A revamped meeting place
Vienna’s coffee houses and chess have a volatile history filled with anecdotes. Their best days are gone, and you can learn more about them in Michael Ehn’s books.
Café Museum opened in 1899 and was regularly visited by the likes of Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. Chess only entered the scene much later, from around 1970. At that time, chess players still met at Café Laudon. But when the Laudon was converted into an Asian restaurant in 1985, it was the turn of the Café Museum, located on Karlsplatzand the Mirror Room (Spiegelzimmer) became the refuge of chess addicts.
At that time, the café was photographer Erich Reismann’s office, as he calls it in retrospect. He couldn’t stand staying in his room and didn’t have a telephone. Besides, the coffee house was closer to the editorial offices he worked for. He had learned chess in high school. His school had a chess club, for whose team he had played in the Viennese League for a few years. So when the chess boom started, Reismann gambled away his coffee money in games for the usual five or ten shillings. When tourists appeared who thought they had mastered the game, the professionals knew how to raise the stakes many times over.
The kings of the chess room were Khaled Mahdy — known as Kaletto — and Reini Lendwai. Some guests were only known by their coffee house names. For example, “heavy-weight Gerold”, who was actually a slim man, or “the engineer”, who was once so upset by his defeats that he left the café leaving his collie dog behind. Since no one knew the engineer’s real name, let alone his home address, a waiter took care of the animal until further notice.
If a woman strayed into the smoke-filled chess room, which usually only happened once every few weeks, one of the regulars would mutter, “I don’t need a doll, I need potato soup” (a phrase that rhymes in the original “I brauch ka Puppn, i brauch Kartoffelsuppn“). There was little consumption, and the waiters let it pass, as they regularly brought trays full of free water into the chess room, and some even turned a blind eye when settling the bill.
This peculiar biotope of worldly contemporaries deserved journalistic examination, Reismann thought. The 1987 World Chess Championship proved to be a suitable subject. Wienera men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine, commissioned him and Manfred Sax with a report.
The photographer and the author worked together regularly at that time. Explorations on the fringes of society led them to young punks, homeless people and drug addicts. Their reports on the Austrian neo-Nazi scene also found international takers while Kurt Waldheim was President of the Republic of Austria. Sax later moved to England, but still regularly visits the editorial office of Wiener. Reismann made a name for himself as a magazine photographer, especially with portraits.
When the pandemic hit and there was little to do, he devoted himself to his black-and-white archive and came across 500 or so chess photos. He remembered that in the past, the café often displayed works by students from the art academy around the corner. Could he, many years later, display prints of his report in the very place where the images originated?
Twenty-six prints from Reismann’s 1987 photo series are now on display at the café.
You can find more pictures in the gallery (see above)
Michaela Drescher was photographed at Café Museum by Kineke Mulder for her portrait series Lovable Chessmen (Liebenswerte Schachfiguren).
Michaela Drescher (Foto: Kineke Mulder)
In the meantime, the management changed several times. In the mid-nineties, chess was relegated to a spot next to the toilet once the old room was needed as a non-smoking area. A joint letter of protest from the chess players was ineffective. When renovations began in 2003, that was the end of chess in the café. The student crowd also stopped visiting. Since the renovation, the price level mostly attracted tourists. In 2010, the Querfeld family took over.
Photo: Sandra Felber
Photo: Sandra Felber
Irmgard Querfeld liked Reismann’s suggestion. Twenty-six large-format prints, all in black and white, are on display until, at least, the end of March. To go with it, Wiener has uploaded the reportage to their webpage. Word quickly got around that chess was welcome again. The association Frau Schach and the chess players from the Philharmoniker have found a new meeting place at the Museum.