It might surprise you how exciting Austrian novelist’s Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story is if you’ve never played chess. After all, it seems like such a quiet game, with two people sitting in silence, occasionally moving pieces on a board and…that’s it. But if you’ve actually played the game, you know that it truly is a battle that requires constant and total concentration. At its best, it’s thrilling.
The first part of Zweig’s novel shows that he clearly understands what makes chess so endlessly engrossing. We get the brief background of a chess world champion before moving on to a chess game between the narrator and a friend who team up to play against the champion while on an ocean liner. Zweig narrates events in such a detailed and precise way that you feel like you’re getting a play-by-play account of a grueling game more akin to boxing than a board game. Then, when a mysterious stranger suddenly starts helping the narrator and his friend, the tension rises because this stranger actually manages to bring the first game to a draw. It’s not a win, but still, being able to reach a stalemate (a tie) against the world champion in anything is an incredible feat. We expect to see a rematch between the champion and this unknown man and we certainly get it, but not before we find out the horrifying reason this man is so good at chess.
Up to now, this book is fun, if only as a kind of sports book, where you see a battle play out on the board. However, Zweig doesn’t just understand how much fun chess can be; he also understands that it can drive people crazy. I’m not kidding. Plenty of experts and amateurs alike have ruined their lives, careers, or marriages over chess. For instance, during the painter Marcel Duchamp’s honeymoon, he spent almost all his time playing chess, ignoring his new wife completely (they were divorced after six months). And trust me, there are stories about chess addiction that have far darker endings. Albert Einstein said it best – “Chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” (Really makes you want to run out and buy a board, huh?)
We see that obsession first hand as we learn that the unknown stranger was abused by the Nazis and nearly driven to insanity because of both their cruelty and the fact that the only way he could distract himself in his total isolation was by reading a chess book. His whole life becomes wrapped up in the game and we see his mind and, in a very real sense his identity, deteriorate bit by bit.
As someone who enjoys chess, I obviously love this book and believe it is the best novel out there on the subject (if you think Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense is as good or better, we’ll just agree to disagree). However, even if you’re not interested in chess, I know you’ll still love this story because, ultimately, it isn’t about chess at all. It’s about how the means to distract yourself from torture from outside can utterly consume you from the inside.
So go read it. Now.
(Fun fact: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by one of Stefan Zweig’s novels, Beware of Pity, but I’ll say more about that another day)