Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketches of Mind-Bending Chess Problems


Most of us strive to achieve some kind of distinction—or competence—in one, often quite nar­row, field. And for some of us, the path to suc­cess involves leav­ing behind many a path not tak­en. Child­hood pur­suits like bal­let, for exam­ple, the high jump, the trum­pet, act­ing, etc. become hazy mem­o­ries of for­mer selves as we grow old­er and busier. But if you have the for­mi­da­ble will and intel­lect of émi­gré Russ­ian nov­el­ist Vladimir Nabokov, you see no need to aban­don your beloved avo­ca­tions sim­ply because you are one of the 20th cen­tu­ry’s most cel­e­brat­ed writers—in both Russ­ian and Eng­lish. No indeed. You also go on to become a cel­e­brat­ed ama­teur lep­i­dopter­ist (see his but­ter­fly draw­ings here), earn­ing dis­tinc­tion as cura­tor of lep­i­doptera at Har­vard’s Muse­um of Com­par­a­tive Zool­o­gy and orig­i­na­tor of an evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry of but­ter­fly migra­tion. And as if that were not enough, you spend your spare time for­mu­lat­ing com­pli­cat­ed chess prob­lems, earn­ing such a rep­u­ta­tion that you are invit­ed in 1970 to join the Amer­i­can chess team to cre­ate prob­lems for inter­na­tion­al com­pe­ti­tions.

Nabokov Chess Problem

Nabokov was not eas­i­ly impressed by oth­er writ­ers or sci­en­tists, but he held chess play­ers in espe­cial­ly high regard. His “heroes include a chess grand­mas­ter,” writes Nabokov schol­ar Janet Gezari, “and a chess prob­lem com­pos­er…; chess games occur in sev­er­al of the nov­els; and chess and chess prob­lem lan­guage and imagery reg­u­lar­ly put his read­ers’ chess knowl­edge to the test.” His third nov­el, 1930’s The Defense, cen­ters on a chess mas­ter dri­ven to despair by his genius, a char­ac­ter based on real grand­mas­ter Curt von Bardeleben. For Nabokov, the skill and inge­nu­ity required for com­pos­ing chess prob­lems par­al­leled that required for great writ­ing: “The strain on the mind is for­mi­da­ble,” he wrote in his mem­oir Speak, Mem­o­ry, “the ele­ment of time drops out of one’s con­scious­ness.” Puz­zling out chess prob­lems and solu­tions, he wrote, “demand from the com­pos­er the same virtues that char­ac­ter­ize all worth­while art: orig­i­nal­i­ty, inven­tion, con­cise­ness, har­mo­ny, com­plex­i­ty and splen­did insincerity”—all qual­i­ties, we’d have to agree, of Nabokov’s fine­ly wrought fic­tions.

Nabokov Chess Game

In 1970, Nabokov pub­lished Poems and Prob­lems, a col­lec­tion of thir­ty-nine Russ­ian poems, with Eng­lish trans­la­tions, four­teen Eng­lish poems, and eigh­teen chess prob­lems, with solu­tions. He had pur­sued this pas­sion since his teens, and pub­lished near­ly three dozen chess prob­lems in his life­time. At the top of the post, see one of them, “Mate in 2,” sketched out in Nabokov’s hand (try to solve it your­self here). Below it, see anoth­er of the author’s chess prob­lem sketch­es, and in the pho­to above, see Nabokov absorbed in a chess game with his wife.

Though it may seem that Nabokov had lim­it­less ener­gy and time to devote to his extra-lit­er­ary pur­suits, he also wrote with regret about the price he paid for his obses­sion: “the pos­ses­sive haunt­ing of my mind,” as he called it, “with carved pieces or their intel­lec­tu­al coun­ter­parts swal­lowed up so much time dur­ing my most pro­duc­tive and fruit­ful years, time which I could have bet­ter spent on lin­guis­tic adven­tures.” Like the lep­i­dopter­ists still mar­veling over Nabokov’s con­tri­bu­tions to that field, the chess lovers who encounter his prob­lems, and his inge­nious use of the game in fic­tion, would hard­ly agree that his pur­suit of chess was fruit­less or unpro­duc­tive.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­cel Duchamp, Chess Enthu­si­ast, Cre­at­ed an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now Avail­able via 3D Print­er

Vladimir Nabokov’s Delight­ful But­ter­fly Draw­ings

Vladimir Nabokov Cre­ates a Hand-Drawn Map of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Vladimir Nabokov Names the Great­est (and Most Over­rat­ed) Nov­els of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Soul says:

    A real­ly inter­est­ing arti­cle about the life of a writer and very inspi­ra­tional (at least for me) about how you nev­er have to stop doing the things you love. We all can do all the thing we want, there is no excus­es.

  • Chess com­po­si­tions by Vladimir V. Nabokov accu­mu­lat­ed so far are at web­site Yet Anoth­er Chess Prob­lem Data­base (Yacpdb). In the “Author” box type last name first; there­after, hit the “Search” tab.

  • Tal says:

    One of the best com­ments I’ve Ever Read !

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.