The Royal Game (Schachnovelle)

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THE ROYAL GAME (Schachnovelle)

Novella by Stefan Zweig, 1944

The psychological novella The Royal Game (1944; Schachnovelle, 1942) is of special importance within Stefan Zweig's oeuvre since it was his last work, written shortly before his suicide in 1942 and published posthumously in Buenos Aires in the same year. The action takes place on an ocean liner bound for South America. The author-narrator, who functions as listener, commentator, and onlooker, is informed by Dr. B. that Mirko Czentovic, the chess world champion, is also onboard. Dr. B. is persuaded to play against the world champion. He wins the first game but gives up the second one, being unnerved by the cold and brutal strategy of his opponent.

Zweig described in this novella the quite different biographies of these two chess "monomaniacs." Dr. B. is a highly intelligent cultured man, a humanist in love with literature and philosophy, with a strong imagination. He comes from a family that for generations represented the business of the Roman Curia and had a close and personal relationship with the Austrian emperor. He has acquired his expertise in chess while incarcerated by the Gestapo in an isolated hotel room, during which time he learned and memorized the moves of the chess masters from a chess book he had stolen from his guard's pocket. He plays against himself and develops a kind of "artificial schizophrenia." This mental activity, however, helped him to sustain the torture of the infrequent interviews and his isolation. He had never played with another person and is, therefore, after some reluctance, persuaded to enter into a match with the world champion.

The champion, on the other hand, is the opposite of Dr. B. He plays with technical perfection, but mechanically, without imagination. He is unable to play "blind" like his opponent. His main interest in playing is for money, which is not too surprising if one considers Czentovic's peasant background. He keeps apart from intellectuals in fear that they might see through him, since he has hardly mastered the art of reading and writing. The difference between these two men is revealed in their manner of playing chess: "For in the course of the game the intellectual contrast between the two opponents became more and more physically apparent in their manner. Czentovic, the man of routine, remained as immovably solid as a rock the whole time, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on the board. Thinking seemed almost to cause him actual physical effort, as though he had to engage all his senses with the utmost concentration. Dr. B., on the other hand, was completely relaxed and unconstrained … he was physically relaxed and chatted to us during the early pauses, explaining the moves." This changes during the second game when Czentovic uses psychological terror against his opponent, a terror that to Dr. B. is reminiscent of the terrors during his incarceration. He grows more and more nervous and impatient while the champion, noticing the irritation in Dr. B., slows the speed of his moves. Dr. B. finally breaks down and gives up.

This novella is, just like other masterworks, subject to a variety of interpretations. Donald Daviau and Harvey Dunkle come to the conclusion that "[a]lthough Dr. B. is ostensibly defeated on the field of battle, he is preserved for the world to keep the humanistic attitude alive." Another approach is to interpret the novella along political lines, with Dr. B. standing for the humanist and Czentovic being the representative of the dictatorial power in the Third Reich, or as Joseph Strelka has called him, a "Miniature-Hitler." Although Dr. B. cannot be identified with its author, there exist many similarities: both men were humanists and both were interested in chess; Zweig also purchased a chess book and played frequently. This last interpretation would point to the conclusion that Zweig gave up in his struggle for a revitalization of humanistic values admitting the ineffectiveness of thought when confronted with brutal reality.

—Gerd K. Schneider