Castle King Side: On Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story”

By Adam DalvaNovember 8, 2022

Castle King Side: On Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story”

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

IN 1942, A WORLD-RENOWNED Austrian writer in exile wrote a strange novella. Also in 1942, that same writer and his wife committed suicide in Brazil. The manner of Stefan Zweig’s death and his position as an idealistic prelapsarian thinker perhaps muted the reception that the novella deserved; Zweig, who was Jewish, never wrote about Hitler, and his suicide was related to despair over the loss of his homeland.

Zweig faded from the American eye over the years until a sequence of reissues by multiple presses sparked new critical interest in his work. He was a novella expert who called the form “my beloved but unfortunate format, too long for a newspaper or magazine, too short for a book.” Zweig also made fantastic use of narrative metalepsis — in other words, the intrusion of the narrator into the world of the story. Zweig’s writings often feature him as a sort of literary detective: the famous, wealthy, cosmopolitan author Stefan Zweig, who pops into his own text and is approached by an irresistible narrative.

“Incidentally,” a character in his novel Beware of Pity (1939) says to Stefan Zweig at a party, “I wouldn’t mind telling you the whole story straight out here and now. Something that goes back a quarter of a century […] Have you time? And it wouldn’t bore you, would it?”

“Of course I had time,” Zweig’s amiable narrator relays, taking care to add that “in no instance have I added anything essential of my own invention, and it is not I but the man who lived the story who now narrates it.” I’ve come to look forward to encountering the Zweig-narrator in Zweig’s books — it’s like seeing Hitchcock holding a double bass.

In 2012, Leo Carey wrote that Zweig “left no single, defining masterwork.” I disagree. I’ve read a lot of Zweig — I don’t recommend Beware of Pity, which is sort of like an extended Seinfeld episode with a fucked-up conceit mocking a woman in a wheelchair. I quite liked his memoir about the era he grew up in, The World of Yesterday (1941). A lot of the novellas are good too, Freudian and suspenseful — Fear (1925), 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman (1927) but I remain most amazed by the literary power of his 84-page masterwork, that strange novella from the last year of his life: Chess Story.


I became obsessed with Joel Rotenberg’s NYRB translation of Chess Story — translated from Schachnovelle, or “Chess Novella” — during the pandemic. The obsession made a strange sort of sense because the book is about two monomaniacs on an ocean liner locked in a battle of instinct versus knowledge. I love books about system-obsession, and of these, Chess Story is probably most like Master of Go, Yasunari Kawabata’s 1951 novel about a real 1938 Go game between two masters. Their conflict, like the one in Chess Story, is more theoretical than practical — an avenue for psychological combat that, in Kawabata’s case, is about a generational shift. Zweig’s battle relies on a strange logic that lets the impossible happen: two diametrically opposed intellectual forces find themselves in the same small, isolated room. Every reader I’ve spoken with, regardless of their interest in chess, is excited for their climactic game.

Chess Story creates this suspense by, essentially, linking two short stories. This is an argument for the novella as form: it can have the strength of a novel — multiple intersecting plots — without the need to fill space beyond the two leads. Each of these stories is about one of the two greatest chess players in the world, both of whom happen to find themselves on a passenger steamer on its way from New York to Buenos Aires. The first master, Mirko Czentovic, is a savant. His father was crushed by a grain steamer when he was a boy; Czentovic could barely read or write at age 14. But the second he touched chess pieces: magic. Though Czentovic is now the world champion, he is considered greedy and simple. We learn all this from the first few pages of the book, when a friend tells the Zweig character (who I’ll call Stefan) about Czentovic as they board the boat. As always with Zweig, the point of telling immediately evaporates into the narrative. The crucial detail is a potential fatal flaw that is totally absolute, ripped from a superhero comic:

Czentovic never managed to play a single game by memory alone — “blind,” as the professionals say. He completely lacked the ability to situate the field of battle in the unlimited realm of the imagination. He always needed to have the board with its sixty-four black and white squares and thirty-two pieces physically in front of him.

This fascinates Stefan, who issues a useful time constraint that will thrust the rest of the narrative forward:

All my life I have been passionately interested in monomaniacs of any kind, people carried away by a single idea. The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite; these people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world. Thus I made no secret of my intention to subject this odd specimen of a one-track mind to a closer examination during the twelve-day voyage to Rio.

In my own quest to understand Chess Story, I gradually realized that I would have to learn the game it centers on. And that has led me into a second obsession, much more problematic: I have fallen passionately in love with online bullet chess.


I dabbled with chess in second grade. My next-door neighbor growing up on 57th Street in New York, another second grader named Julian, was something of a savant himself. A famous chess teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Searching for Bobby Fischer), was training Julian. I was lured over for weekly games with the promise of a Sega Genesis session afterward. Julian would systematically annihilate me. Pandolfini, who had a shocking mustache, sometimes whispered advice, but my memory of him is wan. I have since been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which in second grade meant that I only cared about forming a specific shape of pieces that I thought was aesthetically pleasing. After a couple of months, the games stopped.

