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[says] " Luzhin, preparing an attack for which it was first necessary to explore a maze of variations, where his every step aroused a perilous echo, began a long meditation: he needed, it seemed, to make one last prodigious effort and he would find the secret move leading to victory. Suddenly, something occurred outside his being, a scorching pain - and he let out a loud cry, shaking his hand stung by the flame of a match, which he had lit and forgotten to apply to his cigarette. The pain immediately passed, but in the fiery gap he had seen something unbearably awesome, the full horror of the abysmal depths of chess. He glanced at the chessboard and his brain wilted from hitherto unprecedented weariness. But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?"

          Vladimir Nabokov, The Defence.

          Click here to read more about this book and other works of fiction which include chess.

[says] She hung up and I set out the chess board. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armour, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.

[says] "A combination composed of a sacrifice has more immediate effect upon the person playing over the  game in which it occurs than another combination, because the apparent senselessness of the sacrifice is convincing proof of the design of the player offering it. Hence it comes that the risk of material, and the victory of the weaker material over the stronger material, gives the impression of a symbol of the mastery of mind over matter.

Now we see wherein lies the pleasure to be derived from a chess combination. It lies in the feeling that a human mind is behind the game dominating the inanimate pieces with which the game is carried on, and giving them the breath of life. We may regard it as an intellectual delight, equal to that afforded us by the knowledge that behind so many apparently disconnected and seemingly chance happenings in the physical world lies the one great ruling spirit - the law of Nature. "

          Richard Reti, Modern Ideas in Chess.

[says] "The most important feature of the chess position is the activity of the pieces. This is absolutely fundamental in all phases of the game (opening, middlegame and especially endgame). The primary constraint on a piece's activity is the Pawn structure."

         Michael Stean, in Simple Chess.

[says] "Only a good bishop can be sacrificed, a bad bishop can only be lost. Znosko-Borovsky.


[says] "I have formulated a rule for myself which I call the principle of the worst piece: "In positions of strategic manoeuvring (where time is not of decisive importance) seek the worst-placed piece. Activating that piece is often the most reliable way of improving your position as a whole."

         Mark Dvoretsky & Artur Yusupov, Positional Play.

To illustrate what a chess player can actually be capable of thinking during play, Mikhail Tal created a hypothetical (hippothetical?) dialogue between a journalist and himself. 

[says]  Journalist: It might be inconvenient to interrupt our profound discussion and change the subject slightly, but I would like to know whether extraneous, abstract thoughts ever enter your head while playing a game?

[says] Tal: Yes. For example, I will never forget my game with GM Vasiukov on a USSR Championship. We reached a very complicated position where I was intending to sacrifice a knight. The sacrifice was not obvious; there was a large number of possible variations; but when I began to study hard and work through them, I found to my horror that nothing would come of it. Ideas piled up one after another. I would transport a subtle reply by my opponent, which worked in one case, to another situation where it would naturally prove to be quite useless. As a result my head became filled with a completely chaotic pile of all sorts of moves, and the infamous "tree of variations", from which the chess trainers recommend that you cut off the small branches, in this case spread with unbelievable rapidity. And then suddenly, for some reason, I remembered the classic couplet by Korney Ivanovic Chukovsky:

"Oh, what a difficult job it was. To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus".

I don't know from what associations the hippopotamus got into the chess board, but although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study the position, I, despite my humanitarian education, was trying at this time to work out: just how WOULD you drag a hippopotamus out of the marsh ? I remember how jacks figured in my thoughts, as well as levers, helicopters, and even a rope ladder. After a lengthy consideration I admitted defeat as an engineer, and thought spitefully to myself: "Well, just let it drown!" And suddenly the hippopotamus disappeared. Went right off the chessboard just as he had come on ... of his own accord! And straightaway the position did not appear to be so complicated. Now I somehow realized that it was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight sacrifice was, by its very nature, purely intuitive. And since it promised an interesting game, I could not refrain from making it.

[says] Journalist: "And the following day, it was with pleasure that I read in the paper how Mikhail Tal, after carefully thinking over the position for 40 minutes, made an accurately-calculated piece sacrifice". 

          Tal's Autobiography.

[says] Chess is life - Bobby Fischer

[says] Chess is like life - Boris Spassky

[says] Chess is everything - art, science, and sport. - Karpov

[says] Chess is 99 percent tactics. - Teichmann

[says] Chess is really 99 percent calculation - Soltis

[says] Chess is mental torture. - Kasparov

[says] Chess is ruthless: you've got to be prepared to kill people. - Nigel Short

[says] Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe - Indian proverb

[says] Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy. - Tarrasch

[says] You cannot play at chess if you are kind-hearted. - French Proverb

[says] Morphy was probably the greatest genius of them all. - Fischer

[says] Every chess master was once a beginner. - Chernev

[says] Life is too short for chess. - Byron  

[says] All that matters on the chessboard is good moves. - Bobby Fischer

[says] The pawns are the soul of chess. - Philidor

[says] The combination player thinks forward; he starts from the given position, and tries the forceful moves in his mind. - Emanuel Lasker

[says] Discovered check is the dive-bomber of the chessboard. - Fine

[says] The scheme of a game is played on positional lines; the decision of it, as a rule, is effected by combinations. - Reti

[says] The Passed Pawn is a criminal, who should be kept under lock and key. Mild measures, such as police surveillance, are not sufficient. - Nimzovich

[says] Before the endgame, the gods have placed the middlegame. - Tarrasch.

[says] Even a poor plan is better than no plan at all. - Mikhail Chigorin

[says] Chess is the art of analysis. - Botvinnik

[says] Chess mastery essentially consists of analysing chess positions accurately. - Botvinnik

[says] Half the variations which are calculated in a tournament game turn out to be completely superfluous. Unfortunately, no one knows in advance which half - Jan Timman

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.

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 Paul Morphy and 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.