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Chess – Stefan Zweig

22 May

The other day I finished The man Who Loved Dogs, of which a review will be forthcoming soon but upon finishing said book and being impressed by it, everything else on the shelves seemed a little less exciting.  With a day out with mates on the cards – which means getting to a meeting place at least five hours early to read – I needed something to occupy myself.  So I finally decided to reread a couple of novellas, the first of which, being this slinky effort.

Chess-mondoTravelers by ship from New York to Buenos Aires find that on board with them is the world champion of chess, an arrogant and unfriendly man. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. How he came to possess his extraordinary grasp of the game of chess and at what cost lie at the heart of Zweig’s story.

At 78 pages you wouldn’t think that this story would contain much in the way of depth but despite the length or lack of, it’s thinness is at odds with its surprisingly weighty subject matter.

The challenge of writing a review for such a short book is a bit like a game of Chess itself, both have limits, for one it’s 64 black and white squares and for the other, allowing only a certain amount of information to escape the review without spoiling anything important for the reader.  Both are fascinating pursuits, whose limits belie the ridiculous amount of depth involved and an infinitely malleable ability with which to play with.

Chess can be read as a straight forward story of two men squaring off against each other in an epic battle to decide who wins between these two polar opposite (in all ways) opponents.  It’s not just the colour of their chess pieces that differs, there is a clash of experiences, styles and mindset, as well as histories and motivations that are completely different and their only shared desire being the extreme obsession to win.

Naturally there is substance to the tale than that, Zweig wrote this book at a time when Hitler was busy conquering Europe and although he escaped to the Americas, his disgust and sadness at seeing the events unfolding eventually lead to the author and his wife’s suicide shortly after this book was first published.  There is certainly a feeling in the prose of the profound effect of surviving,  coupled with that of despair as well, with a lack of anything approaching real redemption.

As well the main character encountering the Nazis in the dark times of WWII, there are plenty of subtle nods to Hitler, with the ego, cold reasoning and need to conquer all comers.  The psychology of the players comes into its own when back stories are revealed to put into context specific things that have happened that Chess allows them – in part – to come to terms with these experiences, yet also leaves them teetering on the brink of madness and isolation.

Even if you have never played the game you can still be drawn into this book by the human aspect, the vulnerabilities and experiences with which these players carry.  The story brings the game – although I wonder if game is the right term –  to life, it’s a vital and dramatic element of the experience of oneself, of hard lives, of torture and breakdown and ultimately of the desire to win at all costs and the effects that that can have on oneself.

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40 Comments

Posted by on 22/05/2015 in Fiction, Modern Classics

 

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40 responses to “Chess – Stefan Zweig

  1. shadowoperator

    22/05/2015 at 13:56

    Hi, Ste J! I hope you enjoyed your day out with pals. My feelings about chess are mixed. Not too long after I first learned to play, I had the odd streak of fortune to beat some sort of minor chess champion, but it didn’t “stick.” That is, I didn’t retain my early competency, and now my twelve-year-old nephew (when he can get me to play) can trounce me soundly. I have beginner’s luck like that at lots of things, sort of like if I’m not obsessing on it, I can do it, but the minute I try to concentrate on doing it correctly, I flub up. Your story by Stefan Zweig sounds very gripping. But then, at the best of times, chess is always about so much more than just chess….

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    • Ste J

      22/05/2015 at 14:05

      It was a good day out, well technically it was an evening but when I choose to turn up at 11:30am then for me the enjoyment starts there with a good book. The more one thinks about Chess the more overwhelming it gets I think, I tend to play in the pub sometimes and silly mistakes are made in that situation but it’s nice to have the grey matter aired out once in a while. Kudos on your win against a chess champion, minor or not that is well impressive and as for the book, it really does grab one even though it is short I really felt the obsession coming through.

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  2. Jill Weatherholt

    22/05/2015 at 14:21

    I’ve never played chess, but my nieces started playing when they were in high school. Great review, Ste J!

