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Chess Story (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – December 9, 2005

4.6 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"[Zweig is a] writer who understands perfectly the life he is describing, and who has great analytic gifts . . . . He has achieved the very considerable feat of inventing, in his description of the game of chess, a metaphor for the terribly grim game he is playing with his Nazi tormentors . . . the case history here is no longer that of individuals; it is the case history of Europe." —Stephen Spender, The New York Review of Books

"Always [Zweig] remains essentially the same, revealing in all . . . mediums his subtlety of style, his profound psychological knowledge and his inherent humaneness." —Barthold Fles, The New Republic

"Zweig possesses a dogged psychological curiosity, a brutal frankness, a supreme impartiality . . . [a] concentration of talents." —Herbert Gorman, The New York Times Book Review

"His writing reveals his sympathy for fellow human beings." —Ruth Franklin, London Review of Books

About the Author

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), novelist, biographer, poet, and translator, was born in Vienna into a wealthy Austrian Jewish family. During the 1930s, he was one of the best-selling writers in Europe, and was among the most translated German-language writers before the Second World War. With the rise of Nazism, he moved from Salzburg to London (taking British citizenship), to New York, and finally to Brazil, where he committed suicide with his wife. New York Review Books has published Zweig’s novels The Post-Office Girl and Beware of Pity as well as the novella Chess Story.

Peter Gay is Director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He wrote Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815–1914.

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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 104 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (December 9, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590171691
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590171691
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #59,633 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
"Chess Story" (Original "Schachnovelle", previously published in English as "The Royal Game"), was Stefan Zweig's final work prior to his tragic death. It is a poignant, finely tuned psychological drama that will long linger in the reader's mind.

Chess Story centres around two extraordinary chess players. One is the world champion, Mirko Czentovic, who travels across the world for tournaments. The other is the enigmatic Dr. B., who claims not to have seen a chessboard in more than twenty years. The two are opposites in terms of personality, background and in their paths bringing them to a chance meeting on an ocean liner en route from New York to Buenos Aires. The narrator, who exhibits traits of an aspiring psychologist "passionately interested in monomaniacs", finds his first subject in the twenty-one year old chess prodigy, who otherwise exhibits poor education, intellect, and crude social behaviour. To satisfy his curiosity he instigates a game of chess between Czentovic and a group of "amateur chess lovers". Dr. B. watching the game in passing, is suddenly drawn into it, advising the hapless amateurs so that they reach a draw. His manifest expertise at the game as well as his strange conduct intrigues the narrator as much as the reader.

Using language that is sparse yet precise in detail, the first-person observer, although commenting on the game, is more fascinated by his subjects' personality and psyche. The narrator's inquisitiveness, heightened by Dr. B.'s unusual behaviour, leads him to follow his subject as he hurriedly flees the game room. Out on deck, Dr. B. eventually shares his personal story and recounts the recent harrowing events that forced him abruptly into exile from his native Austria. The narrator becomes at the same time listener and astute analyst. Dr.
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As summarized by another reviewer, the story takes place on a cruise ship en route from New York to Buenos Aires in 1941. The world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, is on board. Czentovic is a chess prodigy who is singularly ungifted in other areas of the intellect and social graces. Also on board is Dr. B, a former solicitor for the Austrian imperial family who is traveling to South America as a refugee from the Nazi regime.
At the outset, considering Czentovic's isolated and emotionally deprived childhood, I was prepared to allow him his arrogance and conceit. Acknowledged, he was a master at chess and his boorish behavior could be excused. When Dr. B becomes peripherally involved in the chess match and exhibits a mastery of moves, it becomes clear that this man has somehow or other been absorbed into the exalted realm of chess. As his story unfolds, the reader enters the world of isolation and solitary that Dr. B endured at the hands of his Nazi tormenters. Zweig is so masterful at the depiction of the incarceration and the man's mental salvation through the game of chess that we as readers are carried along so forcibly that we leave the confines of our homes for the world of Dr. B. Every emotion he experienced, every racing of his pulse, every fearful moment, his ultimate dissociation of his personality and his breakdown are experienced by the reader. The descriptions are powerful and cause a visceral reaction that is astonishing. As I was reading, I started to note a racing pulse and sweating and a sense of uncontrollable foreboding. As the story raced to its conclusion, I had the urge to shout, "Halt! Don't play again!" I wept when I set the book down. The tears were for Dr. B, all of the victims of the Nazi carnage and perhaps also a reaction to what came to pass, the suicide of the author. This gem of a small book explores and disturbs the human psyche like no other.
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Format: Paperback
This long story is called a `novella' in the original version. It is one of Zweig's most famous works, and rightly so. I am not Zweig's hottest fan, but this text is blameless.
Chess provides the frame for the story, but the core is something else: the fight for survival and sanity under psychological torture.
The hero of the story is Dr.B, from a well known Austrian family connected to church and court circles. Dr.B had worked as a lawyer dealing in asset management, which meant in the 1930s: hiding wealth from the rapacious claws of the Nazis. After the Nazis take over Austria, Dr.B is among the first arrestees, but he is not submitted to camp treatment. Rather he is put under a kind of luxurious isolation torture and also patiently and time-consumingly interrogated about the whereabouts of his clients' assets.
Luckily he finds a book with 150 chess cases, which keeps him sane for some months. After he has replayed all the 150 matches countless times, he dives deeper and deeper into chess and finally submits to a mental breakdown, following months of playing chess in his mind against himself.
He becomes useless to his captors and is let go. He emigrates.

The story finds him on a steamer from NY to Buenos Aires, where he meets our narrator. Now we are into present tense chess. The star on the ship is the current chess world champion, a youngish and boorish man from Hungary. A wealthy chess amateur from the US is willing to pay the champion for games on board. Dr.B accidentally stumbles into the scene and interferes in a match. He shocks the champion and surprises the others. He accepts the challenge to play `just one' match against the champion, the next day.
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