Chess Story

Chess StoryChess Story (or The Royal Game) a translation of the German Schachnovelle is a novella published in 1941 by Stefan Zweig. Zweig (1881 – 1942) was born in Vienna and received his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1904.  In 1934, he left Germany (presumably to avoid the political situation) for London.  From there he traveled to New York City and then finally to a mountain in Rio de Janeiro.  He and his wife were found dead, holding hands, from a drug overdose. Zweig was not a prolific writer, but he did produce a number of works from 1900 onward. This is his most well-known work.

The book is a spare 84 pages and rather simply written.  Zweig is not known for his erudite and highbrow language. It does not take long to read this little story and there is no need to really savor the prose.  A reader might, after finishing it, be a little disappointed or underwhelmed. But I think the appreciation for this story should be regarding its construction and structure, maybe a little less for the story qua story.

The story is told in first-person narrative, a fact the reader discovers at the third sentence: “As I was standing a bit apart. . . .”  The narrator, though, remains unnamed and is not the main character. A steamer is setting forth from New York to Buenos Aires and the narrator learns that chess master Mirko Czentovic will be aboard.  Naturally, the reader assumes this is the only chess master on board the ship and that the story will center upon Czentovic.

Now, I rarely make allowances for readers/spoilers but at this point I want to make the standard disclaimer:

SPOILERS AHEAD! BE YE FOREWARNED!

The narrator proceeds (until page 12) to give us a brief history of Czentovic.  In many ways, this is one of the interesting inner structures of the story.  This little biography of Czentovic gives a glimpse into the chess master’s early life, but it does not provide any ratio for Czentovic’s moods, motives, or dispositions.  The narrative only appears to provide a reason.  In essence, though, we learn that Czentovic was raised in charity by the village pastor.  Czentovic is, more or less, a stupid individual – even a bit surly – except when it comes to chess. Further, Czentovic’s introduction to the game is merely coincidental.

Another character is introduced into the mix; a Scottish engineer of some wealth:  McConnor. He is a muscular, self-satisfied, robust fellow who loves a good challenge, will take a hearty wager, and enjoys competition.  Between the narrator and McConnor, Czentovic is finally coerced into playing some chess.

Where does it begin, where does it end?  Any child can learn its basic rules, any amateur can try his hand at it; and yet, within the inalterable confines of a chessboard, masters unlike any others evolve, people with a talent for chess and chess alone, special geniuses whose gifts of imagination, patience and skill are just as precisely apportioned as those of mathematicians, poets and musicians, but differently arranged and combined. – pg. 15

All of this is merely the lead-up to the actual main character of the story, Dr. B.  B– is an Austrian who used to be a lawyer.  At first he is merely an interested spectator to the chess game. Eventually, though, he shows his eagerness for the game as-well-as his significant skill with it. Several scenes occur and our narrator is sent off to persuade Dr. B to continue the chess games against Czentovic.

The bulk of the story is Dr. B. sharing his life story – as a lawyer in his family’s esteemed business – and then as a prisoner in a form of a Nazi prison for intellectual and potentially useful prisoners. This is the true core of the structure of the book; B– describes a history that is in turns intriguing and horrific. Here we see the huge influence that Freud (and his theories) had on Zweig.  The story Dr. B shares depicts an intelligent and almost unflappable elite of society who is arrested and imprisoned by the dominating and crushing Nazi machine.

And, almost in a case study manner, the reader learns how Dr. B. suffered as a prisoner in a non-traditional prison.  And it is as an escape/coping mechanism that Dr. B. takes up chess as his survival tool.  A very key point is that Dr. B’s grasping of chess as a survival tool is also coincidence.  B– steals a book – the only book available and only available because of sheer luck/coincidence – from the overcoat pocket of one of the Nazi guards. It happens to be a book on chess. But it is Dr. B’s saving grace from the monotony and tedium of extreme boredom and pseudo-sensory deprivation.

Anyway, I do not want to give away the rest of the novel. Honestly, the story itself is not all that great – it rather plays out [sic] as expected. But it is still a decent read, even if you know how it is all going to go.  There are intense moments and eerie moments. However, some really good discussion and analysis could occur after reading this little novella.  As a hypothetical:  suppose Czentovic were captured (but why would he be?) – would he fare better in such a prison?  Did Dr. B really survive? Was chess a prison? Was Dr. B’s own mind his prison within a prison? Etc. There’s a lot of fun to be had looking at all of this. And I have not even bothered to list any of the more clinical discussions that this could spark.

This story was published in 1941.  I made sure to state that at the beginning because I want to contextualize this properly.  That means this novella was published before “Bobby” Fischer was born (1943).  And, of course, means before Fischer’s “Game of the Century” in 1956.

When I was younger, I was acquainted with that particular game (which is insignificant – everyone was; it was, after all, nicknamed Game of the Century).  I had a stupid little chess program for an old computer and it, in very ugly graphics, would run through the game at the end of the tutorial piece. Then I knew very little about chess or Fischer or anything, really. But I do remember that move 17 shocked me to death. I mean, my breath was taken away I was so shocked by the Queen Sacrifice.  This is not a good thing because it has totally flavored my chess play since then.  I am forever willing to sacrifice the queen any old time. (Thanks, Fischer, for showing me that in my formative years!)  Anyway, all of this anecdotal rubbish is to say that I really, really, really hate that Zweig committed suicide before Fischer’s flourishing.

So Chess Story is a bit about chess.  It is more about psychology.  And it is a little about any totalitarian evil dystopia.  It should appeal to a lot of readers and it is such a short read, there really is no excuse for good readers to have not read it.

4 stars

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