Chess Related Novels & Stories
member Adam Katz asked:
Do you know of any works of fiction that mention or give pride-of-place to chess? The older the better. I am a sucker for the 19th century, but, though I can find plenty enough in the 20th century (Eliot’s THE WASTELAND has an intriguing reference, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, various memoirs) 19th century literature seems to be lacking on this front. There is, of course, Lewis Carroll. Still, any books at all that you can recommend I would greatly appreciate.
I came to you because you seem to have a literary bent (not just your own writing – you mentioned in a column that you like Nick Cave) but if you are not the one to whom I should be asking this question, can you point me to someone else who might know about such matters?
Dear Mr. Katz:
A few 19th Century titles that feature some chess related theme are:
ARABIAN KNIGHTS by Richard Burton (1885).
DIGBY, CHESS PROFESSOR by Charles Edward Barns (1889).
THE TURKISH AUTOMATON by Sheila E. Braine (1896).
THE STARTLING EXPLOITS OF DR. J. B. QUIES by Paul Celieres (1887).
CHECKMATED AND OTHER STORIES BY LEADING WRITERS Edited by L. Pylodet and Augusta Harriet Leypoldt (1886).
STRIFE OF LOVE IN A DREAM by Francesco Colonna (1890).
The fact is there are quite a few chess related novels (we’re just talking fiction here!) from the 19th Century. The best way of exploring all the possibilities is to buy (or find someone that has) a book titled: CHESS ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: WORKS PUBLISHED IN ENGLISH LANGUAGE 1850 TO 1968 by Douglas Betts. This great book has over 600 pages of information covering the listed dates. It’s offered for 39 Euros on the Moravian chess site and is an indispensible reference source for bibliophiles like yourself: http://moravian-chess.cz/
Of course, most people would be more interested in books from the 20th or 21st centuries. A complete list of all chess related fiction would be huge, so I’ll only give the best, with a few others of potential interest thrown in.
I should add that I haven’t read most of them. Of course, I read all the classics (I’ll point out the one’s I read when I come to them), but I tired of chess-related fiction over 30 years ago (I lived, ate, and breathed chess, so I wanted to read about things that took me away from it!) and thus am not that well acquainted with the latest stuff. Keep in mind that we are only exploring chess FICTION. Thus, books like SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER by Fred Waitzkin isn’t a candidate for this list.
THE BEST OF THE BEST
(Graded by Writing AND the Amount of Chess Content)
THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT: A NOVEL, by Walter Tevis (Vintage, 2003) - This is about an 8 year old orphan that turns out to be a chess genius. Tevis is a serious writer, having penned THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH AND THE HUSTLER, so anything he does has to be taken seriously.
THE SQUARES OF THE CITY by John Brunner (Scribner, 1992) - Each character is a piece in a chess game, but it’s really about subliminal manipulation on a massive scale. Nominated for a Hugo award!
PAWN TO INFINITY (Ace, 1982). This is a chess-themed collection of stories that features a who’s who of great writers. The offerings of Zelazny and Anderson are very highly thought of.
Pawn to Infinity: The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton - Gene Wolfe
Pawn to Infinity: Unicorn Variation - Roger Zelazny
Pawn to Infinity: The Immortal Game - Poul Anderson
Pawn to Infinity: Midnight by the Morphy Watch - Fritz Leiber
Pawn to Infinity: Unsound Variations - George R. R. Martin
Pawn to Infinity: A Game of Vlet - Joanna Russ
Pawn to Infinity: Without a Thought - Fred Saberhagen
Pawn to Infinity: A Board in the Other Direction - Ruth Berman
Pawn to Infinity: Von Goom’s Gambit - Victor Contoski
Pawn to Infinity: Kokomu - Daniel Gilbert
Pawn to Infinity: Moxon’s Master - Ambrose Bierce
THE FLANDERS PANEL by Arturo Perez-Reverte (Bantam Books, 1996) - A thriller that’s about an art restorer who sets out to solve the riddle of a 15th-century painting (showing the Duke of Flanders and his Knight playing a game of chess), but instead comes across one murder after another (over a 5 century period).
THE EIGHT by Katherine Neville (Ballantine Books, 1990) - Another thriller/fantasy-adventure that became an international bestseller. It’s about a computer expert (who loves chess) who gets caught up in a search for a legendary chess set once owned by Charlemagne.
THE FIRE by Katherine Neville (2008) - A sequel to THE EIGHT, which begins twenty years after the first novel ended. Lord Byron is somehow tossed into the mix too!
ZUGZWANG by Ronan Bennett (2007) - A historical thriller about a city hosting an international chess tournament in 1914. Murders and other forms of chaos follow.
