Nabokov and chess

by Bill Wall


Vladimir Vladimorovich Nabokov was born on April 22, 1899 (April 10, 1899 Old Style) in St. Petersburg, Russia. 


After the 1917 February Revolution, his family was forced to flee St. Petersburg.  They moved to the Crimea and lived at a friend’s estate.  It is around this period that Nabokov started playing chess and composing chess problems.

In 1919, Nabokov described his escape from Sebastopol on a ship that was being shot at  from the shore, “Under wild machine-gun fire from the shore (the Bolshevik troops had just take the port), my family and I set out for Constantinople and Piraeus on a small and shoddy Greek ship…I remember trying to concentrate, as we were zigzagging out of the bay, on a game of chess with my father – one of the knights had lost its head, and a poker chip replaced a missing rook.

In 1919, they settled briefly in England.  Later, his father moved to Berlin, where he set up the émigré Russian-language newspaper Rul’ (Rudder).  Vladimir stayed in England, attending Trinity College, Cambridge.  In 1922, he then moved to Berlin.

In March 1922, his father was assassinated in Berlin by a Russian monarchist as he was protecting the real target, Pavel Milyukov, a leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party-in-exile.  Nabokov’s mother and sister moved to Prague, but Vladimir stayed in Berlin until 1937.  He wrote, taught languages, and gave tennis and boxing lessons.

Nabokov started composing chess problems in the early 1920s, and had them published in Rul’.  His first chess problem was published on April 20, 1923.

In January 1924, chess master Curt von Bardeleben committed suicide by jumping out a second-floor window in Berlin.  Nabokov knew von Bardeleben and would use that theme in his book The Defense.

In November 1924, Nabokov published “Three Chess Sonnets” in Rul’.


In moving the rook – an iambic meter,
in moving the bishop – an anapest.
Half-dance, half-deliberation.  From the café’s
boozy din, from the sulfur-smoke air.
Here, Phillidor contended, and Ducer.
Now, sits a thick-browed, angry Spaniard and
a bespectacled gnome.  On the tendons of his hands
lies a strange gloss, his glance – a chimera’s.
With iambic feet the rook steps forward.
Then again there is thinking.  “Caramba,
give it up!”  But the quiet gnome lingers.
And here the feet knock against a florid,
iodic figure – as it were, the sacrificial bishop.
In black’s move the bewitching check and mate.


There are thrashing rhymes and dancers with wings
within such puzzling schemes.  Observe:
across the bright and dark squares,
white has seven pieces, black has only three.
Humpbacked horses flank the black queen,
and the pawn, like amber, sparkles in night.
Kings, as servants, await the decision,
in fretted crowns and carved cuirasses.
The star-shaped intrigues of the queen,
the titillating patterned path,
leads away thought – anew, into obscurity.
But fairy rhyme manifests itself
on the board, shimmering in lacquer,
and – ethereal – soars into a whorl.


I do not write by the sonnet’s law;no nightingales sing in the poplars,
but, adjusting here a pawn, here a rook,
meditate upon the problem ’til dawn.
And I locked down her defense
the entire night, all of her cries,
and dark the branches, and bright the arcs
of flowing stars, and poetry’s workmanship…
I think, my Spaniard, and gnome,
and Phillidor, that in the lacelike design,
spare of pieces, ordered in consonance –
everything is seen, the gliding moonlight,
that I love ecstatically and clearly,
that on the board composed this sonnet.

In 1925, the Soviet film Shakhmatnaia goriachka (Chess Fever) was filmed and came out in 1926, which helped influence Nabokov in writing The Defense.  In The Defense, Valentinov’s intension to cast Luzhin in a chess film is derived from the cameo of Capablanca in the Chess Fever.

In 1925, he married Vera Evseeevna Slonin, a Jewish-Russian woman who was also a chess player.

In 1926, he published his first book, Mashenka, under the pseudonym Vladimir Sirin.  He used the same pseudonym for his chess problems.

In 1928, he published his second book, King, Queen, Knave.

In 1929, he wrote Zaschita Luzhina (Luzhin’s Defense or The Defense), which was published in 1930 in Berlin.  The plot concerns Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin who learns how to play chess and becomes a world class player.  He is later paired against Turati,a world class player from Italy, to determine who would face the current world champion.  Before and during the game, Luzhin has a mental breakdown.  He later climbs out a window and falls to his death, committing suicide.   The character of Luzhin is based on Curt von Bardeleben, who committed suicide by jumping out a window in Berlin on January 31, 1924.

Nabokov published the first chapter of The Defense in Rul’, then in Sovremennye zapiski.  He finally published it in book form, published by Slovo in Berlin.

In 1937, he moved to France. 

In the late 1930s, he published his chess problems in Poslednie Novosti (The Latest News), a Paris émigré journal.  He used the pseudonym Sirin when composing his chess problems.

In May 1940, he moved to the United States and settled in Manhattan.

In the 1940s, Vladimir’s brother died in a German concentration camp.

In 1946, Nabokov challenged Cornell philosopher Max Black to a game of chess.  Black was a former chess champion at Cambridge University.   In their first game, Black easily beat Nabokov in 15 minutes. Nabokov lost just as easily in their second game,  Though he saw Max Black often over the next decade, Nabokov never played a chess  game with Max Black again.

In 1947, he wrote Bend Sinister which described chess-like moves including “a lantern moved, knight-wide, to check him,” and “a cooked chess problem can be cured by the addition of a passive pawn,” and “the only move I care to make is to rook my king the long side.”

In early 1951, he published an article ‘Exile’ in the Partisan Review in which Nabokov engaged in a duel against Lewis Carroll, played out in the symbolic language of chess, which included a chess problem.

In 1951, he published Speak, Memory, which contained one chess problem.  He also wrote about chess in the book.  He wrote, “It [composing chess problems] is a beautiful, complex and sterile art related to the ordinary form of the game only insofar as, say, the properties of a sphere are made use of both by a juggler in weaving a new act and by a tennis player in winning a tournament. Most chess players, in fact, amateurs and masters alike, are only mildly interested in these highly specialized, fanciful, stylish riddles, and though appreciative of a catchy problem would be utterly baffled if asked to compose one.”

The chess problem that appears in Speak, Memory was supposedly composed during his last night in Paris before moving to the United States.  The problem was also published in Chess Problems: Introduction to an Art.

In 1955, he published Lolita in Russian .  It had several references to chess.  He translated it into English in 1963.  In the novel, Humbert and Gaston play chess “two or three times weekly” and he links Lolita with the Queen in their game.

In 1964, he published Zashchita Luzhina in English.  It was published by Putman as The Defenestration.

In 1969, he published Poem and Problems, containing 18 chess problems with solutions.  He included his chess problems in a book on poetry because chess problems are “the poetry of chess.  They demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, harmony, conciseness, complexity, and splendid insincerity.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Nabokov subscribed to The Problemist, and would rate the problems in each new issue.

In 1962, in an interview for the BBC program Bookstand, he said, “deception in chess, as in art, is only part of the game...a good combination should always contain a certain element of deception."

In January 1970, he was invited to join the American team as a composer in future international chess-problem tournaments. 

On July 2, 1977, Nabokov died at the age of 78.  He had succumbed to a virus infection in Montreux, Switzerland, where he had lived for the past 18 years.

He published 35 chess problems during his lifetime.

In 2001, the movie “The Luzhin Defense” was released.