Stefan Zweig and Chess

by Bill Wall

Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna on November 28, 1881 into a wealthy family.  His father was a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer.  His mother was the daughter of a Jewish banking family.

In 1904, he earned a doctorate in philosophy from Vienna University.  His dissertation was on “The Philosophy of Hippolyte Taine.”

During World War I, Zweig served in the Archives of the Ministry of War in Austria.

He first became known as a poet and translator. He later was a biographer, essayist, and short story writer. In the 1930s he was one of the most widely translated authors of the world.

In the 1930s the Nazis banned most of his work. He was driven into exile because he was a Jew and went to England in 1934.

In 1940 he went to America and in August 1941 he moved to Petropolis, Brazil, a German-colonized mountain town north of Rio de Janeiro.  The 1973 Interzonal chess tournament was held in Petropolis, won by Mecking.

During his time in Brazil, Zweig played chess with his wife and studied master chess games from the past.

Disillusioned and isolated, Zwieg committed suicide with his wife (Elisabeth Charlotte Lotte) on February 23, 1942. He was 60. Some question whether it was a suicide or murder. He did leave 11 farewell letters to suggest that he was suicidal. The cause of death was toxic substance ingestion, an overdose of barbiturates.

His last work, published after his death, was The Royal Game. The novella was published in the March 1944 issue of the Woman's Home Companion. He wrote it in Petropolis, Brazil in January 1942. He called it The Chess Novel (Schachnovelle in the original German). Some consider this the finest novel about chess ever written.

He used two chess games to illustrate the psychology of Nazism. Czentovic, a semiliterate Yugoslav peasant chess champion of the world travels on ship from Europe to South America. He plays a game of chess with the passengers for $250 a game. He wins the first game. He is about to win the 2nd game when one of the passengers, Dr. B, shows a forced draw. Dr. B is a Viennese lawyer and refuge who has recently escaped from a prison hospital. He was imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis in an attempt to force disclosure of some trust funds. Dr. B has started to play chess with himself in solitary confinement when he is arrested by the Gestapo. He took a chess book from one of the jailors pockets, a collection of 150 master chess games. He learns all the games by heart. He then starts to play chess games against himself, which ultimately drives him insane (chess poisoning).

After his escape and restoration to sanity, Dr B. avoided chess to prevent another breakdown. But the sight of the chess pieces and the chance to play a real person proved too great a temptation. He could not restrain himself from aiding the passengers

Requested to play a game by Czentovic, Dr. B first refused. But on learning that he was the world champion, he decides to play. Dr. B beats the world champion in the first game and Czentovic knocks all the pieces off the board. He challenges Dr. B for a second game (10 minutes per move).

During his second game against Czentovic, Dr B. breaks down. Dr B. announces a non-existent check to Czentovic's king. Dr. B is then forcibly prevented by the other passengers from continuing the game. Czentovic looks at the half finished game and remark, "Pity. The attack was quite well conceived. That gentleman is really exceptionally able. For an amateur."

The story has a lot of opposites such as educated vs uneducated, gentleman vs peasant, mania vs calmness, smart vs stupid, quick vs slow.

In his story, Zweig observes that chess is "more lasting in its being and presence than all books and achievements, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all ages of which none knows the divinity that bestowed it on the world to slay boredom, to sharpen the senses, to exhilarate the spirit."   He also wrote, “In chess, as a purely intellectual game, where randomness is excluded, - for someone to play against himself is absurd…It is a paradoxical, as attempting to jump over his own shadow.”

In 1960 a movie, Die Schachnovelle, also known as Brainwashed, was made based on Zweig's The Royal Game.

In 1980, a Czechoslovakian movie called Kralovska hra (The Royal Game) was made, based on the novella.

In 2013, an opera based on the novella premiered a the Kiel Opera House.  The music was made by Cristobal Halffter.