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Plunging Into the Infinite: How Literature Captures the Essence of Chess

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If stories teach us what it means to be human, then it’s no surprise that chess crops up again and again in literature. After all, people from all over the world have been playing this game for thousands of years. The game has a profound hold on our collective imagination. What about chess commands our respect as “the immortal game” or “the royal game,” whereas most of its peers are seen as harmless time-wasters?

The most obvious explanation why fiction is so replete with chess players is that, at their core, chess and stories are about the same thing—conflict. And it is a particular kind of conflict that is utterly devoid of chance. Whether a king is playing against a beggar or a nuclear physicist against a kindergartener, all that matters are the choices you make.

Chess is somewhat underserved by artistic mediums outside of literature. Often, it is used as a blunt metaphor for a literal conflict, like when Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty discuss the moves they’ve made in the battle on and off the board, or when Professor X and Magneto play chess in at least three X-Men films, all the while discussing the real conflict at hand. It probably doesn’t get more overt than Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where a man plays a game of chess in which his life is on the line, and his opponent is Death.

Fiction, on the other hand, has the unparalleled ability to grant us insight into a character’s psyche. It is therefore uniquely qualified to explore the nature of chess itself. And while not every story that involves chess does this successfully, there are a select few that triumph in a way that works of another medium never could.

That’s because the greatest chess stories understand that trying to master chess is like trying to master the infinite, and the psychological consequences can be transcendent or terrifying.

Chess is often associated with reason and, by extension, with intelligence, especially of the mathematical variety.  Flip through any chess book, with symbols like O-O and Qxa1, and it certainly seems that chess has the same sharp, crystalline beauty of mathematical proofs. The standard way of writing out chess moves currently used is even called algebraic notation. On top of all this, machines have been able to play chess since the ’90s, beating world champions along the way. So where does emotion fit in?

Chess itself might be nothing but logic and order, but it can invite a kind of madness. The painter Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp grew obsessed with the game, writing in a 1919 letter that, “I play day and night, and nothing interests me more than finding the right move…I like painting less and less.” During his honeymoon, he spent almost all his time playing chess (shockingly, the marriage didn’t last). Later, he called himself a “victim of chess.” He also said that “it has all the beauty of art—and much more,” and that chess was not only a sport, but “a violent” one. In a similar vein, Albert Einstein famously said, “chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” Vladimir Nabokov was deeply intrigued by the game, publishing his own chess problems in the aptly named Poems and Problems. He also wrote his famous The Luzhin Defense. And given that the story meticulously details how chess drives his protagonist insane, Nabokov clearly understood that chess could have its…downsides.

The mental strain, of these and so many other players, professional and amateur alike, is a direct consequence of the infinite aspect of chess. Consider, for a moment, what it takes for someone to become a great chess player, how he or she must memorize and master a stupendous number of strategies and learn to recognize innumerable patterns, all while knowing that it’s impossible to ever learn every possibility. Perfection is forever out of reach.

Stefan Zweig understood the vast spectrum of effects chess could have on players, from the ennobling to the destructive. Nowhere is the full range of chess’s impact on individual minds better explored than in his final work, Chess Story.

One of the reasons Chess Story can be enjoyed by any reader, regardless of whether they love chess or have never played a single game, is that the story itself sees the game through three distinct perspectives—that of an outsider, a genius, and an amateur. The outsider is the narrator, who knows how to play and is intrigued by the game, but doesn’t play often and only for fun when he does. The real heart of the novella is the conflict between the genius and the amateur, the world champion Mirko Czentovic and the mysterious Dr. B.

Czentovic is unstoppable, easily dispatching all opponents. Yet he is also, bluntly, an idiot. He has little education and behaves in a childish, even boorish way around others. There is something supernatural, even magical about how Czentovic absorbs the game as a child after simply watching others play.

In contrast, Dr. B.’s skill is won through nearly a year of studying and playing the game every single day. This is only possible because Dr. B. is one of the many victims of the Nazis who, rather than being condemned to a concentration camp, was instead condemned to total isolation. As a number of real people were under the Third Reich, he is locked in a hotel room and kept there with nothing to do and no one to talk to. He is totally alone, unable to even tell whether it is night or day. He is kept alive through food and drinks provided by a guard, but the guard never communicates with him. Now and then Nazi soldiers drag him out of his room to interrogate him with the questions to which he has no answers.

