Franz Kafka, the pawn of a pawn

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
1/13/2021 – You do not need to know the rules of chess to understand the metaphors of the game. In one of his many letters to his confidante and platonic friend Milena Jesenská (1896-1944), Franz Kafka made an excursion into the realm of chess to bare his soul and heart. Sergio Negri had a closer look.

ChessBase 16 - Mega package Edition 2021 ChessBase 16 - Mega package Edition 2021

Your key to fresh ideas, precise analyses and targeted training!
Everyone uses ChessBase, from the World Champion to the amateur next door. It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Only one reference to chess has been found in Kafka’s work, within the epistolary genre. In Letters to Milena (Schocken Books, New York, 1990), the following paragraph is part of one of the letters:

The only thing I do fear — and I fear this with my eyes wide open, I am drowning in this fear, helpless (if I could sleep as deeply as I sink into fear I would no longer be alive) — is this inner conspiracy against myself (which the letter to my father will help you understand better, although not entirely, since the letter is much too focused on its purpose), which is based on the fact that I, who am not even the pawn of a pawn in the great chess game, far from it, now want to take the place of the queen, against all the rules and to the confusion of the game — I, the pawn of a pawn, a piece which doesn’t even exist, which isn’t even in the game — and next I may want to take the king’s place as well or even the whole board. Moreover, if that were what I really wanted, it would have to happen in some other, even more inhuman way.

Milena JesenskaFrom this fragment, we see an ever-tormented personality — a writer who, on his way home, expresses his most intimate fears in a letter sent to Czech writer Milena Jesenská (1896-1944), a remarkable woman of letters, a journalist and a translator, for whom fate had reserved a difficult existence and an even more cruel outcome (she died in a Nazi concentration camp).

They were probably soul mates. Passionate about literature and in a climate of torment that accompanied them both through their lives, they maintained an enthusiastic correspondence in the early 1920s. It has even been speculated that they might have had a romance.

In fact, they met physically on a few occasions. However, it is certain that the compatriots were involved in a relationship anchored in Platonism and, what may be more transcendent, one that was a spiritual communion of sensitive and twin souls.

In the above-mentioned passage, we see Kafka imagining a great chess game, one that exceeds the conventional space of the 64 squares, one that transcends it not only in a physical sense — one that at times merges with life itself.

In that integral sphere he attributes a very minor role to himself. Taking an even bolder step, he considers that the pawn of a pawn he has become can be removed from the board. His body of work, which was published, much to his regret, posthumously, and the records of his own existence, would disprove this. At least on this point.

Franz KafkaThe author perceives himself eventually subject to transformations, starting from such a discreet position, to assume other possible more relevant roles, reaching the status of queen, curiously transsexualising himself or, more conventionally, aspiring to be king.

But the most interesting thing of all is that, in that eventual physical mutation, from his most intimate self, he could go from being a member of the world of people to accessing a quite different sphere — the world of things. He imagined that he could, in some way, aspire to embrace both worlds; he could even become, more ambitiously, the whole board.

In this reasoning we see that chess gives the Czech author the opportunity to find a very personal escape from the reality that very much lived in his own mind. Under these conditions, it was foreseeable that he would get a chance to become someone else. Or something else.

He could, then, stop being a pawn (a humble and somewhat sad piece), but a king or a queen, or a chessboard (as he might have wished in his desperate search). In any of these strange assumptions, Kafka would necessarily have had to undergo an unthinkable and profound metamorphosis. Almost as if, much like Gregor Samsa, he could have become...

A note from the editor: A previous version of this article claimed that Kafka knew how to play chess and had a couple of chess books in his library, but there are not enough sources to support these claims. We thank the readers for having noticed these inconsistencies.

Translated from Spanish by Carlos Colodro


Sergio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Master FIDE, who developed studies on the relationship of chess with culture and history.
Discussion and Feedback Join the public discussion or submit your feedback to the editors


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register

Sergio Negri Sergio Negri 1/14/2021 02:49
Thank you very much for the comments that, of course, tend to be more inquisitive than encouraging.
So are the things.
Step to respond promptly to what was raised:
1. In my original note (see I clearly say that the one about Capablanca's simultaneous in which Kafka would have participated is the product of daydreams or the idea of ​​making a joke (I was delicate on the concept).
That issue, and his supposed participation in a tournament, is a hoax, as demonstrated in his extraordinary work by Juan Sebastián Morgado (at -kafka /), which is my absolute knowledge
2. In my original note I do not speak of the chess books in Kafka´s personal library either. That was an addition of the editors of the medium who, without a doubt, have their due sources
3. Of course, any chess player knows that the pawn does not crown a king. Kafka, in the passage indicated, does not say exactly that, but he poses himself to become, in some strange way, a king.
That is why at the end of the article the parable of Gregory Samsa was used, because of the possibility of metamorphosing
Best regards and thanks for your interest
HuubvdK HuubvdK 1/14/2021 12:49
What is your source that Kafka owned chess books? None of the books you say Kafka owned are mentioned in the book 'Kafkas Bibliothek' by Jürgen Born.
kurtkleinmeister kurtkleinmeister 1/13/2021 10:41
A photograph of Capablanca's simul in Prague supposedly showing Franz Kafka is a rather well known hoax. Strange that Negri should fall for this old story.
Turm_Eric Turm_Eric 1/13/2021 05:16
But there's a consideranle possibility that this story arrive to be an hoax. Some discussions here
Turm_Eric Turm_Eric 1/13/2021 02:33
Sic "Karschau" may be a typo, the Austrian name of this city where a Chess tournament was held in 1918 is Kaschau without the R
Turm_Eric Turm_Eric 1/13/2021 02:00
The dream of becoming the powerful Queen may reflect just his actual knowledge of Chess conventions. A Pawn can't become the King.