But decades later, with my love of Chess Story propelling me, I signed up for a account — it was the perfect time because the television show The Queen’s Gambit, which I haven’t seen, had caused a boom of new players. Chess streamers — I particularly like Eric Rosen, who calmly explains his gambits as he plays — surged in popularity, as did broadcasts of high-level competitive chess. I myself skipped a fancy dinner to watch the world championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi.

In my own play, I have been most drawn to 1|1 bullet chess. Each player has one minute on the clock, and one second is added every time they move. Bullet is scorned by competitive players — the flash fiction of chess durations — but my dopamine blasts with every game and the format better fits my obsessive personality. Playing that fast, the game is barely real, just a sequence of prememorized patterns, blunders, and shocking comebacks. A loss only stings for as long as it takes to load the next game. And I played a lot of games. It got bad. In the 16 months since I started, I have played 6,151 bullet games. (It was 6,149 games at the start of this paragraph.) I have won 3,020 and lost 2,930. It is a problem of compulsion. The more anxiety I feel, the more I want to escape into the game; the harsher the deadline, the greater the pleasure of chess; the more stressful the year (and this has been the most stressful I’ve known), the more I crave mental anodyne.

But never once, as an adult, have I played over the board with actual pieces. This provoked a deep, quiet fear. If I played chess in real life, would I be any good?


The action of Chess Story continues onboard the ship, where Stefan, desperate to make the acquaintance of the chess champion, tries assorted social “gambits” that don’t work. Finally, he settles for a “hunter’s trick” — he sits at a board in the lounge with his otherwise unmentioned wife, hoping Czentovic will walk in.

A rich Scotsman shows up instead, the situation is explained, and they approach the champion together. The Scotsman is furious when Czentovic asks for 250 dollars per game to play. Then, in a sudden Iris Murdochesque cut, the Scotsman has taken the offer and gathered a group of opponents, including Stefan, who play on one team and are summarily crushed by Czentovic. The Scotsman, red nostrils flaring with lusty hate, agrees to a rematch. Midway through the game, as the Scotsman reaches for a piece, an unexpected whisper comes from the back, in one of my favorite moments in any novel. The narrative is about to hinge: “For God’s sake! Don’t!”

The warning comes from a “chalky” man, who advises the group on their play until they manage a draw. The stranger rushes out and Stefan, sensing a potential narrative development, chases him down.

This next bit should come as no surprise: the man (who is called Dr. B.) tells Stefan that his involvement with chess “happened under quite special, indeed entirely unique circumstances. It’s a fairly complicated story, and one that might possibly be considered a small contribution to the delightful, grand times we live in. If you will bear with me for half an hour …”

Stefan giddily accepts, and over the next 37 pages — more than a third of the book — a magnificent interpolated short story unfolds.


My addiction to online chess was challenged this summer, when I was admitted to a writing residency in Hawthornden, Scotland. I was excited to have the time to work on my novel, but there was no internet in the castle that I would be housed in. I was going to have to either quit cold turkey or find a way to play. Luckily, the week before I left, I bought a painting from the artist Bradley Biancardi. I met Brad years ago at a residency in Florida. One night, the author Rick Moody had proposed an extrasensory perception (ESP) experiment. I leaned against a wall, tried to open myself to the world, and wrote a 12-page story about a sentient tentacle monster. When we reconvened, it turned out that Brad had painted a tentacle monster: spooky action at a distance. We’ve been friends ever since.

When Brad heard about my chess dilemma, he offered another form of action at a distance: we could play a slow game, with 120 hours permitted between each move. Every other day in Scotland, I would walk to a small Portuguese coffee shop in the nearest town and get Brad’s next move (and an egg tart). Back in the castle’s comically oversized drawing room, I’d laid out a chessboard. I would finger the pieces, which were both familiar from my thousands of games and entirely foreign in their tactility. I opened with a Scandinavian Defense. Brad declined it the next day, and off we went. I’d leave the compound, find out his next move, and rush back to the board to examine it, and at night, when I lay in bed, I would think about what I would try next.


On the ship deck, Dr. B. tells Stefan that he was incarcerated by the Gestapo, who had been watching him “lovingly” — another sort of monomania. In a staggering moment of experimental indirect monologue for a writer often viewed as old fashioned, Dr. B. breaks down into a burst of second-person horror when he describes his solitary confinement:

You lived like a diver in a diving bell in the black sea of this silence […] You walked up and down, you and your thoughts, up and down, over and over. But even thoughts, insubstantial as they seem, need a footing, or they begin to spin, to run in frenzied circles; they can’t bear nothingness either. You waited for something from morning until night, and nothing happened. You went on waiting and waiting. Nothing happened. You waited, waited, waited, thinking, thinking, thinking, until your temples throbbed. Nothing happened. You were alone. Alone. Alone.

