Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Chess

Chess Story (previously published as The Royal Game), by Stefan Zweig, is a great novella, with all the elegance I'm told the game itself possesses.

Chess fascinates me, but on some level, I feel I don't really know how to play. That is, I know all the moves, but I can't make the pieces dance the way I think they ought to. I played the very occasional game when I was growing up, with a cousin at the cottage, on game day at school. I sought out a few more games as an adult; my boyfriend du jour (well, three I can think of off the top of my head) would say he played, so we would, every other night for a week or two, and I was pathetic really, but eventually I'd beat him, and we'd never play again, and then we'd break up. I'd say these most satisfactory wins had more to with pig-headedness, somehow magically staring the board into submission, than with any kind of mastery of skill or insight.

(I can't possibly be very good; I still find it challenging to play.)

These days the kid is in chess club, so I'm learning terms and notation, and rules I never knew existed. I guess I'm also trying harder to see the art and philosophy of it, to know its mindset, to help her find a way in. I know that the possibilities on the board at any given time are finite. Certainly I cannot calculate them all, nor is there a need to — so many of them amount to being meaningless or inconsequential (it's not quite the same thing, is it?) that the relevant possibilities are significantly reduced. Still, I can only "think ahead" so far, and I'm in awe of the "instinct" some people seem to have for it.

Anyway. The book. The story is essentially a meeting of two players, two different types of player who come to the game via very unique histories. It's also very clear that psychology is a major element of the game — the very particular game that's the main event here, but also of their individual game styles.

One player is world chess champion. Of humble upbringing, he came to the game quite by accident as a teenager, and rather astounded everyone with his skill, because he was otherwise generally thought to be something of an idiot. He is criticized by some for his limitation of not being able to play "blind" — he has to have a board physically in front of him — and this betrays a lack of imaginative power. But it's a power game, isn't it? He bullies his way through, controlling the conditions, intimidating his opponent.

The other player also came upon chess quite accidentally. In confined circumstances a chess manual comes into his possession, and he spends his days, for months on end, poring over it. He has never played on a board, only in his mind.

I don't doubt, given the reference to the politics of Nazism, that there is some allegory here also, for the struggle between classes, or whatever else these two characters might represent, but that interests me less.

Right, so: 84 pages, absolutely gripping.

I first heard about this book from Richard: Thanks! I may search out some more Stefan Zweig. I admit I got a bit tired of hearing about The Post-Office Girl, and I still can't get excited about it, but I hear Beware of Pity is devastatingly good. Also, the recent screed against Zweig in the London Review of Books makes me want to read him more.

(According to Wikipedia, Chess Story inspired the 1960 Gerd Oswald film Brainwashed (Die Schachnovelle), as well as the 1980 Czechoslovakian film The Royal Game, neither of which seem to be readily available, but I'll keep an eye open for them.)

If this sort of book interests you, might I also suggest The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata, which relates a real-life match of Go ("If chess is a battle, Go is a war."), pitting the upstart modern world against the traditional old guard.

At this point, my rambling here is almost as long as Chess Story itself. (Oh, I hope I haven't said too much and spoiled it for anyone.) Go read it.
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