Stefan Zweig: Schachnovelle [The Royal Game], short novel (1942)

Book: Stefan Zweig, The royal game
Front cover of the first edition of Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle (The Royal Game), 1942, which was released with a total print run of 300 by the Pigmalion publishing house, Rio de Janeiro
Deutsches Exilarchiv 1933-1945 der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek, EB 76/80

Stefan Zweig: Schachnovelle [The Royal Game], short novel (1942)

Hier korrigiere ich viel an der Autobiographie, habe eine kleine Schachnovelle entworfen, angeregt davon, daß ich mir für die Abgeschiedenheit ein Schachbuch gekauft habe, und täglich die Partien der großen Meister nachspiele.

[I have corrected a great many things in the autobiography here, have created a small chess novel. I got the idea when I bought a book about chess to occupy me in my seclusion and I replay the games of the great masters every day. (ed. trans.)]

Stefan Zweig, letter to Friderike Zweig, 29 September 1941

The plot of The Royal Game revolves around a chess match on board a ship between two bitter rivals. The passenger known anonymously as Dr. B. battles against the world champion in chess, Mirko Czentovic, who plays with an almost machine-like automatism. Dr. B.’s knowledge of chess is based on his own oppressive experiences. He was held for months by the Gestapo for interrogation, and only survived the ordeal of detention by surreptitiously pilfering a chess handbook whose matches he re-enacted in his mind with increasing pathological fervour. The match against Czentovic opens up the old wounds of his former “chess intoxication”. Incessantly anticipating new moves in his mind, Dr. B. has to end the game. Ultimately he declares that he will never play chess again – the resigned capitulation of a broken human being who has succumbed to a soulless adversary. 

Stefan Zweig completed the work shortly before his death on 23 February 1942. The first edition was released in the same year and the book became one of Zweig’s most popular works. It was filmed in 1960 by director Gerd Oswald with Curd Jürgens and Mario Adorf in the starring roles. German publisher Siegfried Unseld wrote about the book: “Behind the exagerrated intelligence of the malice expressed in the battle and attack the reader may recognise the system of violence practised by the fascists that threatened the Western world during the years of Zweig’s emigration, annihiliating its culture and making it a World of Yesterday …” (quoted in Donald Prater / Volker Michels (Hg.): Stefan Zweig. Leben und Werk im Bild, 1984: ed. trans.)