Nabokov: Poems and problems

10/23/2014 – "Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art," said Vladimir Nabokov, one of the greatest novelists of our time. He was also an avid chess player and composer of chess problems. One of his novels, Luzhin’s Defence, became a popular movie. Prof. Christian Hesse tells us the story of the greatest chess lover among writers, and vice versa.

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Poems and problems

By Prof. Christian Hesse

Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity and splendid insincerity. – Vladimir Nabokov: Poems and Problems

A velvet-like banging in the head: the carved pieces move. – Vladimir Nabokov: The knight

"Vladimir Nabokov, November 3, 1972, Novelist, Lepidopterist, Chess analyst"
is the caption of this image published by David R. Godine with Black Sparrow Books

Poems and chess problems are the end products of very different forms of artistic endeavour. It is rather rare for someone to be creative in both fields. And it is even rarer to find the results of both processes of creation presented to gether in a single work. For one of these rare occurrences we can thank the Russo-American writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), who came to world fame with his novel Lolita. His book Poems and Problems appeared in 1971, with 53 of his own poems and 18 chess problems which he had composed himself. According to him: ‘Inspiration of a quasi-musical, quasi-poetical or to be quite exact, poetico-mathematical type, attends the process of thinking up a chess composition. (...) Frequently, in the middle of the day, on the fringe of some trivial occupation, in the idle wake of a passing thought, I would experience, without warning, a twinge of mental pleasure as the bud of a chess problem burst open in my brain, promising me a night of labor and felicity.’

A monument of Vladimir Nabokov in Montreux [photo: Wiki]

Nabokov must be the most prominent composer of chess problems. In his autobiography Speak, Memory he mentions that he spent an enormous amount of time constructing them: ‘The only thing which I regret today is that the possessive haunting of my mind with carved pieces or their intellectual counterparts swallowed up so much time during my most productive and fruitful years, time which I could have better spent on linguistic adventures.’

Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera playing chess

Nabokov also describes the process of creation as it applies to one of his most distinctive problems:

Vladimir Nabokov, 1969

Mate in two moves

Nabokov: ‘I remember one particular problem I had been trying to compose for months. There came a night when I managed at last to express that particular theme. It was meant for the delectation of the very expert solver. The unsophisticated might miss the point of the problem entirely, and discover its fairly simple, ‘thetic’ solution without having passed through the pleasurable torments prepared for the sophisticated one. The latter would start by falling for an illusory pattern of play based on a fashionable avantgarde theme (exposing White’s King to checks), which the composer had taken the greatest pains to “plant” (with only one obscure little move by an inconspicuous pawn to upset it). Having passed through this “antithetic” inferno the by now ultra-sophisticated solver would reach the simple key move (Bishop to c2) as somebody on a wild goose chase might go from Albany to New York by way of Vancouver, Eurasia and the Azores. The pleasant experience of the roundabout route (strange landscapes, gongs, tigers, exotic customs, the thrice-repeated circuit of a newly married couple around the sacred fire of an earthen brazier) would amply reward him for the misery of the deceit, and after that, his arrival at the simple key move would provide him with a synthesis of poignant artistic delight. I remember how slowly I awoke from an unconscious state of concentrated brooding about chess and in front of me, on the large English chess board of bright yellow and scarlet leather, there was finally the immaculate position, like a constellation just formed. It worked. It was alive.’

Now, quite specifically, the solution: the b-pawn is in readiness to promote immediately. It is tempting and at first glance successful to promote it as follows: 1.b8N. In fact it also works out in almost all variations: 1...d6+ 2.Nd7# or 1...dxe6+ 2.Nf7# or 1...d5+ 2.Qc7# or 1...Kd6 2.Qc5# or 1...Nxf4 2.Qd4#.

But, if one looks at it more closely, with 1...c2 Black can unexpectedly disconcert the blonde queen and her knightly duo, because there is then no mate. Only the well-hidden 1.Bc2! allows White to properly release his pent up power. A blockading move which puts the brakes on the c-pawn, but allows the black king an escape square. However, Black is now quite helpless, all his moves are met with an immediate mate, e.g. 1...d6 2.Rf5# or 1...dxe6 2.Qc5# or 1...d5 2.Qc7# or 1...Nc1 2.Qd4# or 1...Nd4 2.Qxd4#.

Vladimir Nabokov also turned to chess in what was, after Lolita, probably his most famous novel: neither before nor since has the possible tragedy of a professional chess player been more poignantly portrayed as in Luzhin’s Defence (cover of the first edition, above). And despite that, when reading it, one is struck by the feeling of the magic fascination of the game of chess.

