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In chess, as a purely intellectual game, where randomness is excluded, – for someone to play against himself is absurd …
It is as paradoxical, as attempting to jump over his own shadow.” – Stefan Zweig, The Royal Game

Chess StorySummary

Travelers by ship from New York to Buenos Aires find that on board with them is the world champion of chess, an arrogant and unfriendly man. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. How he came to possess his extraordinary grasp of the game of chess and at what cost lie at the heart of Zweig’s story. – Goodreads

The Review 

Recently, I took a course on German civilization and I was so surprised at the vast German literary canon I had no knowledge of. In that course, I was exposed to a variety of German writers I wouldn’t have normally come across. After completing the course, one of the books I desperately want to read is A Woman in Berlin. It’s an anonymous memoir about the aftermath of World War II.

When trying to find a subject for a presentation on German civilization and World War II, my professor suggested Stefan Zweig’s novella The Royal Game (also translated as Chess Story). I had never heard of Stefan Zweig prior to enrolling in the course. He was actually at one time “the world’s most translated author” (BBC).

Zweig’s biography bears heavily on his novella, The Royal Game. Although the events in The Royal Game does not completely mirror his own story, there are quite a few notable similarities, such as Zweig’s exile to South America, and his tormented psychological state during World War II. Zweig was an Austrian citizen of Jewish heritage who fled the terrors of World War II. The Royal Game was published right before Zweig’s untimely death.

The story begins with a man embarking on a boat to South America. On the boat, he finds out that the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic is on the boat as well. The narrator and a couple of men decide to challenge Mirko to a game of chess to see if he is as good as he is acclaimed. While engaged in this mock chess tournament, Mirko easily beats nearly all of his opponents until a mysterious man named Dr. B. intervenes and provides advice to Mirko’s opponent. This mysterious man forces Mirko to hesitate for the first time, and the game of chess is drawn to a stalemate. Then, Dr. B. and Mirko embark on a game of their own in which Dr. B. claims victory over Mirko for the first time.

The narrator then asks Dr. B. about his incredible ability to play chess. In turn, Dr. B. shares the story of his imprisonment by the Nazis in a hotel room where he had nothing to occupy his mind except for a book on chess strategies. Day after day, Dr. B. imitates these chess strategies until his mind is wrapped into an obsession.

Instead of being a novella focused on plot, the story of Dr. B. illustrates the effects of isolation upon an individual. Zweig’s interest in the mental state of his character demonstrates how incarceration changes someone’s personality. None of the characters are built with any remarkable depth. Instead, the situations the characters find themselves in shape the way they behave. For Mirko, he has no redeeming qualities save for his ability to play chess. Similarly, for Dr. B. his identity does not extend further than his ability to play chess and his narrative of incarceration. Even the narrator, who’s obsession and curiosity  with both Mirko and Dr. B.’s abilities remain his most defining feature.

This novella reminded me a lot of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier for its exploration of the psyche and overall structure. For whatever reason, I am enthralled by these sorts of stories that focus on the interiority of characters rather than their personalities or special quirks.

I would highly recommend this novella as it is, really, a hidden gem and very fascinating.

Final Rating:

A- Cat

About the Book

Title: The Royal Game (also translated as Chess Story)
Original Title: Schachnovelle (German)
Original Language: German 
Author: Stefan Zweig
Published: 1941
Genres & Subjects: fiction, novella, German literature, psychology


Until Next Time,