A symbolic retreat: critical remarks about Stefan Zweig's Chess novella

by Johannes Fischer
7/26/2018 – Stefan Zweig's novella "Chess", which Zweig wrote during World War II in exile in Brazil, shortly before committing suicide with his wife Lotte, is considered as one of the greatest literary works on chess. It also has been tremendously successful and popular. But Johannes Fischer is not entirely convinced. While he liked the virtues of the book he still has some critical remarks.

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Stefan Zweig's novella Chess

Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess is also a farewell note. In February 1942, a short while after he had finished the novella, Zweig, who was born in Austria but at that time lived in exile in Brazil, committed a double suicide with his wife Lotte. He did not live to see the success of the book. It was translated into several languages, sold millions of copies, and is considered as one of the best literary representations of chess. But the novella still causes ambiguous feelings.

Though it is easy to see why it is so popular. Zweig once again demonstrates his great art of tightening a tale, and the reader breathlessly follows the fate of Dr. B., the main character of the Chess novella: the Nazis torture him with solitary confinement, he flees into the world of chess, playing thousands of games against himself, falls mad, is released, and on the ship that is to bring him into exile he encounters chess world champion Mirko Czentovic – and plays against him to check whether he can play real chess.

Symbolically, the duel between Dr. B. and Czentovic stands for the struggle between culture, education, and intellect which Dr. B. represents, and the world of National Socialism which Czentovic incorporates. As a chess player Czentovic quickly came to fame but as a person he is dull and shallow and only interested in money and power.

However, for all the virtuosity Zweig displays as a writer, the story still causes a certain unease. Thus, it seems to be typical for the world of chess that it holds a tale in high esteem that does not show much respect for the game. For one thing, there’s the madness Dr. B. succumbs to and that seems to describe chess once again as a game that endangers the mental health of its practitioners. But Zweig also commits factual errors. He once refers to the knight as „horse“ (Stefan Zweig, Schachnovelle, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994, p. 92), and writes about “the seven-year-old infant prodigy Rzeschewski at the New York chess tournament of 1922” though in 1922 the real Reshevsky was not seven years old and did not play in a tournament in New York 1922. Moreover, chess seems to be surprisingly simple in the novella. After all and despite his limited intellectual abilities “within six months Mirko [Czentovic] had mastered all the technical mysteries of chess” (Stefan Zweig, Chess – a novella, Penguin books, 2006, translated by Anthea Bell, p.13), and then sets out to wipe people like Capablanca, Lasker, and Alekhine from the board. He learns the rules of chess at the age of 15, “at seventeen, he had already won a dozen chess prizes; at eighteen he was champion of Hungary, and at the age of twenty he finally captured the world championship” (p. 7-8). Well, in real life the youngest world champion of all time is Garry Kasparov who was 22 years old when he won the title, but Czentovic did not seem to need the time and effort real players need to spend on chess to reach a reasonable level.

Dr. B. also runs counter to all modern theories about systematic and early training supposedly necessary to become good in chess: Dr. B. learnt the rules of chess when he went to school and during his internment, it was a single chess book that helped him to reach almost more than world champion strength.

At any rate, Zweig sacrifices a lot of realism for the sake of symbolism. He illustrates Czentovic’ complete lack of imagination – which Dr B. has in excess and which drives him mad – through the inability of the world champion to play even one game blindfold. A rather absurd assumption which would make Czentovic the first world champion in the history of chess who could not play blindfold. And even though not everyone is a virtuoso like Alekhine who took up more than twenty opponents simultaneously blindfold, among the world’s best ten thousand players there is probably not even one who could not play a more or less reasonable game blindfold off-the-cuff.

These inaccuracies might be unimportant – but it is the basic structure of the novella that is worrying. Thus Dr B. in almost everything is so much superior to his rival Czentovic: Dr B. is intelligent, educated, witty, suave, of good family, and basically even the better chess player. Whereas Czentovic seems to be almost a cretin: he is dumb, almost illiterate, and “clumsily and with positively shameless impudence [seeks] to make as much money as he could from his gift and his fame, displaying a petty and often even vulgar greed” (p. 8-9). He is also vain, and “since winning the world tournament he regarded himself as the most important man in the world, while the knowledge that he had defeated all these clever, intellectual men, dazzling speakers and writers in their own field, and above all the tangible fact that he earned more than they did, turned his original insecurity into a cold and usually ostentatious pride.” (p.9).

But Dr B.’s. positive characteristics are his downfall: his imagination, his intelligence, his alert mind turn against him, drive him mad. In solitary confinement and later in his chess game against Czentovic Dr B. despairs about the stupor of his surroundings. “’My dreadful situation forced me at least to try splitting myself into a Black self and a White self, to keep from being crushed by the terrible void around me.’” (p. 53)

Dr B.s aggression does not turn against his suppressors but against himself. Because for him taking up the fight seriously would mean to mutate into the lout Czentovic is.

Film still from Brainwashed (Schachnovelle), Allied Artists Pictures, 1961. On the right is Curd Jürgens who plays Dr.B., on the lef is Mario Adorf as Czentovic

The Chess novella offers only one way out of this dilemma: retreat. Therefore, Dr B. suddenly breaks off his game against Czentovic and leaves the field to him. On a symbolic level, this means to concede victory to the National Socialists. It also illustrates Zweig’s despair about the fate of the world in which the Nazis gained more and more ground. A despair that finally brought him to kill himself.

Today, this suicide looks like the tragic individual fate of someone who did no longer want to suffer a world full of war, in which the National Socialists seemed to be unstoppable. But at that time Zweig’s death was a severe blow for a lot of others in exile. The German author Carl Zuckmayer writes: “Among the circles of emigrants Stefan Zweig’s voluntary death caused enormous dismay. … If he, who had all opportunities open to him, considered it useless to carry on – where does that leave those fighting for a piece of bread? … [He belonged] to the fortunate among us. To the few who had international readers, whose work found resonance and on-going acclaim. To the few who already had a new nationality, a valid passport, a kind of security. He had no material troubles, he could arrange his life as he wanted.” (Carl Zuckmayer, „Did you know Stefan Zweig?“, in: Der große Europäer Stefan Zweig, Ed. Hanns Arens, Fischer Taschenbuch 1981, p. 133-134, my translation).

Zweig's house

Zweig's house in Petropolis | Source: petropolis.rj.gov.br

It shows Zweig’s skill as a writer that he manages to portray Dr B.’s resigned retreat from his attempt to beat Czentovic in chess as convincing. However, if one accepts the interpretation of the chess game as a symbolic fight between a European person of culture and the rise of fascism one wishes that Dr B would have used his talents, his abilities, and not least the skills he acquired during his time in prison to oppose Czentovic.

Translation from German, KARL-OnlineApril 20th.


Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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