The Queens Gambit, and the Fiction of Chess

Note: After reading Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense some years ago, I became interested in the use of chess as a major element in works of fiction, possibly because I was trying–unsuccessfully, it turned out–to improve my decidedly mediocre skill at the game. I read a number of novels and stories and wrote the following essay for Crania, the online literary magazine I created and edited. I had forgotten about that essay until watching The Queen’s Gambit series on Netflix, which was adapted from one of the novels I had written about, so I decided to republish it here in the new iteration of Crania. By the way, I don’t know if this qualifies as a spoiler alert, but that novel, while not a literary masterpiece, is in my view greatly superior to the series, which is littered with clunking plot contrivances and takes great pains to protect viewers from the confusions and other dangers of nuance and subtlety.

Thirty-five years ago, when computers taking up entire rooms weren’t as powerful as today’s basic desktop models, the late Fritz Leiber wrote “The 64-Square Madhouse,” a long story in which a computer competes against, and nearly defeats, the top chess players in the world. The story, from Leiber’s collection, A Pail of Air, neatly predicts last year’s (1997) much ballyhooed chess match between IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer and world champion Gary Kasparov, although Kasparov was soundly beaten while Leiber’s human players ultimately defeat the computer, albeit only because of an oversight on the part of the programmers. But the game of chess–endlessly fascinating, or endlessly frustrating, depending upon one’s grasp of its complexities–hasn’t just been the province of science fiction and fantasy writers like Leiber. Authors as diverse as Vladimir Nabokov, Lewis Carroll and Frances Parkinson Keyes have made the game the centerpiece of works of fiction–as subject, as motif, as metaphor, even as the very framework within which their characters act out their lives.

Leiber’s straightforward narrative is free of symbolism and probing into the depths of chess players’ psyches, but Keyes, author of the historical novel, The Chess Players, approaches her task with the vigor of a biographer bent upon turning all the pockets of her subject inside out. The real-life subject of her 1960 novel is Paul Morphy, the American chess prodigy who, by his early twenties, had beaten the top chess players in the world, but shortly thereafter suffered a “nervous breakdown” and disappeared into an obscurity from which he never emerged. Keyes is nothing if not thorough, and she feeds her readers a rich diet of details about Morphy’s mid-19th childhood in New Orleans and his young adulthood in New York and Europe, details that include transcripts of actual letters, newspaper articles, excerpts of pamphlets, and even diagrams of buildings. Mercifully, perhaps, Keyes includes only a single transcript of an actual chess game, but the novel’s plodding style may make it more of interest to chess aficianados than to fanciers of the literary art.

A more recent and livelier novel taking as its subject a chess player’s life–in this case an imaginary life–is The Queen’s Gambit, by Walter Tevis, best known as the author of two novels immortalized by movies, The Hustler, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. The conceit of this 1983 novel is that the chess player is a girl, when in fact the dearth of women in the upper echelons of chess has long been a subject of debate–are women inherently inferior when it comes to playing the game, or is there simply a lack of training and opportunity? Beth Harmon, the neo-Dickensian character Tevis creates, is sent to an orphanage after her parents are killed in a car accident, but the grim reality of the place is mitigated by a taciturn janitor who teaches her to play chess. Like Morphy, Beth proves to be a prodigy and wins the U.S. Championship at the age of eighteen, although the author creates a melodramatic interregnum in the form of an addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers that threatens to destroy her career just when it appears that she might become the first woman to climb to the top of the chess world. But in keeping with the novel’s Horatio Alger quality, Beth overcomes her addiction with the help of a black girlfriend from the orphanage, goes to Russia, defeats that country’s best players and at the novel’s end is awaiting her chance to compete for the world championship.

