Chess returns to the Café Museum in Vienna

A revisited meeting place

Vienna’s cafes and chess have a volatile history filled with anecdotes. Their best days are over and you can read more about them in Michael Ehn’s books.

The Café Museum opened in 1899 and was regularly visited by Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. Chess did not enter the scene until much later, around 1970. At that time, chess players still met at Café Laudon. But when the Laudon was transformed into an Asian restaurant in 1985, it was the turn of the Café Musée, located on Karlsplatzand the hall of mirrors (Spiegelzimmer) has become the refuge of chess addicts.

At that time, the cafe was the office of photographer Erich Reismann, as he retrospectively calls it. He couldn’t bear to stay in his room and didn’t have a phone. In addition, the cafe was closer to the newsrooms 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 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 cafe name. For example, “Gerold, a heavyweight”, who was actually a thin man, or “the engineer”, who was once so upset by his defeats that he left the cafe, leaving his collie behind. Since no one knew the engineer’s real name, let alone his home address, a server took care of the animal until further notice.

If a woman wandered into the smoky chess room, which usually only happened once every few weeks, one of the regulars muttered, “I don’t need a doll, I need some potato soup” (a rhyming phrase 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 closed their eyes when it came time to pay the bill.

This particular biotope of worldly contemporaries deserved journalistic scrutiny, Reismann thought. The 1987 World Chess Championship turned out to be a suitable topic. Viennaa men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine, commissioned him and Manfred Sax to report.

The photographer and the author worked together regularly at that time. Explorations on the margins of society led them to young punks, homeless people and drug addicts. Their reports on the Austrian neo-Nazi scene also find international takers when Kurt Waldheim is President of the Republic of Austria. Sax later moved to England, but still regularly visits the editorial staff of Vienna. Reismann made a name for himself as a magazine photographer, particularly with portraits.

When the pandemic hit and there wasn’t much to do, he dug into his black and white archive and came across about 500 chess photos. He remembered that in the past, the café often exhibited works by students from the art academy around the corner. Will he be able, many years later, to exhibit prints of his report at the very place where the images were born?

Twenty-six prints from Reismann’s 1987 photo series are now on display at the café.

You can find more photos in the gallery (see above)

Michaela Drescher was photographed at the Café Museum by Kineke Mulder for his series of portraits cute chess (Liebenswerte Schachfiguren).

Michaela Drescher (Photo: Kineke Mulder)

In the meantime, the management has changed several times. In the mid-1990s, Chess was relegated to a location next to the toilets once the old room was used as a non-smoking area. A joint protest letter from the chess players was ineffective. When renovations began in 2003, the failures in the café were over. The student crowd also stopped visiting. Since the renovation, the price level has mainly 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, Vienna uploaded the report to their webpage. Word quickly spread that chess was welcome again. The association Frau Schach and chess players Philharmonic have found a new meeting place at the Museum.

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