Key scenes from Luzhin’s Defence – you can watch the whole movie (with Spanish subtitles) here

The film made from this novel with a screenplay by Peter Berry contains a sacrificial combination, for the conception of which the British grandmaster Jonathan Speelman acted as adviser to the Dutch director Marleen Gorris. The film received mixed reviews, but the chess scenes were generally praised. One critic wrote: ‘Gorris succeeds in making the chess scenes both cerebral and exciting’.


This position occurs in Luzhin’s decisive game for the world championship. Playing against his old rival Turati, Luzhin here makes the expressionist move 1...Nxf4! 2.exf4? (2.Nd1! would be good). Turati does not scent the danger, but it is already there. The game is adjourned. Much then happens: Luzhin is kidnapped, finds a forced win for the adjourned game, is released by his kidnapper, suffers a nervous breakdown, is rescued, is taken to a clinic and commits suicide. His fiancée finds a note with the winning sequence next to his body. She pleads with Turati to allow her to continue his game, and when the latter agrees she defeats him with it. 2...Re3+ 3.Kg4. After 3.Kf2 Rxc3+ 4.Ke1 Rxc1+ the material situation is unpleasant for White. 3...f5+ 4.Kg5 Kg7! 5.Nd5 Rh3!! 5...Rxe2? 6.Rxc5 Rxg2+ 7.Kh4 wins for White. 6.gxh3 h6+ 7.Kh4 Bf2#.

Not only his character Alexander Luzhin, but Nabokov himself is in his way a chess phenomenon: the greatest chess lover among writers, and vice versa.

Nabokov on the title of TIME Magazine on May 23, 1969

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Note: The Joys of Chess contain an extensive seven-page list of bibliography with references to works that were used in researching its 94 essays. This list is not included here with the above sample chapter.

Christian Hesse holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and was on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley until 1991. Since then he is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Stuttgart (Germany). Subsequently he has been a visiting researcher and invited lecturer at universities around the world, ranging from the Australian National University, Canberra, to the University of Concepcion, Chile. Recently he authored “Expeditionen in die Schachwelt” (Expeditions into the world of chess, ISBN 3-935748-14-0), a collection of about 100 essays that the Viennese newspaper Der Standard called “one of the most intellectually scintillating and recommendable books on chess ever written.”

Christian Hesse is married and has a thirteen-year-old daughter and a nine year old son. He lives in Mannheim and likes Voltaire's reply to the complaint: ”Life is hard” – “Compared to what?”.

The Joys of Chess is an unforgettable intellectual expedition to the remotest corners of the Royal Game. En route, intriguing thought experiments, strange insights and hilarious jokes will offer vistas you have never seen before.

The beauty, the struggle, the culture, the fun, the art and the heroism of chess – you will find them all in this sparkling book that will give you many hours of intense joy.

Christian Hesse is a Harvard-trained professor of Mathematics who has taught at the University of California, Berkeley (USA), and since 1991 at the University of Stuttgart. He has written a textbook called 'Angewandte Wahrscheinlichkeitstheorie'.

Chess and literature are his main hobbies, and he also likes fitness and boxing. His heroes are the ones who fall to the bottom and rise again, fall and rise again…

From the foreword by by Ex-World Champion Vishy Anand: "A rich compendium of spectacular highlights and defining moments from chess history: fantastic moves, beautiful combinations, historical blunders, captivating stories, and all this embedded into a plentitude of quick-witted ideas and contemplations as food for thought."

Topics: Hesse
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Jason Rihel Jason Rihel 10/24/2014 09:08
Not to quibble, but Pale Fire is his undoubtedly his most famous book after Lolita (also written in time after Lolita, but that is not the sense of 'after' I mean). Speak, Memory is also pretty famous. And of course, the Time magazine cover was to promote his novel, Ada or Ardor.

The Defense, I suppose, has some fame because it was made into a movie nobody watched.
dysanfel dysanfel 10/24/2014 02:12
I was once in a rather wealthy persons library and saw a Nabokov chess problem book. I have never seen it again. It was in Russian with a red cover.
chvsanchez- chvsanchez- 10/23/2014 11:40
The text says "or 'The Defense' as it was called in the cover of the first edition, above" (?)

However, the cover says "'Защита Лужина' (The Luzhin Defense)"...
tigerprowl tigerprowl 10/23/2014 04:00
Why post from move "1"? Could you please post from move 1 next time?
Ananke Ananke 10/23/2014 12:32
@libyantiger because 1. .. d5
libyantiger libyantiger 10/23/2014 10:44
why not qc5 mate in one?