On the shelf: ‘Chess Story (or The Royal Game)’ by Stefan Zweig

By Drew Damron, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Chess Story, also known as The Royal Game, is the Austrian master Stefan Zweig’s final achievement, completed in Brazilian exile and sent off to his American publisher only days before his suicide in 1942. It is the only story in which Zweig looks at Nazism, and he does so with characteristic emphasis on the psychological.


Travelers 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.


This new translation of Chess Story brings out the work’s unusual mixture of high suspense and poignant reflection.


Hands down it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read. It’s a clear, riveting novella, which not only reaches very extreme psychological depths, but also offers a poignant new understanding of Nazi Germany—a period in history which already has a multitude of perspectives and analysis.


Stefan Zweig makes use of the game of chess as both a character in the novel and as a metaphor for his life as he perceived it at the time. Within this narrative, chess is described as, “the game among games devised by man, which rises majestically above every tyranny of chance, which grants its victors the laurels only to a great intellect, or rather, to a particular form of mental ability.” It is a game where there is no element of chance. Where the players are in absolute control and may dispose of their pieces as they like, while on a board with very little room for creativity or mercy.


Zweig utilizes this understanding of chess to a profound degree in order to illustrate how it feels to be someone trying to escape the grasp of a war that will inevitably get to you. It’s a story from an incredibly talented writer about the necessity for creativity to have a place in our lives and the adverse differences between an uncaring ‘intellect’ and a manic, but human, mind.


If you’re in the mood for a quick, and thoughtful read, then you should definitely check this gem out.