September 23, 2011

Chess Story

There are dozens and dozens of technical chess books on the market about how to improve your chess, how to become a champion, how to study this game, top ten x and z, hidden secrets and so forth. And yet, so little good books which are capable to offer the reader a different perspective, with an emphasis on the chess player's personality, a sensitive and sometimes derided subject in the chess circles.
"Chess Story" (also known as "The Royal Game", written by the Austrian author Stefan Zweig, published in 1942) shows us the other side of this pure intellectual meeting of two individuals' brains for a dual upon a 64 square board.

The result is a compelling short novella (less than a 100 pages!), which packs a greater emotional punch than many a full-length novel, fascinating even for those who don't know a thing about chess. 

Almost anything I could say about this would be giving something away, and with a work so short I wouldn't want to diminish any of the many pleasures available to the reader of this book. 

But I will say there's a very interesting contrast set up between the two main characters, one of whom is seemingly autistic and can only understand what he can lay his actual hands on, while the other excels in understanding pure products of the mind.
The actual writing of this book - sort of simple, sort of luminous, transparent, incredibly engaging - made this a fabulous page turner. I think I read it in one breath, whithout break, until I turned the last page...regretting that I read it too fast maybe.

At least I was smart enough to repair my serious error of not reading it earlier and I can say, without hesitation, that you should grab a copy. Personally, I liked it much more than "Luzhin Defence", by Vladimir Nabokov.

Still having doubts?! Underneath you have an extract from the English version of the book, to give you a glimpse of what you might discover.

In the author's words:

About chess: "From my own experience, I am well aware of the mysterious attraction of the “royal game”, which, alone among the games devised by man, regally eschews the tyranny of chance and awards its palms of victory only to the intellect. But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, a cogitation producing nothing, a mathematics calculating nothing, an art without an artwork, an architecture without substance, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit? Where does it begin, where does it end?"

About the chess player: "In principle I have always found it easy to understand that such a unique, ingenious game would have to produce its own wizards. Yet how difficult, how impossible it is to imagine the life of an intellectually active person who reduces the world to a shuttle between black and white, who seeks fulfillment in a mere to-and-fro, forward-and-back of thirty-two pieces, someone for whom a new opening that allows the knight to be advanced instead of the pawn is in itself a great accomplishment and a meager little piece of immortality in a corner of a chess book—someone, someone with a brain in his head, who, without going mad, continues over and over for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years to devote all the force of his thought to the ridiculous end of cornering a wooden king on a wooden board!"



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