Among the passengers of a large ocean boat sailing from New York to Buenos Aires is the world chess champion Mirko Centovic. A more informed friend of the narrator reports that Mirko was orphaned at the age of twelve. A compassionate pastor from a remote village in Yugoslavia took him into care. The boy was stupid, stubborn, tongue-tied. His unwieldy brain did not learn the simplest things. Mirko’s unusual abilities to play chess were discovered by chance. He has many times won from the pastor, his neighbor, amateur chess players from the neighboring town.
Studying six months in Vienna with a connoisseur of chess, Mirko never learned to play blindly, because he could not remember the previous moves of the party. This shortcoming did not interfere with Mirko’s success.
The best players, who certainly surpassed his mind, imagination and courage, could not withstand his iron, cold logic.
At the same time, he remained a limited, uncouth boy. Using his talent and fame, he tried to earn as much money as possible, showing petty and gross greed. For many months he did not lose a single game.
On the boat, the narrator finds chess lovers, among whom stands the Scotsman Mac Connor, a mining engineer. Mac Connor belongs to that category of self-confident, prosperous people who, any defeat, perceive as a blow to their vanity. McConnor persuades the champion for a solid fee to give a simultaneous game session to the company of chess fans. The champion suggests that all lovers play against him together.
This game ends with a complete defeat of the amateurs. McConnor demands a rematch. Centaur agrees. On the seventeenth move, an advantageous position for the amateurs is formed. Mac Connor takes up his pawn, when suddenly the hand of a man of about forty-five stops with a narrow, sharply outlined, deathly pale face. He predicts the development of the game and our defeat. The players are amazed, because a nine-turn mate can only guess a player of the highest class.
His sudden appearance, his intervention in the game at the most critical moment seemed to us something supernatural.
Thanks to the advice of a stranger, amateurs achieve a draw from the world champion. Centovitch offers to play the third game. Having figured out who was his real and only opponent, he looks at the stranger. Covered with an ambitious passion, McConnor insists that a stranger play one against Centovic, but he refuses and leaves the salon.
The narrator finds a stranger on the upper deck. That is represented by Dr. B. This name belongs to the family respected in the old Austria. It turned out he did not suspect that he had successfully played against the world champion. After hesitating, Dr. B. agrees to a new party, but asks to warn the amateurs that they do not place too high hopes on his abilities. The narrator is struck by the accuracy with which the doctor referred to the smallest details of parties played by different champions. Apparently, he devoted a lot of time to studying the theory of chess play.
Dr. B. with a smile agrees, adding that it happened in exceptional circumstances. He invites the narrator to listen to his story.
The Story of Doctor B
During the Second World War, B. was on par with his father headed the legal office in Vienna. They gave legal advice and managed the property of rich monasteries. In addition, the office was entrusted with managing the capital of members of the imperial house.
The Gestapo followed B. persistently. The day before Hitler entered Vienna, the SS arrested him. B. was included in a group of people, of which the Nazis expected to squeeze money or important information. They were placed in separate rooms of the Metropol hotel, where the Gestapo headquarters was located. Without resorting to ordinary tortures, the fascists used more sophisticated torture with complete isolation.
They simply put us in a vacuum, into a void, knowing full well that loneliness acts most strongly on a person’s soul. Completely isolating us from the outside world, they expected that the internal tension sooner than the cold and the whip would make us speak.
B. took the clock, and the windows were laid with bricks so that he could not determine the time of day. For two weeks he lived out of time, out of life. They were called to questions regularly and forced to wait for a long time. Four months later, B. was waiting for his turn in front of the investigator’s office. There, in a small hallway, the overcoats hung. From the pocket of one overcoat, he managed to steal a small book and bring it to his room.
The book was a tool for the chess game, a compilation of one hundred and fifty chess games played by the largest masters. Using a checkered sheet instead of a chessboard, B. drew a figure from the bread crumb and began to play the games described in the collection.
The first game, he played a lot of times, until he finished without making mistakes. It took six days. Sixteen days later B. no longer needed a sheet.
With the power of my imagination I could reproduce the chessboard and figures in my mind and, thanks to the strict certainty of the rules, immediately grasped any combination in my mind.
Two weeks later B. could play any part of the book blindly. The chess task book became a weapon through which he could fight against the oppressive monotony of time and space. Gradually B. began to receive from his occupation aesthetic pleasure. This happy time lasted about three months. Then he found himself again in the void. All the parties were studied dozens of times, and B. had only one way out: start playing chess with himself. Gradually B. embraced “artificially created schizophrenia, deliberate bifurcation of consciousness with all its dangerous consequences.” During the game, he came into a wild excitement, which he himself called “poisoning by chess.”
The time has come when this obsession began to exert a destructive effect not only on the brain of B., but also on his body. One day he woke up in a hospital with an acute disorder of the nervous system. The attending physician knew the family of B. and told him what had happened. The prison guard heard screams in the camera B. thought that someone had entered the prisoner, and entered. As soon as he appeared on the threshold, B. rushed to him with his fists, shouted: “Do the move, the scoundrel, the coward!” And with such fury began to strangle that the warder had to call for help. When B. dragged to a medical examination, he broke free, tried to throw himself out the window, smashed the glass and severely cut his hand, then left a scar. In the first days in the hospital, he experienced something like a brain inflammation, but soon his mind and perception centers completely recovered.
The doctor did not inform the Gestapo that B. was completely healthy, and achieved his release.
As soon as I remembered my imprisonment, the consciousness of the eclipse came, and only many weeks later, strictly speaking, only now, on the boat, I found the courage to realize what I had experienced.
The coming party B. considers a test for himself. He wants to find out whether he can play with a living opponent, and what his state of mind is after his imprisonment in the Gestapo. He does not intend to touch any more chess: the doctor warned him that a relapse of the “chess fever” is possible.
The next day B. cleanly defeats the world champion. Centovitch requires a rematch. Meanwhile, the narrator notices the beginning of an attack of quiet insanity in B. On the nineteenth move he begins to make gross mistakes. The narrator strongly grabs B. by the hand, runs his finger over the scar and utters a single word: “Remember!”. Covered with a cold sweat, B. jumps up, recognizes the victory for Centov, apologizes to the audience and declares that he will never touch chess again. Then B. bows and leaves “with the same modest and mysterious appearance with which he first appeared among us.”