Wednesday 14 November 2018

The Royal Game, by Stefan Zweig.

Another posthumous publication, this chess novel was first published as Schachnovelle in Buenos Aires in December 1942, a few months after Zweig had committed suicide with his wife on 22nd or 23rd February 1942. 

Stefan Zweig

The English edition, The Royal Game, was published in 1944 having been translated from the German MS. by B. W. Huebsch. 

Although written in the late 1930's and early 1940's the story is set in the 1960's aboard a passenger ship sailing from New York to Buenos Aires.

This is the improbable tale of Dr. B., an Austrian lawyer, who had been arrested by the Gestapo and kept in solitary confinement. To stop himself going mad he taught himself chess, using a book stolen from one of his inquisitors. He had no board or pieces but played endless games against himself in his head, and consequently went mad.

25 years later, having abstained from chess during this time, he comfortably outplays and beats the world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, in a full length serious game, after a chance meeting aboard the liner. Unfortunately the moves were not recorded for posterity (or scrutiny).

Czentovic, a taciturn Yugoslavian idiot savant peasant, could not memorize a single game of chess, yet became champion of the world aged 20 having mastered every secret of chess technique in just six months.

Stefan Zweig evidently had little knowledge of the game, portrays unlikely scenarios and uses incorrect terminology. The story has many anomalies and loose ends, and raises several unanswered questions. 

Nevertheless, the author, a master of psychology, does give an insight into the torment, obsessive behaviour and monomania that the game can induce, and he includes this excellent observation (on page 13 of my copy although there are many different editions):

"It stands to reason that so unusual a game, one touched with genius, must create out of itself fitting matadors"


The Royal Game is also included in various anthologies including The Chess Reader, compiled by Jerome Salzmann, New York 1949, and Sinister Gambits, edited by Richard Peyton, London 1991:

Thanks to Tony Peterson for images of The Royal Game, and also to Peter Braunwarth for the precise publication date of Schachnovelle.

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