Saturday, March 4, 2023

Chess by Stefan Zweig


Some of you may not know this, but I used to play chess quite frequently. The reason one of my own published book series revolves around chess because it used to be my favorite game to play. During college, it helped relax me after studying and I would sometimes play out 10+ games in an evening. I've revisited the game several times throughout my life and while I was never particularly amazing at it, or formally ranked, I used to be pretty good. Good enough that I could occasionally beat the old Russian guys who hung out around the parks in San Jose with their chess sets. When I found out that there were quite a few other books out there revolving around chess, I made it my mission to get my hands on them as soon as possible.

Well, in the case of Stefan Zweig's CHESS (or CHESS STORY, as it is sometimes called), that acquisition took me over ten years. But finally! I landed an inexpensive copy and could read this story about a high stakes game between an Austrian noble and a Hungarian savant from peasant stock who became a grandmaster against the odds. Often I love posting status updates as I read, but sometimes it's fun to keep all my reactions to myself until I finish. This was one of those times. The story is told in first person by a (I believe unnamed) third party, who encounters both Mirko Czenovic and Dr. B while aboard a ship. The narrator is curious about Mirko, who is conscious of his lack of formal schooling and the rigid class lines he has violated by moving into a sport that is the pastime of the intellectual class, and therefore makes a point of avoiding contact with anyone as much as possible.

The narrator manages to arrange a meeting by playing chess with his wife in a public area on the ship. Eventually, a Scotsman takes the bait and starts playing with him, which ends up attracting Mirko's attention. Their chess ability doesn't impress Mirko, which makes the Scotsman angry, and to defend his pride and masculinity, he challenges Mirko to a game. Unsurprisingly, it goes badly-- until a random observer saves him from making a mistake and falling for a sacrificial trap. This observer is Dr. B., a man who turned to chess to preserve his sanity when he was caught and interrogated by the Gestapo for thwarting the Nazi party during WWII.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, so I won't spoil it, but this is a pretty good story and an intense psychological portrait of the people who revolve their lives around chess. It takes a while to get moving, as these older stories sometimes do, but once it finally started rolling, I was fascinated-- especially about Dr. B.'s story. Both him and Mirko were total opposites, so it was kind of cool that chess ended up being a sort of equalizer between them, especially when they both ended up in the hobby purely by circumstance. Not sure about the reread potential but it was the perfect story for a blustery afternoon.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

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