CIPC #84: Chess in literature

So far, I have only talked about books in the 15th instalment of the Chess in Popular Culture series, where I discussed a bunch of covers featuring chess. But it is famously impossible, or at least inadvisable, to judge a book by its cover and indeed many books with a chess inspired cover barely mention it while on the other hand many books are published in which chess is a major theme without board or pieces on the front. This time, we’ll focus on what’s in the book. As you are, of course, all connoisseurs of everything CIPC, there is no point in mentioning Arthur Conan Doyle’s scheming minds or Charles Dickens’ chess nuts. There is also no point in spotlighting books which are about chess, because then I’d have to talk about pretty much every scene, which is exhaustive for both you and me. So here’s what I’ll focus on: books in which chess is mentioned in one or two particular places in a more or less offhand fashion. Since this still leaves me with too large a scope to be exhaustive, I’ll just restrict myself to some books close at hand.

Wir saßen in der Abtsstube und spielten Schach.
„Das sind Neuigkeiten!” sagte er. „Du willst wohl, daß ich meinen Zug verfehle und den Turm da verlieren?”

[We were sitting in the Abbot’s study and played chess. “That’s news!” he said. “You probably want me to misplay and lose the rook?”] 

(Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin und Weimar 1965, p.406)

Thomas Mann is the literary equivalent of Gustav Mahler: locally, everything is of high – even very high – quality, but it just goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on, until you just want to hit him over the head with a rolled-up newspaper and go “No! Bad author! Bad author!”1

This book in particular is the fictional biography of a 20th century composer as told by his friend and about 300 pages too long. The “we” in quote above are those two people: Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of the book, and Serenus Zeitblom, the narrator. Around halfway through the book, they are sharing a quiet moment together, which at this point in the book has only happened some fifty million times before, by a games of chess.

Realism: 5/5 It is perfectly plausible that two friends play chess and that one of them risks losing a rook. I’ve been there.

Probable winner: The result of this game is unfortunately never made clear. As such, it is about the only thing in Leverkühn life which Zeitblom does not describe in meticulous detail, which leads me to assume it was Leverkühn who won.

So blieben denn auch damals die Klienten fast ganz aus, ich war ziemlich arbeitslos, hatte außer einigen Ladendiebstählen, Eintreibungen und den Statuten eines Gefangenenturnvereins (im Auftrag des Justizdepartements) nichts zu bearbeiten, faulenzte bald auf den grünen Bänken am Quai, bald vor dem Café >Select< herum, spielte Schach (mit Lesser, wobei wir beharrlich spanisch eröffneten, so daß im großen und ganzen stets die gleiche Partie im Patt endete), nahm in den Lokalen der Frauenvereine eine phantasielose, doch nicht ungesunde Kost zu mir.

[And so the clients stayed almost completely away; I was quite unemployed and had, except for a few shopliftings, collections, and the statutes of a gymnastics association for prisoners (in commission of the justice department) nothing to work on, hung around now by the green banks on the quay, then before cafe >Select<, played chess (with Lesser, whereby we persistently opened Spanish, so that always the more or less same game ended in stalemate), took an uninspired but not unhealthy meal in the rooms of the women’s clubs.]

(Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Justiz, Diogenes Taschenbuch, 1987, p.44)

If I have to continue with the musical metaphors, I’d say Dürrenmatt – often seen as Switzerland’s greatest author – corresponds to Prokofiev. There’s the same sardonic wit and ironic humour coupled as well as a thorough knowledge of classicism, even though the writing itself does not precisely fit that bill.

This book in particular is slightly Kafkaesque, dealing with a murderer who hires someone to find someone else who could have done it. It is a quite well-written book, despite the fact that chess only makes the very short appearance quoted above, wherein the protagonist, a lawyer named Spät,2 talks about his life before the big commission.

Realism: 2/5 I can see how two people might continually play the Spanish opening,3 I can understand that their games might be very similar, but I cannot believe that stalemate is common occurrence, let alone that it is the default. The only possible explanation is that they always ended up in an endgame where white is a pawn up. But who would keep on playing out this same ending? Not even a lawyer would be this boring.

Probable winner: Nobody, a stalemate is a draw.

Mijn meester schaakte graag. Hij verloor nagenoeg alle partijen, doch zijn tegenstanders verklaarden dat zij liever verloren op zijn manier dan wonnen op de hunne.  Hij was gewoon alle stukken te offeren, tot hij één pion overhield; met deze pion joeg hij dan zijn tegenstanders de stuipen op het lijf.  Aljechin, die een week lang bij ons logeerde, zei mij eens dat mijn meester, indien hij wilde, gemakkelijk tot de eerste Grootmeesters kon behoren. Nu, dat wist ik ook wel. De Cliffordvariant, die hij uitvond, wordt intussen weinig gespeeld. Zij schijnt te moeilijk te zijn. Capablanca, die haar eenmaal toepaste in Baden-Baden, moest na afloop van de wedstrijd terstond onder de wol.

[My master liked to play chess. He lost almost all his games, but his opponents stated that they’d rather lose in his way than win in their way. He had the habit of sacrificing all his pieces, until he had one pawn left; with this pawn he scared the bejeebus out of his opponents. Alekhine, who stayed with us for a week, once told me that my master, if eh wanted, could be among the first Grandmasters of the world. Well, I knew that, already. The Clifford variation, which he invented, is not played often nowadays. It’s apparently too difficult. Capablanca, who used it once in Baden-Baden, had to go straight to bed after the game.]

(Godfried Bomans, De avonturen van Bill Clifford, Elsevier, 1984, p.49)

Here I have to stop with the musical comparisons, because I have no idea to whom I should compare Bomans.4 He is a criminally underrated Dutch author who achieves a delightful humoristic effect by the use of highbrow, slightly archaic language to describe funny or absurd situations. Nowadays, his fame mostly rests on the fairytale-like Erik of het klein insectenboek, but his fictional biography Pieter Bas, his surrealistic Dutch-style comic Pa Pinkelman, as well as the book quoted above – a playful satire of the Sherlock Holmes stories – are all great.

At this point in the book, Bill Clifford’s servant, Piffli, is describing his master’s day-to-day life before the actual plot gets started, when a third person narrator has to take over because Piffli is not present for the rest of the story. How the plot unfolds, I will not spoil. My ploy is to get enough people interested so that maybe there will finally be reprint.

Realism: 0/5 No. No matter how awesome you are at chess, you will not be able to cook up some credible threat with just one pawn left. At least not in an actual game; I have no doubt that Sam Lloyd could – and probably has – made a chess problem wherein just that happens.5

Probable winner: Apparently not Bill Clifford.

1. [To make the analogy complete, Mann’s short stories such as Tobias Mindernickel are actually really good; just like Mahler’s piano quartet.]
2. [Yes, he’s literally called late.]
3. [Or the Ruy López; it is called Spanish because Ruy López de Segura was Spanish.]
4. [A summer’s day would be the popular suggestion.]
5. [Note that the Excelsior problem does not qualify, as white has more than just a pawn and a king there.]