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13. Februar 2002

"The Royal Game" by Jakob Julius David

Although his Oeuvre was quite extensive and some of his stories were remarkably successful during his lifetime, Jakob Julius David was never really well-known and popular. He has now fallen into oblivion. His writings were obviously too pessimistic, depressive, nihilistic, even for an age in the mood of nihilism and cultural pessimism. But for us, nowadays, the literature of past times has an attraction for another reason: it shows us how things can be looked at in different ways and how they have changed; it calls into question normally unquestioned considerations. This is one reason why we should reconsider David's Chess story.


The hero of the story is Adolf Adolfi, a chess master who once beat the world champion and won the famous Hastings tournament. But these splendid results are only the tip of the iceberg, the whole truth of a sad past lies well hidden beneath. For his short-lived success, Adolfi sacrifices not only his marriage and his wife - she dies grief-stricken - but also his only daughter, who commits suicide. And even his own life is a tragic one; he is becoming a chess hustler. However, there is no choice for Adolfi. Having once taken this route he has to fulfil it, chess for him is much more than a simple game: it is fate and disposition, obsession, drug and, anyhow, the only thing he can do well. Not able to live an ordinary civil life, he starts to play for money in coffee houses. And there, finally, he earns the admiration of others: "There are onlookers and they whisper, and I realise that here I am somebody even if I am elsewhere a nobody", and: "Here I count for something. The landlord is friendly, the waiter eager. They ask for me and I play and win and much more than previously… This is not only a game, it's an art and a science. It is not a matter of dull cards and how they are dealt, but of intellect, personality versus personality. He who is the cleverer, the more prudent, the more sharp-witted in each situation, it is he who wins... We are artists, Sir! One should consider us as artists. I played a game in Hastings against the master of the world and afterwards he gave me his hand and said: 'Many have beaten me during my life, Adolfi, but no-one in that elegant and superior manner.' Is this nothing? ...".

To earn a living at chess he has to travel abroad – to America, to give simultaneous- and blindfold exhibitions. He does all this - but at the expense of his health. He loses the fight between "the effort, to maintain, even as a professional player, the standards of a gentleman." - two things, which were apparently hardly compatible in the narrator's view. Professional player and Gentleman - this sounds like Lady and Whore.

There is definitely a historic model for the literary figure: no-one of international rank prostituted himself as much as Harry Nelson Pillsbury. For years with the patience of a circus horse he performed for the sensation-seeking public the almost daily routine (and often even twice) of playing chess for a couple of dollars - mostly simultaneous- and blindfold events against dozens of players, including blindfold card games and other absurd memory exercises. He died aged 34 in 1906.


When David passed away, in the same year no-one really noticed that apart from a young promising author who wrote a warm funeral obituary. This young writer was Stefan Zweig, the creator of the everlasting "Schachnovelle". If one compares both works, "The Royal Game" of David and "The Royal Game" (as it is often translated into English) of Zweig, it becomes quite clear that the former was openly used as a model. David was never a first class writer; so Zweig's last work seems to be the continuation of David's attempt but with much more gifted possibilities. There are a lot of similarities between the protagonists Adolf Adolfi on the one side and Dr. B and Czentovic on the other. Even word-for-word correlations and similarities are to be found.


Copyright © 2002 by Christian Hörr