Paul Morphy, Beth Harmon, Fritz Leiber’s grandmasters all have in common a distinct obsession for the game of chess, and that obsession is integral to the theme of Stefan Zweig’s novella, The Royal Game. Zweig, the Austrian writer who was exiled by Nazism and committed suicide in Brazil in 1942, doesn’t dramatize a man’s or woman’s struggles against a computer or other players; instead he creates a character who is imprisoned by the Nazis and plays chess as a means to endure the psychological torture of solitary confinement. This prisoner has no opponent, so he plays against himself, and the duality he is forced to create in his own personality develops into an obsession that nearly drives him insane. Zweig may have intended to symbolize his own despair in the solitude of exile, since he finished The Royal Game just months before he and his wife took their own lives.

Obsession with chess takes darker, more convoluted turns in The Flanders Panel, a 1995 novel by the Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte. Here, the game of chess is both the subject of a 15th century Flemish painting and the heart of a murder mystery that can only be solved by determining how the chess pieces in the painting reached their positions on the board. Perez-Reverte involves readers in the the problem by including diagrams of the board as positions change, and in the end, as all good mystery writers must, reveals the secret that he has so stylishly concealed.

In these and other works of fiction, the game of chess is rendered realistically–characters pick up actual pawns and knights and rooks and move them on actual boards. Characters talk about chess, think about chess, are involved in conflicts that involve the dynamics of chess. When chess is turned into the form of a piece of fiction, however, it becomes transparent, and the games are played, not on an actual board, but upon the landscape of the author’s imagination. The best-known example of this is Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, in which the eponymous heroine of Alice in Wonderland slips through the fireplace mirror and finds herself in a land divided into the sixty-four squares of a chessboard. She is, in fact, a white pawn, and along with the Red Queen, the White Queen, and assorted other characters who represent pieces, acts out the moves of an actual chess problem that Carroll set forth–and defended against criticism–in the introduction to the 1896 edition of the book.

In Through the Looking Glass the conceit is transparent–when Alice leaps the stream and finds a crown on her head we know that she has advanced to the last rank on the board and undergone the transformation known as pawn promotion–but other writers have taken pains to embed the game within narratives of erstwhile realism. In British writer John Brunner’s 1965 novel, The Squares of the City, set in the future in an imaginary South American country, every chess piece is represented by a character whose actions correspond to moves in a real-life game, the Steinitz-Tchigorin match played in Havana in 1892. One could presumably read and enjoy the novel without knowing or caring about this fact, although a quality of attack and defense lends the narrative a certain chess-like atmosphere. And Brunner, who died in 1995, has said that he gave each of the characters in the novel powers roughly commensurate to the powers of the pawns, knights, bishops and other pieces they represent, a fact that also enhances the chess-like aura of the story.

Other works of fiction–the six-book Lymond Chronicle series by Dorothy Dunnett, The Eight, by Katherine Neville, Chess With a Dragon, by David Gerrold, to name a few–have employed chess realistically and metaphorically. But in terms of complexity, nuance, and the sheer brilliance of the writing, none can compare to Nabokov’s The Defense, written in Russian and published in 1930, when the author was living as an émigré in Berlin. Nabokov, who disliked playing the “game” of chess, but who made up chess problems while suffering bouts of insomnia, not only creates a central character who is a world-class chess player and has him play actual matches, he constructs a visual and conceptual representation of a chess game in which, as in The Squares of the City, actions correspond to moves. Nabokov’s uncouth character, Luzhin, whose name has the obvious relation to “illusion”, is a prodigy like the real-life Paul Morphy and the fictional Beth Harmon, but as his skill develops, so does his propensity to see the entirety of life as a chess game. He becomes obsessed with squares–floor tiles, windowpanes, patterns of light and dark–and in the end goes mad and leaps to his death from a window. Although Nabokov notoriously resisted readings of his work that gleaned statements of a sociological or psychological nature, it is difficult not to see, as in The Royal Game, a thematic concern with the nature and pitfalls of obsession. But the unwashed Luzhin, who managed to be both pathetic and dignified, is a fully realized character, not just a pawn in the author’s ingenious construction, and Nabokov moves him around with customary wit and lucidity, so in the end we haven’t just read about a world-class chess player and the perils he can’t avoid, but spent time with a creation that lives in the memory long after the covers of the book are closed.

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