Chess Story, Stefan Zweig, a review


Chess Story is the story of a chess game.

In 1942, during the months of his exile in Brazil with his second wife, and during the time that he and she played out master chess games in their isolation, Stefan Zweig wrote his last book, completing it just days before he and his wife’s double suicide. The narrator of the book is a character in the story but not one of the two chess players and, like the author, he is in exile. The game is played between the world champion Czentovic and a Dr. B., the game arranged on a steamer to Buenos Aires.

The world champion Czentovic, orphaned young, took to chess and absolutely nothing else, calculates magnificently, yet requires a board and chessmen in front of him.  Dr. B had been imprisoned and held in isolation for a year prior to this where he had been playing chess in his mind as a means to keep from breaking. He pilfers a book from one of his interrogators after a few months of existing in a state of nothingness. Hoping to find a book of poetry, it is 150 master chess games.  He learns to play the games in his head until they are all memorized.  Then playing against himself, considering even the guard bringing his food an interruption, he becomes fuzzy during the interrogations because he only wants to return to the isolation of his games and the anticipation of black’s moves when he is white and white’s moves when he is black.

One wonders at first if it was just a dream that he played chess in his mind in prison and he wonders too, having played only in his mind, will he be able to sit at a board faced with a real player and be able to play.  The game between the two is climatic, one calculating on the board, one in his mind, but the dualities don’t end there.  The parts of Chess Story are all aspects of Zweig’s life. When the game ends, life does not end for these characters, but it does for their author.  Czentovic must in some way represent the oppressor, characterized as unworldly, limited and lacking imagination, the other characters are parts of Zweig, the game is, well, chess.


 “In chess, as a purely intellectual game, where randomness is excluded, - for someone to play against himself is absurd ... It is as paradoxical, as attempting to jump over his own shadow.”  Chess Story, Stefan Zweig


It's unfortunate that Zweig made Czentovic into a two-dimensional, stereotyped character. I'd rather prefer an intellectual conflict between two equally complex characters.


just saw your post Chest Fiction. I'll try to find some of those. Have you read Eight by Katherine Neville? That's next on my list.

It mightve been hard for Zweig to make Czentovic interesting, mightve been a personal thing. Maybe he wasnt thinking so much about making Dr. B's opponent complex and interesting, but rather huge, insurmountable, without feeling, a machine. I think he represented the power of the nazis. Dr. B couldnt change the ending, but he could visualize it differently.


I enjoyed Eight very much. There is a sequel, BUT the reviews are very discouraging, so I'll skip it. Meanwhile, I found "The Chess Team" by James Sawaski to be a quick, smoothly flowing little book.

bandii wrote:

just saw your post Chest Fiction.

Is that the one about Pamela Anderson?


oh Im so sorry about that typo!!!!!


The concept of playing chess 'against oneself' is a masterfully brilliant character deconstruction.  It has been played out time and again in pop-culture.  Remember the Jack Lemon character in that 90's comedy classic Grumpy Old Men?  He played chess against himself nightly while having insane battles over trifles with his neighbor daily.  Was Zweig the first to use this literary device, or simply the most adept?