Chess and literature

Chess & Literature by Michael Peck

Throughout its history, chess has been a metaphor for nearly everything. Indian mystics believed the game represented the four elements, while medieval scholars used chess as a tutorial to explain free will. Since the sixth century, kings and caliphs have turned to chess for strategic influence, artists for inspiration, and scientists to comprehend memory and cognition.

In the 13th century, Jacobus de Cessolis' Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles; or the Book of Chess rivaled the Bible in popularity. The Game and the Playe of Chesse (printed 1474) - based on Cessolis' guide - was one of the earliest books published by William Caxton, England's first moveable type printer. Chess is a metonymy for obsession, an example of supreme ratiocination and decision-making prowess, and a method of classifying and ordering human understanding.

A selection of chess books

Vladimir Nabokov, 1930
by Walter Tevis (1983)
by Katherine Neville (1988)

The game lends itself well to fiction and tales of consuming fixation. Vladimir Nabokov's The Luzhin Defense (1930) is just such a book, portraying an alienated boy's escape into the mental labyrinths of competitive chess. Luzhin becomes a famous player at the expense of his sanity, then self-destructs in the middle of a world championship because his perfected strategy has been thwarted by his opponent's unexpected opening. Nabokov, an avid student of the game, based his damaged character on a real-life master. In another bleak classic, The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis, a female chess prodigy deals with drug addiction and the emotional turmoil of the competitive chess circuit. As H.G. Wells said of the game: "It annihilates a man."

Many fictional stories featuring chess have been set in horrid regimes, both real and imagined. Stefan Zweig's 1941 Chess Story (also published as The Royal Game), depicts a monarchist kept in solitary confinement, who spends hours memorizing a purloined chess guide, playing invented games in his head and, in the process, dividing his consciousness to assume both his and his opponent's positions.

The SS, concentrations camps and murder are the milieu of Paolo Maurensig's The Luneburg Variations and Stalemate by Icchokas Meras, the latter conjures a game between a ghetto commandant and a 17-year-old boy with a harrowing minimax dilemma (that's a decision for minimizing loss in a maximum loss scenario) at its core. With the game's subterfuges and intrigue, its reciprocation of power and hopelessness, the chessboard makes a fitting iconography for the totalitarian state and doomed individuals.

by Conall Cearnach (1924)
by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1922)
by Simon Rattray (1961)

Genre fiction, though, seems the most fertile territory for chess. Its mysterious origins, gothic imagery and bewildering logic are a few reasons for its pervasiveness. Both Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes are chess players. Whole nations stand in the balance of a checkmate between an ex-seminarian and a Marxist terrorist in Fernando Arrabal's The Tower Struck by Lightning. The Chessmen of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, imagines the planet Barsoom, whose unwanted visitors are compelled to play chess to the death. Even Forbidden Planet uses the game's lexicon as the central motif underpinning its interstellar setting.

Historical thrillers, with their tapestry plotting, are also conducive to chess. In Katherine Neville's epic adventure The Eight, an enterprising computer expert searches for a chess set that once belonged to Charlemagne.

The Mechanical Turk, a fraudulent chess-playing dummy from the 18th century, has been the subject of several novels, including The Turkish Automaton by Sheila E. Braine as well as Poe's pseudo-sci-fi essay Maelzel's Chess-Player from 1836.

by John Brunner (1963)
by Arturo Perez-Reverte (1990)
by Fernando Arrabal (1988)

Ambrose Bierce's short story from 1893, Moxon's Master, concerns itself with a chess-playing machine that murders its creator and was the first literary nod to chessmaster robots.

If you are just looking for chess scenes woven into storylines, then you will find them in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights, The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon, From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll.

Michael Peck is a writer and casual chess hobbyist. His work has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, LA Review of Books, Pank and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon City, and is the proprietor of Blue Roof Books, an online-only bookshop specializing in books of fairy tales and illustrated fine bindings.

Do you play chess? What is your favorite chess book?