TOWER STRUCK BY LIGHTENING by Fernando Arrabal (Penguin, 1991) - Andorran Spaniard vs. a Swiss physicist (who happens to be a Marxist terrorist) in a battle for the chess championship of the world.
THE LUNEBURG VARIATION by Paolo Maurensig (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1993) - Chess (as metaphor for war), concentration camp, Nazis, and lots of mystery. A highly acclaimed piece of work.
THE DEFENSE by Vladimir Nabokov (Originally published in 1930) More recently titled: THE LUZHIN DEFENSE (in 2000, a major movie, starring John Turturro, appeared that was based on this) - This is a story about high level chess and insanity, and how both are often part of the same "package". I read this in my teens and really enjoyed it, but I'm not so sure that I'd like it as much now.
THE ROYAL GAME (A Novella, the original German title was: Schachnovelle) by Stefan Zweig (1942) - A man who is imprisoned and put into isolation is driven to the edge of mental/emotional collapse. The only thing that allows him to avoid total madness is a small chess book he steals that is filled with master games.
I loved this story when I read it in my teens, and I still love it today. In 1960, this tale was turned into an excellent (German) movie titled, BRAINWASHED directed by Gerd Oswald (starring Curt Jurgens & Claire Bloom). You’re not a real chess player if you haven’t read THE ROYAL GAME. Rest assured that after reading it, you’ll instantly gain 300 rating points (or, at the very least, you'll insist you're 300 points stronger than your published rating), and beautiful women will find you irresistible.
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, 2007) - An acclaimed novel that prominently features chess, Jews, and murder, which poses the question: What if, as Franklin Roosevelt once proposed, Alaska - and not Israel - had become the homeland for the Jews after World War II?
THE CHESS GARDEN by Brooks Hansen (Riverhead Trade, 1996) - A man serving in a British-run concentration camp for forcibly displaced Boers sends 12 letters to his wife. The letters describe a world where chess pieces live and die, fight and love, and even philosophize.
SHADOW WITHOUT A NAME by Ignacio Padilla (Spanish: 2000, English translation: 2002) - Two chess experts make a deal during WWII: “If my father won, the other man would take his place on the eastern front and hand over his job as pointsman in hut nine on the Munich-Salzburg line. If, on the other hand, my father lost, he would shoot himself before the train reached its destination.”
HIGHLY PRAISED/POPULAR ALTERNATIVES
THE CHESS PLAYERS by Frances Parkinsen Keyes (1960) - A fictionalized tale about Paul Morphy. I read this when I was 15 and found it far too romantic for my tastes. However, most people seem to love it.
EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK by Stephen Carter (2002) – The main character in this book is a chess fanatic.
AUTO-DA-FE by Elias Canetti (1935) – A Nazis dwarf called Fischerle is obsessed with becoming a great chess champion.
STALEMATE by Icchokas Meras (1963, English Edition 2005) – About a young chess prodigy who seems patterned after the young Reshevsky. A life and death game is played in a Polish ghetto where Isaac (the Reshevsky-like prodigy) faces a horrifying situation: If Isaac wins (against a Nazi Commandant), all the children in the ghetto will live, but Isaac will die. If he loses, he’ll live, but the kids will die. Only a draw will ensure a happy ending.
CARL HAFFNER’S LOVE OF THE DRAW by Thomas Glavanic (Random House, 2003) - This is a fictionalized account of the Lasker vs. Schlechter World Championship Match in 1910. “Haffner”, of course, is Schlechter (who was a famous drawing master).
REALITY INSPECTOR by John Caris (Westgate House, 1982) - A science fiction detective novel (with quite a bit of chess stuff … even chess diagrams!) that’s actually all about computer hacking!
THE IMMORTAL GAME by Mark Coggins (Poltroon Press, 1999) - A detective story (that pays homage to Hammett, Chandler, and others), it’s set in present day San Francisco and features an advanced form of chess software.
CHESSMEN OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1922) - The Chessmen of Mars, first published in 1922, is the fifth book in Burroughs’ Mars series, about the adventures of Earthman John Carter on the Red Planet.
DISCWORLD by Terry Pratchett. This features a chess variant called Stealth Chess. Thirty-eight Discworld novels have been published since 1983!
THE CHESS MACHINE by Robert Lohr (2007) - About a chess playing automaton (sounds like The Turk, doesn’t it?) in 1770 Hungary. Throw in a chess prodigy and a dwarf, add a dash of murder, and you have a story.
ALL THE KING’S HORSES by Kurt Vonnegut (Short Story, 1951) - Features a true game of death where a prisoner (and his family and companions) is forced to play his Chinese captor for his/their freedom. The problem: these people act as actual pieces, and every American piece that’s captured will be immediately executed. Imagine the moral dilemma that this would create!
FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE by Ian Fleming (1957) - A novel in the James Bond series. One of the villains, Tov Kronsteen, is a chess grandmaster.
