The most beautiful chess club in the world

The Central Chess Club in Moscow is probably the most beautiful chess club in the world. Club rooms are located in a venerable building on Gogolevsky Boulevard, the history of which dates back to the 19th century. Many Russian noble and merchant families successively inhabited the mansion before it was forcibly transferred to state ownership after the Russian Revolution.

The Central Chess Club of Moscow

The Russian People’s Commissar of Justice, Nikolai Krylonko, then made the mansion his headquarters. Since he was the driving force behind the Soviet chess movement, he also brought the royal game to the historical edifice.

The history of the mansion begins in the first half of the 19th century. The property on what is now Gogolevsky Boulevard lay fallow after the Muscovites themselves burned down their city in 1812 to deprive the French of shelter and food. In 1822, Catherine Ivanovna Grekova, wife of the boyar and first lieutenant Alexei Vasilchikov, bought the vacant land and had two houses built there.

The couple’s son, Nikolai Vasilychikov, also became an officer in the Russian army and was known as one of the so-called Decembrists who refused to take the oath to the new Tsar Nicholas I on December 25, 1825 (according to the Gregorian calendar) in Saint Petersburg. The Decembrists protested against social conditions in the autocratic Tsarist Empire, characterized by serfdom, arbitrariness and censorship. The uprising was crushed. Nikolai Vasilychikov received a suspended sentence after a short prison term and was exiled to a unit in the Caucasus, where he took part in the wars against the Persians and Turks. He was also banned from the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, and other major Russian cities. In 1830 Nikolai Vasilychikov was discharged from military service with honors and was allowed to return to Moscow in 1831.

In the early 1830s, the Vasilychikov family sold the estate to Countess Ekaterina Zubova. She was married to a great-grandson of Russian general Alexander Suverov (1730-1800). Prince and Princess Zubov had the house extensively rebuilt. In 1859/1860 the two houses were finally united into one building. Prince Serge Obolensky lived there for some time in the 1860s.

In 1865, the estate changed hands again and now belonged to the wealthy merchant family Alexeyev. A nephew of the new owner was Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), who made a name for himself as a theater director and theoretician. He was an occasional visitor to the estate. In fact, Stanislavski’s last name was also Alexeyev, but he adopted a stage name so as not to jeopardize his family’s reputation.

Twenty years later, the mansion became the property of Vladimir von Meck. He was the son of philanthropist and music lover Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who maintained an intensive pen-and-ink friendship with composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky for many years.

The von Meck family around 1875. Baroness Nadezhda Filaretovna is seated on the left and holds the youngest daughter Lyudmila (Milochka) in her arms. The girl’s father was Alexander Yolshin, seated left, secretary to the Baroness’ husband, engineer Karl von Meck (center with black hat). Karl von Meck only learned about it much later through his second daughter Alexandra, and then had a heart attack. The von Meck couple had 18 children (between 1848 and 1872), 11 of whom survived. In the center of the photo, wearing a white hat, sits Vladimir von Meck, one of the Baroness’ favorite sons.

The von Meck family were of Baltic German descent and had become very wealthy in Russia as owners of railway lines. The house belonged to the von Mecks for 30 years. In 1890, Vladimir of Meck [pictured] died after a long illness.

In 1895, the house was sold to the Falz-Fein family. The Falz-Fein family hail from Germany and were also successful entrepreneurs in Russia. Under its new owners, the house was equipped with balconies and was electrified. Friedrich Falz-Fein had purchased the Anhalt settlement of Askanija-Nova near Kherson, 100 km north of the island of Crimea, and maintained a 65,000 HA farm with a huge nature reserve. Before World War I, he herded horses and cattle and owned half a million sheep. He also bred over 400 species of mammals, including antelopes, bison, zebras and ostriches, and undertook scientific research. After the revolution, the family members were either expelled or shot.

After only a few years, in 1899, the Falz-Feins sold their Moscow home. The new owner was Lyubov Simina, sister of Sergei Simin, who founded the famous Simin Opera Theater in 1903. During the 14 years of its existence, 120 operas were staged in the theater. In 1917 it was closed as there were no audiences for the opera after the Russian Revolution. Sergei Simin’s sister was married to opera singer Nazariy Kapitonov-Raisky, who was also a teacher at the conservatory. During this period, the Simin house was the epicenter of many Russian musicians. Composers Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Taneyev and Sergei Rachmaninoff as well as the famous singer Feodor Chalyapin were frequent guests.

After the Russian Revolution, the house on Prechistensky Boulevard, as the street was then called – it was only renamed Gogelvsky Boulevard after Nikolai Gogol in 1924 – was nationalized and divided into several smaller apartments. The former owners were given apartment no. 4 as their new accommodation.

In 1923, the People’s Commissariat of Justice of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) made it its headquarters. The Deputy People’s Commissar since 1923 was Nikolai Krylenko. In 1931, he became People’s Commissar for Justice. As Attorney General, he was responsible for countless death sentences.

Krylenko was an enthusiastic and good chess player, and was active as an organizer of tournaments and team competitions. He was the driving force behind the popularization of chess in the Soviet Union. In 1925, he organized the first major international chess tournament in the Soviet Union after the Moscow revolution. Together with Nikolai Krylenko, the leadership of the Soviet Chess Federation, which did not yet exist, also moved into the mansion on Gogolevsky Boulevard.

Nikolai Krylenko, 1918 | Photo source: Wikipedia, author unknown

Krylenko had brought Emanuel Lasker to Moscow after his emigration from Germany, but as more and more Russian chess players disappeared during the Stalinist “purges”, Lasker secretly packed his things with his wife and left Moscow for New York. Krylenko was arrested in 1938 and shot after a show trial.

In the late 1920s, the mansion on Gogolevsky Boulevard was also used for a time to house communists forced to flee their country. In 1940, the state trust company “Dalstroy” had its headquarters here.

In 1956 the house, where chess had played a role since the mid-1920s, was designated as the building of the Central Chess Club at the suggestion of Vasily Smyslov. Smyslov lived nearby in a skyscraper in Barrikadnaya and was friends with Moscow’s chief architect, Mikhail Posokhin.

Fischer and Petrosian, playing Blitz at Central Chess Club, 1958

In 1980, a chess museum was established in the mansion. In addition, the editorial staff of the Russian chess magazine “64” is there.

The Chess Museum

During the days of the Soviet Union and even after, the halls of the Central Chess Club were not particularly well maintained. For a long time, the building gave a somewhat dilapidated visual impression, typical of many old buildings in communist Russia. During a “renovation” in 1980, more things were destroyed than preserved. In 2014, however, the building was restored in a historically correct and elaborate manner, and now it shines in its former glory.

The large room often used as a tournament room | Photo: admagazin.ru

The library | Photo: Admagazin.ru

After the fall of communism, several investors tried to acquire the house to set up offices or expensive apartments in an exquisite location in Moscow. But Muscovite chess fans resisted all offers and, if necessary, an oligarch with an affinity for chess stepped in to pay dues and taxes the club could not pay.

The Russian Chess Federation has also used the magnificent halls of the Central Chess Club for many years for tournaments, ceremonies and other major events.

The Moscow Central Chess Club has now created its own website, which allows chess fans to visit the club virtually.


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