Title: The Royal Game (Chess).
Author: Stefan Zweig.
Genre: Literature, novella, chess, politics.
Publication Date: 1942.
Summary: On a cruise ship bound for Buenos Aires in 1941, a group of eager passengers challenge the world chess champion to a match. He accepts. He will beat anyone, he says. At first, the challenger crumbles before the mind of the master. But then, a soft-spoken voice from the crowd begins to whisper nervous suggestions. Perfect moves, brilliant predictions. The speaker has not played a game for more than twenty years, he says. He is wholly unknown. But, somehow, he is also entirely formidable. The novella is a disturbing, intensely dramatic depiction of the cost of obsession, set in a world of Mittel-european civilization traumatized by tyranny at the onset of World War II.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ Like all such dogged characters, he had no sense of the ridiculous; since winning the world tournament he regarded himself as the most important man in the world, while the knowledge that he had defeated all these clever, intellectual men, dazzling speakers and writers in their own field, and above all the tangible fact that he earned more than they did, turned his original insecurity into a cold and usually ostentatious pride.
"But how could so rapid a rise to fame fail to turn such an empty head?" concluded my friend, who had just been telling me some of the classic instances of Czentovic's childish impudence. "How could a country boy of twenty-one from the Banat not be infected by vanity when all of a sudden, just for pushing chessmen about a wooden board for a little while, he earns more in a week than his entire village at home earns chopping wood and slaving away for a whole year? And isn't it appallingly easy to think yourself a great man when you're not burdened by the faintest notion that men like Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante or Napoleon ever lived? With his limited understanding, the fellow knows just one thing: he hasn't lost a single game of chess for months. So, as he has no idea that there are values in this world other than chess and money, he has every reason to feel pleased with himself."
♥ From my own experience, I knew the mysterious attraction of the "royal game", the only game ever devised by mankind that rises magnificently above the tyranny of chance, awarding the palm of victory solely to the mind, or rather to a certain kind of mental gift. And are we not guilty of offensive disparagement in calling chess a game? Is it not also science and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad's coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance—but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind. Where does it begin and where does it end?
♥ In principle, I had always realized that such a unique, brilliant game must create its own matadors, but how difficult and indeed impossible it is to imagine the life of an intellectually active human being whose world is reduced entirely to the narrow one-way traffic between black and white, who seeks the triumphs of his life in the mere movement to and fro, forward and back of thirty-two chessmen, someone to whom a new opening, moving knight rather than pawn, is a great deed, and his little corner of immortality is tucked away in a book about chess - a human being, an intellectual human being who constantly bends the entire force of his mind on the ridiculous task of forcing a wooden king into a corner of a wooden board, and does it without going mad!
♥ "A room of your own in a hotel - it sounds very humane, doesn't it? However, you may believe me if I tell you that when we "prominent people" were not crammed into an icy hut twenty at a time, but accommodated in reasonably well-heated private hotel rooms, they had in store for us a method which was not at all more humane, just more sophisticated. For the pressure they intended to exert, to get the "material" they needed out of us, was to operate more subtly than through crude violence and physical torture: the method was the most exquisitely refined isolation. Nothing was done to us - we were simply placed in a complete void, and everyone knows that nothing on earth exerts such pressure on the human soul as a void. Solitary confinement in a complete vacuum, a room hermetically cut off from the outside world, was intended to create pressure not from without, through violence and the cold, but from within, and to open our lips in the end."
♥ "That filled my day, which used to be as formless as jelly; I was occupied without exhausting myself, for the wonderful advantage of the game of chess is that, by concentrating your intellectual energies into a strictly limited area, it doesn't tire the brain even with the most strenuous thinking, but instead increases its agility and vigour. Gradually, in what at first had been purely mechanical repetitions of the championship matches, an artistic, pleasurable understanding began to awaken in me. I learned to understand the subtleties of the game, the tucks and ruses of attack and defence, I grasped the technique of thinking ahead, combination, counter-attack, and soon I could recognize the person style of every grandmaster as infallibly from his own way of playing a game as you can identity a poet's verses from only a few lines. What began as mere occupation to fill the time became enjoyment, and the figures of the great strategists of chess such as Alekhine, Lasker, Bogolyubov and Tartakower entered my solitary confinement as beloved comrades.