Chess by Stephan Zweig

In 2011, I was playing chess by consultation with a young boy against Manny who was blindfolded. It was at a party in London. Along came a chap who put his finger to his lips – ie don’t let Manny  know he was there – and suggested a move on our board. Dan and I were like ‘go away’. Why did we need help? When we lost, I could say yeah, well, with a small boy in tow…and he could say yeah, well, I had to listen to a girl’s advice. Blech. The stranger stuck around and although we continued to ignore his moves, I could see that actually he was a good player…a darn sight better than me, or Dan and certainly better than the two of us together. Dan and I lost. It turned out that the stranger was a strong player – about Manny’s standard – and that if we had taken his advice, I imagine Manny with the disadvantage of being blind-folded, would have been trounced.

Zweig’s consulting amateurs are so much more sensible than Dan and I were. They knew they had no chance on their own and they were all over the moves of the stranger. If only I’d read this book earlier. But….I would have felt like I was cheating. I can’t speak for Dan on this.

Zweig’s one of those writers who was enormously popular in his lifetime – and that still counts against him. Michael Hoffmann, for example, is positively frothing at the mouth whilst accusing him of everything from a boring suicide to the gall to have had 18 books turned into 38 movies. How dare he!

Well, I’m not going to get into the ‘if it’s popular it must be bad’ argument now. I read this story in a couple of hours, and as a once serious player, my verdict is not too bad at all. The guy loves Freud, so obviously that’s big black mark against him. But despite this it reads okay and the chess isn’t irritating, the ways in which it isn’t accurate don’t really matter.

For a discussion of  the book is a metaphor, with the world champion standing in for National Socialism, you may want to look at A Symbolic Retreat. Apparently this is so obvious it stands out like dogs’ balls, but I didn’t see it. I’m very good at taking things at face value and frankly, I thought it was a story about some dudes playing chess.

The popularity of the book is interesting to compare with the Master of Go. It’s got at least as much chess in it as Kawabata makes of Go, but evidently so many people know a little chess, that this story had (still has?) a huge market.

The other thing is, it’s aged remarkably well. Perhaps that says something about the game.

January 2020 postscript: I saw this dramatised as a one person show recently by somebody who’s been taking it around the world for years, I gather.

And….it didn’t work. I’m not sure whether that’s because the novella itself can’t be done as theatre successfully, or because the actor himself was inadequate. For a start he took liberties with the story, adding a meta layer about the performance, which we found inappropriate and didn’t work. For another thing he was rather insulting to the chess. Imagine having performed this many, many times and yet describing knocking one’s king over as meaning a loss or a draw!!! This really offended the chess player in both my companion and myself.

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