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    • Ste J

      22/05/2015 at 14:23

      It’s one of those games that’s easy to learn but has huge depth to it. Perhaps the book could inspire you to have a go yourself, it’s very therapeutic…well until you find yourself on the back foot of course then it gets intense!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  3. leapingtracks

    22/05/2015 at 16:31

    once again, you have uncovered an intriguing read, with an excellent review, thank you. I used to play chess with my Dad, about 100 years ago now, so view it with fondness, and understand its pull, although it never quite caught me in its net. I can imagine how and why this novella could be so tense, and look forward to it emerging at the top of my reading pile in the future!

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    • Ste J

      23/05/2015 at 19:52

      I’ve never been to chess-y either, I dabble but reading about the game, it does make me wish I was more into it, time permitting. I think you will like it, it is one of those books that just works and feels like a full length novel. definitely recommended.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • leapingtracks

        23/05/2015 at 20:09

        Can’t wait!

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      • Liz

        30/04/2016 at 18:31

        I have had the pleasure of rattling through this today – what a fascinating little read it is. I agree with you about the intriguing and effective way in which chess is used as a means of broaching the difficult issues which arise when one examines the treatment of humans by other humans, and the diabolical effect seemingly innocuous situations can have on one’s state of mind. I shall never look at a checkerboard in quite the same way again…

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        • Ste J

          30/04/2016 at 21:40

          It did have me curious about Zweig’s other works, that first read is certainly impressive and it does encourage a game of Chess or many. The book takes a layered and already psychological game and pushes it into something more serious, it really is a fantastic read.

          Liked by 1 person

           
          • Liz

            30/04/2016 at 21:43

            It’s the kind of book that would repay multiple reads, I should think. If only I did not have so much else to read…. 😀

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            • Ste J

              30/04/2016 at 21:44

              I had the same problem, I reread it for the review between books, I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in the same sitting too. That was a good day!

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  4. Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

    22/05/2015 at 18:37

    I’m intrigued, after I finish wading through all the books I’ve started, I might like to try this…making a note for future reminding 🙂

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    • Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

      22/05/2015 at 18:42

      I have played Chess…but never to the depth that real players do…I felt fortunate to remember the moves of each individual piece…most of the people I played with wanted the game to be done in 2 seconds…well certainly no longer than 5 minutes…so mostly I played on the computer 🙂

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      • Ste J

        23/05/2015 at 19:14

        That’s the problem with Chess it takes time, it isn’t a short game unless speed Chess counts, I do enjoy that sometimes when there is a pint on the go. I like playing against the computer as well, I pretend I’m playing Deep Blue to make it more dramatic.

        Liked by 1 person

         
        • Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

          24/05/2015 at 17:58

          When I used to play computer Chess, I always played untimed…I was over having people rush me when I was trying to decide what move to make 🙂

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          • Ste J

            26/05/2015 at 21:14

            It is horrible when you know people are waiting, I used to do the sighing tactic to gain an advantage but now I am happy with a pause and read a bit of book instead.

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    • Ste J

      23/05/2015 at 19:11

      It’s a short but compelling book, always good for a nice break between some of those epic books out there.

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  5. heavenali

    22/05/2015 at 19:19

    I keep hearing about Stefan Zweig books I really should explore them. This sounds like an interesting novella.

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    • Ste J

      23/05/2015 at 19:18

      It’s the first book I’ve read of his but I hear good things about his body of work. It’s one of those books that keeps up the emotion and tenseness and is very well written. I look forward to discovering more of his books and will enjoy the journey with you.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  6. gargoylebruce

    22/05/2015 at 23:45

    I have decided that I love novellas. A little more than a short story, but can still be read in one sitting. As you say, sometimes you just need a novella as a circuit breaker between weightier reads.

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    • Ste J

      23/05/2015 at 19:03

      It’s always nice to tell yourself you read a whole book in one sitting whilst carefully ignoring the amount of pages. After a big book, a short one always gives me a confidence boost and reminds me that I can actually read books in a decent amount of time.

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  7. clarepooley33

    24/05/2015 at 23:53

    Good review Ste J! I am not a chess player though I did learn the moves etc decades ago. I think if I had the time I might enjoy it. I also think I might enjoy the book. Thank-you.