Then, just when this inhuman isolation is starting to destroy him, Dr. B manages to steal a book from a soldier’s coat. He is initially disappointed when he sees it’s a book of chess games, but with nothing else to do, he quickly throws himself into studying the game purely as a way of escaping his small, unchanging, torturous world. But the world inside his mind grows torturous as well, as he succumbs to what he calls “chess poisoning.” Like an intellectual virus, chess eats away at him. He’s driven to a mental breakdown after, having mastered all the games notated in his book, he begins to play against himself. The effort it takes to divide his consciousness as he plays games purely in his mind is too much, and it almost drives him into permanent madness.

Almost. Luckily, Dr. B is released from the hotel thanks to the efforts of a compassionate doctor. He wisely stays away from the game until he feels compelled to help the narrator, who is playing against Czentovic on a cruise. The unbearably tense climax occurs when Dr. B plays against Czentovic one-on-one, the amateur who studied the game purely as a way of keeping sane—although eventually it drove him mad—and the genius whose ability seems otherworldly, a result of intuition or instinct.

Zweig makes chess absolutely absorbing and thrilling for any reader. But it is undeniable that Chess Story doesn’t paint an altogether positive view of the game, considering that one character is essentially a victim of the game, to again borrow Duchamp’s words.

While there are multiple novels in the vein of Zweig’s novella, one story provides an opposite view. In Ah Cheng’s The Chess Master, a player’s experience with the infinite doesn’t plunge him into madness; rather, it raises him to the sublime.

In the introduction to the bilingual edition, Professor Ngai Ling-tun of the East Asian Languages and Literature Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison relates the story of how The Chess Master supposedly came to be. Apparently, Cheng—a painter and autodidact—loved to tell stories and people loved to listen to them. One of those stories so enthralled them that they urged him to write it down. Cheng didn’t think the written version was as good as the oral one, but it was good enough to earn it a prominent and beloved place in the canon of Chinese literature.

At first, The Chess Master seems similar to Zweig’s Chess Story. Both are concise stories that begin with a traveling narrator who is only mildly interested in chess and who meets a character who is uneducated yet highly skilled at the game. In Zweig’s story, that person is Czentovic. In Cheng’s story, it is Wang Yisheng, a young orphan who is able to temporarily escape the poverty and desperation of his life through chess. In Cheng’s novel, the backdrop is Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution—the narrator and Yisheng meet because they are both high school students compelled to go to work at a state farm in the countryside.

The differences end there. Chinese chess—called Xiangqi—is actually played differently than the chess familiar to most Americans and Europeans, with different pieces, different rules, and a different board. Second, while chess in Zweig’s novella is isolating, chess in Cheng’s novella allows the lonely Yisheng to form deep friendships.

At the end of Cheng’s novella, Yisheng plays nine players simultaneously. He has no board in front of him. He doesn’t even look at the players. They merely tell him their moves and he tells them his. One by one he defeats his opponents until the only person left is the winner of an important chess tournament. Yisheng is certainly strained mentally by the games, but he does not careen toward a breakdown like Dr. B. Instead, chess raises him to a higher spiritual plane (Taoism is brought up a number of times; Cheng frequently injects his stories with Taoist elements). In the end, the game does not conclude with a winner or loser; Yisheng graciously agrees to a draw so that his elderly opponent—who says he has renewed hope for the future of chess in China because of Yisheng—can save face.

Aside from the story being more uplifting—basically an underdog story—the fact that it ends in a draw is crucial. It illustrates that Cheng does not see chess as a metaphor for war. Far from it—chess is presented as a harmonious collaboration composed of moves and pieces, reason and imagination. The game is a work of art, not of conflict.

It’s useful to see Zweig’s and Cheng’s stories at opposite ends of a spectrum of chess literature, with madness at one extreme, and serenity on the other. Perhaps the rewards of chess mirror those of literature, with infinite possibilities, and infinite rewards.

Image Credit: Pexels/sk.

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