“Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity.” – Vladimir Nabokov
I’ve been playing chess seriously for more than a decade, since my graduate school days in New York City, when I first lost money to the hustlers in Washington Square Park, then won money, then was refused games.
I play over-the-board (OTB) infrequently, but online chess often. It seems chess is so dissimilar to fiction, because one deals with cold, hard, implacable logic and the other with the vicissitudes of human emotion, but I find more than a few similarities.
Nabokov, who wrote an entire novel centered around chess (“The Defense”), highlights the creativity required to create a chess puzzle, comparing it to art. It’s not only chess puzzles, though. Any beautiful and brilliant chess game exhibits “originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity.” Puzzles just do it in capsule form. The really surprising part of the Nabokov quote, though, is the end, the “splendid insincerity.”
If insincerity is like trickery, then it’s easy to see the comparison: The puzzle’s obvious choice is often the wrong one, which is why so many puzzles involve sacrifices (Queen Sacks) and other improbable moves. Similarly, a goal of fiction is to use trickery by choosing a plot twist that will not be guessed by the reader, but when the twist comes, for it to seem destined.
But insincerity must have other dimensions. Nabokov probably didn’t mean that the author was “insincere,” but that the work of art itself was insincere in some way. But insincerity has such a negative connotation. What great fiction could be described as insincere?
Perhaps Nabokov was thinking of his own oeuvre. In “Lolita,” a prime example of a deceitful first person narrative, Humbert skews the course of events to portray himself in the best light. Insincere narrators — or even ones believing themselves to be sincere, but are not — do make for splendid books.
But what books would you describe as “splendidly insincere?” Books or authors, I suppose, though it might be easier to choose books.
And would any of these make the list?
A list of Chess Fiction:
- Nabokov’s The Defense
- Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep
- Michael Chabon The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
- Samuel Beckett Murphy – both players try to lose
- The Courter (Short Story), Salman Rushdie
- The Ten Best Chess Books (from The Guardian)