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The Chess ClubPhotography by Ana Cuba

The Members-Only Club Making Chess Cool

We venture through the keyhole of the Mayfair club injecting a new lease of life into an age-old pastime

TextHannah TindlePhotographyAna CubaPhotographic EditorHolly Hay
Lead ImageThe Chess ClubPhotography by Ana Cuba

The adjective ‘cool’ is not one used often to describe a Mayfair members-only club – particularly one which has made chess its unique selling point. That is, unless, you are referring to Chess Club, a newly opened space in one of London’s most distinguished locales. Conceived by Francesca Zampi, who also founded The Box nightclub, and the Experimental Group (a troupe of Frenchmen who collectively own 17 bars, clubs and restaurants dotted across the world including the Experimental Cocktail Clubs we know and love), the business partners have collaboratively transformed a derelict building on Chesterfield Street into a haven for members who might want partake in a chess tournament alongside their whiskey sour.

When I meet with Zampi and Pierre-Charles Cros, one-third of the Experimental Group, I am warmly welcomed into a space that feels neither alienating nor stuffy. “A lot of members clubs are segmented by what your industry is. We felt that the most interesting dinner parties are eclectic; so you could have a surgeon on one side of you and a creative director on the other,” explains Zampi. “So we felt like there was space for a place that encouraged that kind of cross-pollination between industries.” Don’t let the Mayfair location fool you into thinking that it was chosen for its exclusivity, either: “I think what lies underneath the idea of the club is to be able to host it in a very central location convenient for all of London. The fact that it is central is what was important for us; so you can travel from west, from east, from south and from north,” continues Cros.

Chess Club got its name after a serendipitous turn of events. “It started out that it was on Chesterfield street. And then, we also discovered it was a club called The Games Room back in the day,” Zampi says. “And then finally, my nickname is Chess! So it was a name that kept coming back.” Zampi and the Experimental Group have created an iteration of a games room that really appeals to a contemporary crowd; members of all ages are coming back each evening to play chess and cards with friends and, according to the club owners, complete strangers.

Fortuitously, as I enquire about the food menu, the Chess Club’s chef Jackson Boxer (also owner of the rather reputable Brunswick House in Vauxhaull) saunters past wielding a plate of smoked trout on rye with flaxseed yoghurt, which he offers us. “I split my time between the two restaurants,” explains Boxer. “I have an amazing team here and essentially we re-write the menu every week depending on what’s just come into season. We don’t turn it over entirely, but it’ll depend on what’s being caught at the moment, what we are being sent from the butcher, what’s come into season.”

The interiors of Chess Club were dreamt up by designer Fran Hickman, Zampi’s best friend, who is responsible for kitting out some of the chicest spaces in London. “It’s a Georgian townhouse so there are elements of this kept true to the design. But then there are features that make it feel contemporary,” Zampi says of Hickman’s work, which is undoubtedly in keeping with the twist that Zampi and the Experimental Group have put on the members clubs of yesteryear. There are references throughout the space to the surrealist oeuvre of Duane Michals and Man Ray, with hints of the 1980s meeting with original features of the listed building.

With plans for the Chess Club’s expansion two floors up – each intended to be transformed into spaces for work and relaxation – those who aren’t yet a member might want to swat up on their chess skills. And complete beginners, never fear: every Tuesday a world chess champion visits the club to give lessons. What’s not to like?

Chess Club is open now, located on Chesterfield Street, London W1.