The great game
Steven Poole finds metaphors for life in the moves of Ronan Bennett’s lively chess thriller, Zugzwang
Saturday September 8, 2007
The Guardian

Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett 278pp, Bloomsbury, £14.99

The chess term “zugzwang” comes from the German for “compulsion to move”. Ronan Bennett might well have felt something of a similar compulsion when it came time to deliver each chapter of this novel: it was originally published in weekly instalments by the Observer last year. Now, however, it has been rewritten for production as a book, so the author has had more time to calculate variations.

If you are in zugzwang, the compulsion to move is necessarily fatal. Your position would be fine if you could just pass, but you must move, and any move you can make loses the game by force. To illustrate this particularly piquant mode of defeat, two characters in the novel play a game of chess (which is based on a game played by British grandmaster Daniel King). Through his narrator, Bennett handles the explanations of strategy with lucidity and drama, though unfortunately near the end the publishers have allowed two of the chess diagrams to become decoupled from the positions stated in the captions, which makes it a bit more of a challenge for readers unaccustomed to analysing endgames in their heads.

Luckily, the concept of zugzwang is also, as so much in chess, a potentially rich metaphor for life, and Bennett’s story climaxes with a vivid example, after he has choreographed an array of pieces and combinations that initially seems bewildering. The setting is St Petersburg, 1914. Our narrator is a middle-aged psychoanalyst named Otto Spethmann. His friend Kopelzon, a violinist with whom he plays chess, brings him a new patient, Rozental, a seriously gifted player who is going to compete in the great St Petersburg tournament (which did actually occur) featuring Capablanca, Lasker and Alekhine, but he is terribly neurotic, in the manner of literary chess players from time immemorial, always swatting at imaginary flies. “Tragically, Rozental’s genius was flawed by acute psychological instability,” Otto informs us, perhaps unnecessarily.

Here is the full article.

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