Chess in Literature: "Writers & Lovers" and the Immortal Game

by Johannes Fischer
6/22/2021 – 170 years ago, on 21 June 1851, Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky played one of the most famous games of all time: the so-called "Immortal Game", in which Anderssen sacrificed a large part of his army to mate the enemy king. Since then this game has been included in countless anthologies, it continues to be a popular choice for live exhibition games, it has been quoted in films, and the decisive position has been printed on T-shirts. It also played a role in the novel "Writers & Lovers" by American author Lily King.

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Lily King's critically acclaimed and popular novel "Writers & Lovers" is about the passion for literature and the sacrifices one has to make to follow one's calling. Chess also features, in a crucial moment.

The first-person narrator and heroine of Writers & Lovers is 31-year-old Casey Peabody, who dreams of becoming a writer. But to live her dream she made and still makes a lot of sacrifices:

I am thirty-one years old and seventy-three thousand dollars in debt.  [...] Since college I've moved eleven times, had seventeen jobs and several relationships that didn't work out. I've been estranged from my father since twelfth grade, and earlier this year my mother died. My only sibling lives three thousand miles away. What I have had for the past six years, what has been constant and steady in my life is the novel I've been writing. This has been my home, the place I could always retreat to. The place I could sometimes even feel powerful [...] the place where I am most myself. (Lily King, Writers & Lovers, New York 2020, p. 309-310)

Casey has finished her novel, but in terms of work and love things are still not going well for her. She works as a low-paid waitress in a Boston restaurant and has to choose between two men: Silas, a young student who, like Casey, dreams of becoming a writer, and the established and successful author Oscar Colton, who is much older than Casey and has two children from his first marriage.

The conflicts in Casey's life come to a head when she loses her job at the restaurant. But on the same day she happens to meet Silas, who invites her to a game of chess. Silas suggests that they replay the "Immortal", "you're Adolf Anderssen and I'm Lionel Kieseritzky [...] London eighteen fifty-one. [...] I have this book about famous chess matches, and sometimes I play them. [...] My version of clenching. Escaping into someone else's mind for a little while." (p. 276 )

Adolf Anderssen at the beginning of his chess career (Source: Wikipedia)

Some of the moves in the game are given by Silas, some are found by Casey herself. But she doesn't really feel comfortable with Anderssen's sacrificial strategy: "We are reckless, Anderssen and I. When cornered, we go on the offense, sacrificing needlessly. [...] I am getting crushed." (p. 277)

It is easy to see the parallels between Casey's feelings and doubts about the sacrifices she has made in her life to become a writer and the sacrifices she has to make while following Anderssen's example on the chess board. But as chess lovers know, Anderssen's "Immortal" had a happy ending, as Anderssen could crown and justify all his sacrifices with a brilliant final mating combination, and it is nice to see how Lily King uses a chess game to illustrate that this is a crucial moment in the life of her heroine.


Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky played the "Immortal Game" on 21 June 21, 1851, during the London tournament. However, this game that was to become so famous was not played in the tournament but during a series of skittle games with which Anderssen and Kieseritzky entertained themselves.

The tournament in London 1851 was the world's first chess tournament. It took place on the occasion of the World Exhibition, which was also the first World Exhibition ever. Driving force behind the organization was Howard Staunton, author, chess publisher, Shakespeare scholar and one of the world's best players in the 1840s.

Staunton had invited the best players of the world to come to London to play a tournament in knock-out mode. Anderssen, the eventual winner, was a teacher for German and Mathematics in Breslau, and initially he did not get an invitation because at that time his only notable success was a drawn match against Daniel Harrwitz played in 1848

But the Berliner Schachgesellschaft which had been contacted by Staunton knew how strong Anderssen was and secured his invitation to London.

In the first round of the tournament Anderssen had to play against Lionel Kieseritzky, a professional player who was born in Dorpat (today's Tartu in Estonia), but lived in Paris as a chess professional. Anderssen won the match against Kieseritzky 2.5-0.5 but after the official match they continued the duel and played a couple of skittles games. This time Kieseritzky had the better of it: he won 10-6.

Lionel Kieseritzky (Source: Wikipedia)

But in one of these skittle games Kieseritzky suffered a spectacular loss, and this game impressed him so much that he wanted to keep it for posterity. Therefore he telegraphed the moves to his chess club in Paris and this was the beginning of a remarkable career: in July 1851 the game was published in the French chess magazine La Régence which was edited by Kieseritzky, and a little later Josef Kling and Bernhard Horwitz printed the game in the Chessplayer and made it known to English-speaking players.

In 1855 the Wiener Schachzeitung showed the game to the German public, dubbing it "The Immortal Game" and this name may be one reason for its fame that lasts till today.

Cover of Hannibal Arnellos, Die unsterbliche Partie (The Immortal Game)

T-Shirt (Photo:

Chess scene from Ridley Scott's Film "The Blade Runner"

In the novel the game heralds a decisive turning point in the narrative and this makes Lily King's Writers & Lovers another charming tribute to the "Immortal Game", which has thus become even a bit more immortal.

Cover of Lily King's, Writers & Lovers


Website of Lily King

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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