coffee house and chess cafe in London’s clubland, is without a doubt the historic “home of chess” in London and England. And roast beef.

The home of chess Simpsons-in-the-Strand
The best place to play chess in London, Simpsons-in-the-Strand

Greats such as Wilhelm Steinitz, Howard Staunton, Paul Morphy, and Emmanuel Lasker have all played there.

In fact, only last month Arkady Dvorkovich, who has since been elected Fide president, and GM Nigel Short, who has been appointed a Fide vice-president, paid a visit:

The meeting may go down as a piece of chess history – the moment the two then-presidential candidates decided to join forces, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, the board GM Short and Mr Dvorkovich are pictured with, which features prominently near the entrance, certainly is a real piece of chess heritage.

Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca have all played on this board and left their names on it. English GM Raymond Keene has also, somehow, got his name on it alongside them.

Ray, to be fair, is a great figure in English chess – he was the second Englishman to become a Grandmaster and then became a chess journalist and impresario.

Ray is also a big devotee of Simpson’s, and particularly the roast beef, and can often be seen there tucking into a meal there.

2. The Chess Club, Mayfair

You want to play chess in London? And you want to do it somewhere really, really nice? Just a short bus ride away is The Chess Club in Chesterfield Street, a relatively new edition to London’s chess scene having opening in January 2017.

Basically, this is a more modern take on the stuffy old exclusive “gentlemen’s clubs” that are dotted around Mayfair. Thankfully, this is in no way a men-only venue and you can get in without a lifelong membership. But ring first, and put on some nice shoes.

I’ve been there twice, the first time was to interview Ilya Merenzon, the CEO of World Chess, and the second time was a presentation about art in chess.

It’s very fancy, with lots of chess imagery everywhere and – strangely – butterflies. Beware though, the drinks are about £12.

3. The Citadines Hotel, Holborn

Rather less salubrious is the home of the historic London Chess League. Teams from all around the capital meet in a conference room here on Wednesday nights to do battle.

The London Chess League is one of the oldest leagues in the world dating back to 1886. It currently has about 30 clubs and around 1,000 players in total take part during the season.

League matches won’t stop just because Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are in town and it is just a two-minute walk from the World Chess Championship venue in Holborn.

Pop along – there will definitely be a captain there (possibly me) short of a player so you could get a game.

4. The World Chess Championship venue

A few hundred metres away from the London Chess League is the venue for the World Championship itself.

The College is a spectacular 10,000 sq ft marbled Victorian hall in Holborn. I’ve not been there yet so I can’t say much about it, but World Chess has released artist’s images of what they expect it will look like when fully decked out for the match:

The College, Holborn, venue for World Chess in London
The College, Holborn, venue for  World Chess in London

During the event, it will a hub of chess activity. Magnus and Fabiano will be staying in a hotel nearby too (not The Citadines).

5. The Chess and Bridge Shop

It doesn’t take a detective to work out that this shop in Baker Street is a good place to start your London chess journey.

Chess and Bridge is run by IM Malcolm Pein, the popular chess polymath who organises the London Chess Classic, writes a chess column and recently campaigned in the Fide presidential election.

It has just about every bit of chess paraphernalia you could possibly want to buy and lots of lovely looking boards to try your hand on.

Also, it has recently started holding blitz nights – so keep an eye out for them if you are in London.

6. Casual Chess

The Casual Chess cafe is something completely different from the rough-and-tumble of league chess, or the stiff upper lip of Simpsons or The Chess Club.

It is, as you would expect, very casual. It is just a drop-in group that meet up most nights of the week – different people every night – and have a fun bash at playing games. There are some strong players there, so don’t think it will be easy.

As outdoor chess in London (you must have heard our weather isn’t good?) this is the nearest thing you will find to places like Washington Park in the US.

However, the tone is very, very different – this is friendly, accommodating and not at all competitive. You won’t find sharks here.

Casual Chess is run by a friend of mine called Amanda Ross who’s very keen to break down barriers in the game. She aims to create a feminist and diverse space where everyone is welcome, but especially women.

I would highly recommend this if you are visiting and you want to play chess in London. Just drop in, say hello, and have a game.

7. And my personal favourite place to play chess in London…

Battersea Chess Club.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am secretary of Battersea Chess Chess club and more than a bit biased.

However, this is still a great place to play – for a start, you can meet me. But also we have had a whole range of players at every level, every now and then a top GM will drop in and we hold some fun events.

The club is open every Tuesday from 7.30pm, including during the World Chess Championship.

And around that time you might see a certain IM John Bartholomew drop in…

About Leon Watson

Leon is a national newspaper journalist from London, England. He is an avid chess fan, and writes regularly about the game. Apart from chess, he loves cricket, Tottenham Hotspur FC and spending time with his son.
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