Chess by Stefan Zweig – Reviewed by Guy Portman


{Contains Some Spoilers}

Mirko Czentovic, a barely literate rural orphan, seemed destined for a life of menial drudgery, until it was discovered that he was something of an idiot savant, with an extraordinary talent for chess. Now, Czentovic, the reigning World chess champion, is on a cruise from New York to Buenos Aires, travelling to a chess tournament. One of the ship’s passengers – a wealthy, impulsive Scotsman – persuades the book’s narrator to convince the reclusive grand master to challenge the pair to a game of chess. The champion wins the resulting match with ease. A second game ensues, which is heading the same way as the first, until the timely intervention of a mysterious stranger results in the game being declared a draw.

The stranger, whose chess playing talent is a result of having lifted a chess book from his Gestapo interrogators during a period of lengthy psychological torture during the War, is initially reluctant to accept the challenge, but is eventually persuaded on the condition that he plays only one game. The man soundly defeats the champion, only to, in defiance of his condition, to play him again and lose.

This short psychological novella, written by iconic Austrian author Stefan Zweig, explores the delicate divide that separates genius from obsession and madness. The King of Games offers the prospect of salvation, but also the threat of dissolution.

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