Dr. B. is driven so mad by this solitude that he is about to confess his crimes, but then he sees in a Gestapo jacket pocket — and Zweig breaks into all caps for this — “a BOOK!” Dr. B. snags it. It turns out to be 150 chess games with just the notation, no words. At first, it seems like a cruel joke from the galaxy, but Dr. B. constructs a makeshift chess board out of his quilt. In a fabulous bit of plotting, he becomes the opposite of Czentovic, playing only in his mind. Eventually, he splits into “Black Me” and “White Me,” battling himself into a “mania, a frenzy, which permeated not only my waking hours but gradually my sleep too.”

This is reminiscent of how I feel, I think, on those anxious nights in bed at 3:00 a.m., my wife asleep, my dog asleep, my laptop burning on my thighs as I lose game after game of bullet chess. “I’ll sleep when I win,” I think. And then, when I finally win: “I’ll sleep when I lose.” Sometimes, when I finally stop, my whole body has locked up from its stillness. The individual games evaporate from my memory — the eternal promise of the next game, the perfect one, is what keeps me awake, even after the laptop is closed, before the real problems finally rush back in.

Dr. B. tells Stefan that he wants to answer a simple question, the same one that I’d had: is he capable of playing “an ordinary chess game, a game on a real chessboard […] for now I doubt more and more whether those hundreds and perhaps thousands of games I played were actually proper chess games and not just a kind of dream chess.”


After I complained for weeks over dinner at the Scottish residency that this essay wouldn’t work if I didn’t play chess with someone, a Romanian poet, Miruna Fulgeanu, agreed to a game. She said she wasn’t very good, and I didn’t detect a ton of enthusiasm, but I had gone to watch a Formula One race with her at a pub in Edinburgh, so she owed me a favor. Would I be like Dr. B.? Did I actually know how to play chess, or did I just know virtual bullet? Miruna called the bishops “madmen” and the knights “horsies” as we laid out the pieces. I felt confident.

And then I promptly blundered one of my madmen and one of my horsies. I could not see what was happening. At my isometric angle, it was impossible to understand where her pieces were. I craned my head over the board, trying to recreate the top-down angle I know from online chess. A second problem arose — I kept playing way too fast. Miruna would think between moves, hum, puzzle. I would compulsively reach out my hand the second I could and move a piece. I lost my queen. I experienced deep despair. Not only was I about to lose, but I would also have to include it in this essay.


Chess Story has been adapted for film four times. Recently, I watched the German-Austrian production from 2021 (released with the English title The Royal Game). It doesn’t work very well. Zweig’s strength over cinema is that he doesn’t need to resort to visual tactics to represent chess as other than what it is — a slow game where positions are lost before they appear lost, where the players, who can see into the future of the game, comprehend their doom before a lay spectator possibly could, where the most exciting thing that can ever happen is a hand picking up a small carved castle and moving it a few inches. The book handles the situation simply: when Czentovic plays slowly, it bothers Dr. B. He thinks too fast. And then he stands and unconsciously paces the exact dimension of the cell he’d been imprisoned in by the Nazis.

This feels true to me. My experience of OCD, under exponentially less dire conditions, has always been something like this: trauma fuels OCD, which increases the likelihood of trauma. When I’m counting everything and clenching my teeth, when I’m shaking with anxiety, all the worst moments in my life come back to me. I pace the cell of the mind, involuntarily rediscovering the worst things that I’ve done, and the worst things that have been done to me. It’s a thrilling insight from Zweig, at the climax of his novel.

I won’t spoil how the game goes. I want you to read it for yourself.


I will say, though, that I did end up managing to beat Miruna by slowing my play down to a slog. We didn’t play again. It remains the only over-the-board game that I’ve attempted. The residency passed. Chess had a resurgence in media interest when a teenage prodigy named Hans Niemann was accused in the public sphere of using vibrating anal beads to receive notation for the moves that allowed him to beat Magnus Carlsen — another sort of spooky action at a distance. I am sad to say that my online chess habit has resurged too. Sometimes I dream of the game. Sometimes, when I play for too long, I go out on the sidewalk and find myself imagining that I can move like a knight.

When I got home from Scotland, Brad gave me a gift called “Halloween Gambit.” It’s a painting of a chess board, at just the angle I like. Mercifully the pieces don’t move. They are locked in place, silent. But also: waiting.

Bradley Biancardi, “Halloween Gambit,” 2022.


Adam Dalva’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic. He is the senior fiction editor of Guernica Magazine, serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, is the books editor of Words Without Borders, and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rutgers University.

LARB Contributor

Adam Dalva’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic. He is the senior fiction editor of Guernica Magazine, serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, is the books editor of Words Without Borders, and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rutgers University.


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