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    • Ste J

      26/05/2015 at 21:10

      The book is a lot shorter than a real game so is always a good place to start especially as you are familiar with the moves. It’s a nice punchy read which I hope you enjoy.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  8. Andrea Stephenson

    26/05/2015 at 20:54

    Sounds fascinating Ste. I’ve never played chess, but I imagine it could serve as a vehicle for an interesting story. And such a sad back story to the author too.

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    • Ste J

      26/05/2015 at 21:41

      It’s a story that will intrigue you and make you want to discover the game further, it is interesting how many people have gone mad through obsession with Chess, that and mathematicians and infinity. Zweig is a fascinating guy, I’m looking forward to reading more of literature and about his life as well, authors are the most fascinating creatures.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  9. Letizia

    27/05/2015 at 01:06

    It’s so odd, I read this book but have no recollection of it. Or perhaps I didn’t read it but have just been staring at it on my bookshelves for so long that I thought I had read it?? Either way, time to reread it!

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    • Ste J

      27/05/2015 at 10:57

      I hate it when that happens, not knowing if you read the book and reading the first few pages brings that familiar but not familiar feeling. Go read it, you will like it and if not, you can have your money back (if you kept the receipt at the shop).

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      • Letizia

        27/05/2015 at 14:33

        I will retread for sure – or even reread it- my phone keeps changing that word to retread which makes me giggle.

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        • Ste J

          28/05/2015 at 11:26

          I love a good comical auto correct error, the amount of time I’ve wasted on those auto correct fail websites is ridiculous.

          Liked by 1 person

           
  10. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    27/05/2015 at 21:55

    Sounds like a really interesting novella.. I find the cover quite intriguing…. as if it is indicating that the fate and the game of chess are entwined in the narration.

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    • Ste J

      29/05/2015 at 17:43

      Fate can be seen as a master chess player, the front cover makes the act of playing something intense, a world with laws unto itself that has a dark side and can consume a player.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  11. writersideup

    17/08/2015 at 06:46

    I love the game, can barely play due to my faulty brain, and plan on including chess in my writing so I LOVE that you posted about this book! There was only one book available through my library system, though it was called “Chess story” (?). I hope it’s the same one 😀

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    • Ste J

      17/08/2015 at 09:35

      I believe it is called Chess story in some printings, which is confusing. I always marvel at those people who can plan four to seven moves ahead. Chess is a wonderful game and I’m looking for a history of Chess as well, I mentioned the game a few years ago in another post https://bookmust.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/between-a-rook-and-a-hard-place/ in case you fancy reading even more from me, lol you have pushed my view rate up somewhat recently, thanks for that by the way.

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      • writersideup

        17/08/2015 at 16:44

        Oh, Ste, what an image on that blog post!!!! I’ll be reading it as soon as I read all your replies 😀

        I’m actually very directly involved with chess (regardless of my pathetic lack of skills) on Chess.com. My boyfriend, Mark, and I do a lot for ChessTV, though not nearly as much as we did a few years ago, but are slowly working our way back into activity since Danny (IM Danny Rensch http://www.chess.com/members/view/DanielRensch ) asked us to come back. If you’re curious, you can check out my page and go to the “About Me” tab: http://www.chess.com/members/view/RookedOnChess . I don’t think you have to be a member to view it, but becoming a member is easy and free anyway. You may enjoy it 🙂

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        • Ste J

          18/08/2015 at 20:28

          I will certainly look into joining up, the next few weeks are taken up with a new work schedule but when that settles down I will be happy to show you my lack of mad skillz at the game. I do enjoy getting into new communities and making friends.

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          • writersideup

            19/08/2015 at 03:21

            You can join the site just to play, Ste 🙂 Or learn/practice. The site’s loaded with so many things if you love chess 🙂 You don’t have to interact with anyone if you don’t want to, my dear 🙂

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            • Ste J

              19/08/2015 at 17:16

              I’m not one to be a hermit, I am loathe to make friends if I am not going to be around as much I would like but I will being saying hello to as many people as possible.

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              • writersideup

                19/08/2015 at 20:27

                well, my friend, it’s easy to do on Chess.com! There are people EVERYwhere! There are LIVE chats during shows, you can talk while playing Bullet, etc., you can play correspondence chess, there are forums, blogs, tons of stuff. The problem—as always—is the time one can spend 😀

                Like

                 

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