In the 1930s, the world was entering into a time of upheaval. The Soviet Revolution had solidified itself into the lives of the Russian people and Germany was in the midst of economic transitions that would give way to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Among the turmoil, Russian author Vladimir Nabokov was inspired by the life of his friend, Curt von Bardeleben, a chess master who died after falling out of a window in 19241, to pen a story for a Russian quarterly. Some people believe that if Nabokov had not written his 1955 masterpiece, Lolita, that his 1930 work for the quarterly, called The Defense, would be known today as his greatest work. Most chess players are familiar with the book, which was republished years later as The Luzhin Defense or by the film of the same name starring John Turturro, and opinions vary widely. The purpose of this entry is to examine The Luzhin Defense and its portrayal of life, love, and the stereotype of chess madness.

The premise of the Luzhin Defense is that Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, the book’s protagonist, grows up in a high class family with exceptional education opportunities, but his homely appearance and lack of academic ability quickly earn him disdain from his family until it is discovered that he was born with a significant aptitude for chess. The novel and the movie portray this aptitude as a double-edged sword: Luzhin’s ability to play propels him to fame as a world-class chess player, but his obsession with the game is a hindrance to his social life and his ability to establish dynamic and meaningful connections with other people. This becomes most apparent when the father of Luzhin’s prospective bride makes a spontaneous “small talk” inquiry about the difficulty of playing chess. Luzhin’s calm and distant demeanor shifts to excitement as he arranges tabletop items into chess patterns and explains his thoughts and feelings about key opening moves. The father is obviously overwhelmed by the information and attempts to dismiss Luzhin’s ranting by playing off his words with a simple response, “Yes, a fascinating and difficult thing, this chess.”2 The scene appears in the book and the film and is a brutally honest evaluation of the public’s most typical perception of chess players. The game is viewed unfortunately viewed by many as a trivial pursuit3, and much more so during Luzhin’s era than today. For example, there are photos of Bobby Fischer, Paul Morphy, Alexander Alekhine, and other great chess players along with chess boards and art representing the game scattered throughout my office at work. While there are some serious chess players in my hospital, most people enter the room and look at the chess memorabilia in a way that clearly says, Look at the cute chess pieces, and belies the depth of meaning these items convey to me and so many others. The social challenges faced by Luzhin off the chess board are something that most players can relate to, but the stigma of chess madness is the epicenter of division of opinions on the merits of The Luzhin Defense.

Chess and the Psychosis Factor

It is said that life often imitates art, with most film and literature about chess emphasizing the social awkwardness and psychosis that accompany some of the greatest chess minds in history. Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer are as famous for their mental collapses as they are for their chess brilliance. After leaving highly publicized and successful chess careers, each of them succumbed to unusual behavioral patterns that indicated possible psychosis and eventually died in exile. I mention possible psychosis because neither player was ever formally given a psychiatric diagnosis. Unfortunately for modern chess, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen may not be widely known outside the world of chess unless they suffer a significant psychological break or are involved in some form of controversy. Instead of chess greatest, the world tends to remember chess devastation and disappointment such as Bobby Fischer’s disappearance after his 1972 World Championship victory. Some people would consider this a chess-specific problem, but most professional baseball players are unknown outside of their home markets unless they commit a crime. The difficulty for many chess players with The Luzhin Defense is that it seems to perpetuate many of the stereotypes connecting chess players and psychosis because as it was with Morphy and Fischer, Luzhin meets an untimely end in the book’s final pages.

It is difficult to peer through the bias and prejudice that some people may have about the stereotypes The Luzhin Defense to see the story for what it is: the authentic psychological condition and experiences of a man whose life was held together by chess. Chess often carries the stigma that it drives its players insane, but the story of Luzhin’s life seems more like that of Morphy and Fischer in that chess was the force that held his life together. In times of chaos, people will search desperately for a way to control the world around them. Control is an illusion in itself, but a person experiencing a perceived loss of total control can become depressed or psychotic if the condition is left untreated. In the case of Alexander Luzhin, chess was the lifeblood that held his world together. He was unable to reconcile his physician’s instructions to give up the one thing that formed the fabric of his universe. Chess creates obsession in its players for various reasons, but Luzhin’s obsession had nothing to do with simple aesthetics or competition. Instead, chess represented a deeply philosophical and existential paradigm in his life. This depth of knowledge and experience within the game itself is why the love of chess has persisted throughout civilization for centuries. It is believed that chess originated as a way for military commanders to simulate battle line movements in combat4 and has been applied far beyond the military to finances and social networking. It is this apparent universalism and beautiful complexity that has cemented chess in the world’s psyche as a deeply intellectual and multidimensional game. Chess was the only thing that Luzhin had ever learned to control in his life. We may never know for sure if this was the case for Morphy or Fischer, but once Luzhin was ordered by physicians to stop playing chess or risk dying as a result, he found new ways to integrate chessic thinking into his everyday life. A simple “Hello” to a passerby could be represented by a pawn to e4, or a cordial meeting could be represented by a Knight to f3.

The Heart of a Woman

There are many fascinating parts of The Luzhin Defense story and its characters, but I believe that none are as fascinating as the unnamed young lady who marries Luzhin and becomes his rock of support through his downward spiral. It is safe to say that the story is less about chess and more about the human spirit of love and compassion in the face of hopelessness. Mrs. Luzhin, as she is referred to through the second half of the book, is arguably one of the most patient and devoted women in the history of literature. Despite Luzhin’s odd behavior and his obsession with chess, she remains a passionate and dedicated wife. In a sense, Mrs. Luzhin represents the unconditional love that only comes from the deepest and most personal place in our hearts. While most people would probably have discarded Luzhin, her open heart accepted his faults because she saw more in him as a person and recognized the elegance of a soul buried under decades of torment and despair. For a man who has known this kind of love from a woman, the story is intoxicating. For a man who yearns for this kind of love from a woman, the story is viciously inspiring. I wholeheartedly believe that if we as a people can believe the story of Alexander Luzhin’s psychosis through chess without blinking an eye, we can accept the unconditional love of a woman in the same manner. It is Mrs. Luzhin whose kindness and devotion reminds us that when the world is spiraling out of control, there is no safer place than in the heart of someone who loves us.

Are We Crazy or What?

Alexander Luzhin was probably crazy. Paul Morphy was probably crazy. Bobby Fischer was probably crazy. You are probably crazy. I am probably crazy. Do you see a pattern emerging? In some aspects, psychosis is in the eye of the beholder since what might be crazy in one culture or setting is perfectly normal in another setting. There are a growing multitude of examples where chess has proven to increase aptitudes in math and science and to help deter early onset dementia. I find it difficult to believe that chess itself is responsible for psychosis such as seen in Alexander Luzhin. Moreover, I believe that Luzhin already suffered from a psychiatric condition and that chess was a vehicle that provided him the ability to control that psychosis. Maybe someday a comprehensive study will be conducted into the development of psychiatric conditions and chess, but until then these stories will continue to exist only in the realm of conjecture, urban legend, and first-class fiction.

  1. Lasker, Edward (1951). Chess Secrets I Learned from the Masters, pp. 20-21, in the section on Curt von Bardeleben. New York, 1951. Retrieved from 

  2. Vladimir Nabokov, The Luzhin Defense (New York, NY: Vintage International, 1964), Kindle, Location 1407. 

  3. Ibid, Location 1293. 

  4. David Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2006), Kindle, Location 295.