INVISIBLE CITIES by Italo Calvino (1972) - An experimental novel that has no actual plot and very little character development! The novel is structured as a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin (1978). For young readers. A murder mystery that won the 1979 Newbery Medal (probably the highest award one can win for children’s literature).
THE BISHOP MURDER CASE by S. S. van Dine – a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright (1928) - A Philo Vance mystery (there were six Philo Vance novels in all). They also made several Philo Vance movies. The one I saw was The Kennel Murder Case (1933), which starred William Powell (my favorite actor … in other words, I really enjoyed the movie!).
UNSOUND VARIATIONS (a novella included in the book, PORTRAITS OF HIS CHILDREN) by George R.R. Martin (1982) - “A single move in a chess tournament that one of the weaker players made ruins the lives of the rest of the team in ways both disturbing and unimaginable.”
If you ever worried that a chess blunder might have dire consequences, then this might turn your fear into full-blown paranoia! In any case, UNSOUND VARIATIONS won several prestigious writing awards, and the author is an acknowledged fiction/fantasy/horror heavyweight. This one is surely worth a look!
THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler (1939) - This classic speaks for itself.
OTHER CHESS RELATED NOVELS
(Great or not so great, you be the judge)
FORBIDDEN PLANET by Lionel Fanthorpe (using the pseudonym John E. Muller) (1961) - About an interstellar chess game played by superhuman entities using humans as pawns.
THE DRAGON VARIATION by Anthony Glyn (Hutchinson, 1969) - About the world of international chess. Got very good reviews at the time, but I wasn’t too fond of it when I read the thing in 1971. My main gripe was that the author’s understanding of the game was severely lacking, which made some of the chess battles a tad embarrassing. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I read it again.
TACTICS OF CONQUEST by Barry Malzberg (Penguin Putnam) - A very highly thought of author (and playwright, and musician!), but I don’t know anything about this particular book!
MASTER PRIM by James Whitfield Ellison (1968) - Features a Fischer-like character and even a full game that, in the novel, was between Prim and Eugene Berlin, but in reality it was Alekhine vs. Sterk, Budapest 1921. I discovered the game’s true identity on Edward Winter’s very interesting site, Chess Notes: http://www.chesshistory.com/
THE 64-SQUARE LOOKING GLASS: GREAT GAMES OF CHESS IN WORLD LITERATURE by Burt Hochberg (Times Books, 1993) - Forty-four entries that examine “the great game of chess in world literature.” They range from mysteries to poetry, tournament accounts to fantasy contests, allegory to journalism.
KING, QUEEN, AND KNIGHT: A CHESS ANTHOLOGY IN PROSE AND VERSE by Normal Knight and Will Guy (Batsford, 1975) - An anthology of over 250 passages of prose and verse, culled from many different countries and centuries.
CELESTIAL CHESS by Thomas Bontly (Ballantine Books, 1980) - A mystery novel about a medieval manuscript, a strange poem written by a monk during the reign of Henry II, and murder.
SINISTER GAMBITS: CHESS STORIES OF MURDER AND MYSTERY by Richard Peyton (Souvenir Press, 1992) - A compilation of 17 short stories bearing chess-related themes, divided into three sections.
There is some heavy-duty stuff here – from Fritz Leiber to J. G. Ballard to Poul Anderson. We even get Agatha Christie!
ALEKHINE’S ANGUISH: A Novel of the Chess World by Charles D. Yaffe (McFarland & Company, 1999) - This is a fictionalized account of the life and career of world chess champion Alexander Alekhine.
LOS VORACES, 2019: A Chess Novel by Andy Soltis (McFarland, 2003) - About a twenty million dollar tournament in 2019. The rules: no seconds, no agents, no computers, no entourages, no pagers, no power palms, no phone calls – no outside contact of any kind – as the fourteen greatest chess players in the world gather to compete for money and fame.
UNDER THE BLACK SUN by Eric Woro (Axiom Publishing, 1995) - Vampires, a chess prodigy, sex, dead bodies strewn about like graffiti, a psychotic dead man, and perversions galore. From the book: “Martin tells her that ‘Golem never made it with a girl’, to which she replies, putting her hand on his leg, ‘Well, I’ve never made it with a ghoul.’”
CHESS WITH A DRAGON by David Gerrold (1987) - Mankind has to negotiate with an alien race called “Dragons.”
GRANDMASTER by Molly Cochran and Warren Murphy (1984) - An old story: two chess prodigies meet. They grow up to be chess powerhouses. And then they face spies, assassins, mystic stuff in the Far East, murder, and evil! I recently shared a couple of beers with Seirawan in Amsterdam and he told me how he experienced this exact kind of thing (I wasn't surprised, because I have to fight evil and ninjas on a daily basis too)! In other words, it’s business as usual for us chess pros.
THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1928) by IIf and Petrov - Parts of it take place at a chess club.
INCIDENT AT THE SICILIAN DRAGON by Kent Smith (1981) - I remember seeing this book on the floor at the headquarters of the Players Chess News in LA (I was editor to that international chess paper at that time). I should have picked the book up, but instead I stepped on it and continued to my desk. I still have no idea what it’s about (it might have been the chess equivalent of WAR AND PEACE for all I know).
HENCE by Brad Leithauser (Penguin, 1989) - A chess genius, the world’s strongest chess computer, a big tournament at MIT, a messianic computer scientist in green shoes, and a bleeding televangelist. What more could anyone want?
MORAL VICTORIES by David Lovejoy (Echo Publications, 2008) - A “historical novel”, meaning the author tries to follow real history, but creates thoughts and dialogue that may or may not have had anything to do with the real person. In this case our hero is Savielly Tartakower, a famous grandmaster who was also one of the wittiest guys who ever lived (by the way, Tartakower has a tremendous set of books about his best games – a must buy, if you can find them). The novel sounds interesting.
THE CHESS PLAYER by Rolf Witzsche (2005) - A Russian chess champion is rescued from a mob that is obsessed on revenge for a nuclear war tragedy. The Chess Player is a chapter from the novel, BRIGHTER THAN THE SUN.
THE CHESS TEAM by James Sawaski (2005) - A book for young readers. If you guessed that the book was about the main character blundering in the High School Chess Championship, you would have guessed right. I think it’s a “triumph of the human spirit” kind of thing. Not my cup of tea, but then I’m a bad tempered old man and have given up on the human spirit long, long ago.
THE POSTHUMAN DADA GUIDE: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess by Andrei Codrescu (2009) - Quite a title! The blurb says: “The Posthuman Dada Guide is an impractical handbook for practical living in our posthuman world – all by way of examining the imagined 1916 chess game between Tristan Tzara, the daddy of Dada, and V. I. Lenin, the daddy of communism.” Wow.
EVEN DEAD MEN PLAY CHESS by Michael Weitz (Lachesis Publishing, 2009) - A mystery. Ray Gordon is a chess teacher who finds his student dead in his shop. Ray thinks it is murder, the police don’t agree. And off to the races we go.
THE MAGIC MEAN MACHINE by Beatrice Gormley (2010) - A book for children. It's about a little girl trying to win a 5th grade chess tournament. Since she often succumbs to nerves, Marvin the science wiz invents a device (a rewired Walkman) that will stimulate Alison’s hypothalamus. Allow me to pose a question: Is that legal?
TROTTER’S BOTTOM by Tanya Jones (2010) - A thriller. A woman is returning from maternity leave and is accosted by a Russian chess grandmaster (as I’ve always said, you can’t trust those Russian grandmasters). Naturally, theft and murder is the logical next step. Oh, did I forget to say that this is a comedy? (The title alone made me laugh … I’m still laughing).
THE CHESS PLAYER (Polish Title: SZACHISTA) by Waldemar Lysiak (1980) - Centered around the game of chess between Napoleon Bonaparte and The Turk.
LORD LOSS by Darren Shan (2005)- A 10 book series for children. The main character, Grubbs Grady, lives in a family of chess players.
STRIDING FOLLY by Dorothy L. Sayers (1939) - Supposed to have chess in it, but I’m not sure how much.
Finally, let’s finish on a really high note:
QUARANTINE by Arthur C. Clarke (1977), which appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, First Issue, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1977.
A VERY short story about an extraterrestrial civilization that discovers chess after visiting Earth. Arthur C. Clarke was challenged to write a story so short that it could fit on the back of a postcard. Here’s the result:
Earth’s flaming debris still filled half the sky when the question filtered up to Central from the Curiosity Generator. “Why was it necessary? Even though they were organic, they had reached Third Order Intelligence.”
“We had no choice: five earlier units became hopelessly infected when they made contact.”
“Infected? How? The microseconds dragged slowly by, while Central tracked down the few fading memories that had leaked past the Censor Gate, when the heavily-buffered Reconnaissance Circuits had been ordered to self-destruct.
“They encountered a – problem – that could not be fully analyzed within the lifetime of the Universe. Though it involved only six operators, they became totally obsessed by it.”
“How is that possible?”
“We do not know: we must never know. But if those six operators are ever re-discovered, all rational computing will end.”
“How can they be recognized?”
“That also we do not know; only the names leaked through before the Censor Gate closed. Of course, they mean nothing.”
“Nevertheless, I must have them.”
The Censor voltage started to rise; but it did not trigger the Gate. “Here they are: King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, Rook, Pawn.”