Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881, and gained fame first as a poet and translator, and then as a biographer, short-story writer and novelist. Zweig’s first works were poetry and a poetic drama, Jeremia (1917), which expressed his passionate antiwar feelings. With the rise of Nazism, he moved from Salzburg to London to research a book on Mary, Queen of Scots. He also visited Sigmund Freud, whom he had met already in the 1920s. In 1938 he became a British citizen, and in 1940, after a successful lecture tour in South America, he and his second wife Charlotte E. Altmann settled in Brazil. Disillusioned and isolated, Zweig committed suicide with his wife, in Petrópolis, near Rio de Janeiro on 23 February 1942.

Zweig’s best-known works of fiction include Beware of Pity (1938) and Chess: A Novella (1944), as well as many historical biographies of subjects as diverse as Marie Antoinette, Erasmus, Mary Queen of Scots, Magellan and Balzac.



a novella

Translated by Anthea Bell




Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London, WC2R 0RL, England

First published as Schachnovelle in 1943

Copyright © Stefan Zweig, 1943

The moral right of the author and translator has been asserted

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

ISBN: 978-0-14-196506-2

The usual last-minute bustle of activity reigned on board the large passenger steamer that was to leave New York for Buenos Aires at midnight. Visitors who had come up from the country to see their friends off were pushing and shoving, telegraph boys with caps tilted sideways on their heads ran through the saloons calling out names, luggage and flowers were being brought aboard, inquisitive children ran up and down the steps, while the band for the deck show played imperturbably on. I was standing on the promenade deck a little way from all this turmoil, talking to an acquaintance, when two or three bright flashlights went off close to us. It seemed that some prominent person was being quickly interviewed by reporters and photographed just before the ship left. My friend glanced that way and smiled. ‘Ah, you have a rare bird on board there. That’s Czentovic.’ And as this information obviously left me looking rather blank, he explained further. ‘Mirko Czentovic, the world chess champion. He’s been doing the rounds of America from the east coast to the west, playing in tournaments, and now he’s off to fresh triumphs in Argentina.’

I did in fact remember the name of the young world champion, and even some of the details of his meteoric career. My friend, a more attentive reader of the newspapers than I am, was able to add a whole series of anecdotes. About a year ago, Czentovic had suddenly risen to be ranked with the most experienced masters of the art of chess, men like Alekhine, Capablanca, Tartakower, Lasker and Bogolyubov. Not since the appearance of the seven-year-old infant prodigy Rzeschewski at the New York chess tournament of 1922 had the incursion into that famous guild of a complete unknown aroused such general notice. For Czentovic’s intellectual qualities by no means seemed to have marked him out for such a dazzling career. Soon the secret was leaking out that, in private life, this grandmaster of chess couldn’t write a sentence in any language without making spelling mistakes, and as one of his piqued colleagues remarked with irate derision, ‘his ignorance was universal in all fields’. The son of a poor South Slavonian boatman, whose tiny craft had been run down one night by a freight steamer carrying grain, the boy, then twelve, had been taken in after his father’s death by the priest of his remote village out of charity, and by providing extra tuition at home the good Father did his very best to compensate for what the taciturn, stolid, broad-browed child had failed to learn at the village school.

But his efforts were in vain. Even after the written characters had been explained to him a hundred times, Mirko kept staring at them as if they were unfamiliar, and his ponderously operating brain could not grasp the simplest educational subjects. Even at the age of fourteen he still had to use his fingers to do sums, and it was an enormous effort for the adolescent boy to read a book or a newspaper. Yet Mirko could not be called reluctant or recalcitrant. He obediently did as he was told, fetched water, split firewood, worked in the fields, cleared out the kitchen, and dependably, if at an irritatingly slow pace, performed any service asked of him. But what particularly upset the good priest about the awkward boy was his total apathy. He did nothing unless he was especially requested to do it, he never asked a question, didn’t play with other lads, and didn’t seek occupation of his own accord without being expressly told to. As soon as Mirko had done his chores around the house, he sat stolidly in the living-room with that vacant gaze seen in sheep out at pasture, paying not the least attention to what was going on around him. While the priest, smoking his long country pipe, played his usual three games of chess in the evening with the local policeman, the fair-haired boy would sit beside them in silence, staring from under his heavy eyelids at the chequered board with apparently sleepy indifference.

One winter evening, while the two players were absorbed in their daily game, the sound of little sleigh bells approaching fast and then even faster was heard out in the village street. A farmer, his cap dusted with snow, tramped hastily in: his old mother was on her deathbed, could the priest come quickly to give her Extreme Unction before she died? Without a moment’s hesitation the priest followed him out. The policeman, who hadn’t yet finished his glass of beer, lit another pipe to round off the evening, and was just about to pull his heavy boots on when he noticed Mirko’s eyes fixed unwaveringly on the chessboard and the game they had begun.

‘Well, would you like to finish it?’ he joked, sure that the sleepy boy had no idea how to move a single chessman on the board correctly. The lad looked up timidly, then nodded and sat down in the priest’s chair. After fourteen moves the policeman was beaten, and what was more, he had to admit that his defeat couldn’t be blamed on any inadvertently careless move of his own. The second game produced the same result.

‘Balaam’s ass!’ cried the priest in astonishment on his return, and explained to the policeman, whose knowledge of the Bible was less extensive than his own, that a similar miracle had occurred two thousand years ago, when a dumb creature suddenly spoke with the voice of wisdom. Despite the late hour, the priest could not refrain from challenging his semi-illiterate pupil to a duel. Mirko easily defeated him too. He played slowly, imperturbably, doggedly, never once raising his lowered head with its broad brow to look up from the board. But he played with undeniable confidence; over the next few days neither the policeman nor the priest managed to win a game against him. The priest, who was in a better position than anyone else to assess his pupil’s backwardness in other respects, was genuinely curious to see how far this strange, one-sided talent would stand up to a harder test. Having taken Mirko to the village barber to get his shaggy, straw-blond hair cut and make him reasonably presentable, he drove him in his sleigh to the small town nearby, where he knew that the café in the main square was frequented by a club of chess enthusiasts with whom, experience told him, he couldn’t compete. These regulars were not a little surprised when the priest propelled the red-cheeked, fair-haired fifteen-year-old, in his sheepskin coat turned inside out and his high, heavy boots, into the coffee-house, where the boy stood awkwardly in a corner, eyes timidly downcast, until he was called over to one of the chess tables. Mirko lost the first game because he had never seen the good priest play the Sicilian Opening. The second game, against the best player in the club, was a draw. From the third and fourth games on, he defeated them all one by one.

As exciting events very seldom happen in a small South Slavonian provincial town, the first appearance of this rustic champion was an instant sensation among the assembled notables. They unanimously agreed that the prodigy absolutely must stay in town until the next day, so that they could summon the other members of the chess club, and more particularly get in touch with that fanatical chess enthusiast, old Count Simczic, at his castle. The priest, who now regarded his pupil with an entirely new pride, but although delighted by his discovery didn’t want to miss the Sunday service which it was his duty to conduct, declared himself ready to leave Mirko there to be tested further. Young Czentovic was put up in the hotel at the chess club’s expense, and that evening set eyes on a water closet for the first time in his life. On Sunday afternoon the chess room was full to overflowing. Mirko, sitting perfectly still at the board for four hours on end, defeated opponent after opponent without uttering a word or even looking up. Finally a simultaneous match was suggested. It took them some time to get the untaught boy to understand that a simultaneous match meant he would be playing on his own against all comers, but as soon as Mirko grasped the idea he quickly settled to the task, went slowly from table to table in his heavy, creaking boots, and in the end won seven out of the eight games.