NABOKV-L post 0024261, Tue, 21 May 2013 17:59:30 -0700

chess problem solution

NOTE: This page's former URL is/was, but
one click there will reveal why it is now here. I DLed this page on Aug. 4,
2006, and here upload it since I can find it nowhere else on the web. No author
is named anwhere on the page, else I surely would cite more than
"" as the author.

Solving Nabokov's Lolita Riddle
Otherworldly Chess Problems and Solutions
Chess problems were a key component of Nabokov's multi-layered game of artistic
deception. As the author declared in his 1962 interview for the BBC
program Bookstand "deception in chess, as in art, is only part of the game...a
good combination should always contain a certain element of deception". Likewise
in the posthumously published chapter of his memoirs 'OnConclusive Evidence'
Nabokov declared that riddling and mimicry could also involve a "camouflaged
solution of a chess problem".Hardly surprisingly, allusions to chess games
abound throughout Nabokov's fiction and non-fiction. The main protagonist in his
major chess novel The Defense (1964 [1930]), for example, is the insane chess
player, Luzhin. Humbert plays three chess games in Lolita. Nabokov's 1947
novel Bend Sinister provides three descriptions of chess-like moves including "a
lantern moved, knight-wise, to check him," "a cooked chess problem can be cured
by the addition of a passive pawn" and "the only move I care to make is to rook
my king the long side" (Bend Sinister, pp. 7, 84, 91).
One chess problem in particular, which was devised by Nabokov in Paris in late
1939 or early 1940, was essential to his overall plan to ensure children were
not seduced by predatory incestuous male relatives1. This strategy saw Nabokov
engage in an intriguing duel against Lewis Carroll - played out in the symbolic
language of chess. Nabokov's key chess problem and its accompanying commentary
were originally published in the article 'Exile' in the Partisan Review in early
1951, following its earlier rejection by the New Yorker magazine. A letter sent
in March 1950 by Nabokov to his New Yorker editor and friend Katharine White
confirms that the author thought this chess problem was extremely important and
was related, in some mysterious way, to the chess game plotted by Lewis Carroll
in Through the Looking-glass. As Nabokov explained:
"When coming to the last pages of the piece 'Exile,' please remember that the
frontispiece to the first edition of 'Alice in the Looking Glass' carries a very
subtle and difficult chess problem, and I would not like to think that New
Yorker readers could be more bewildered by my chess problem (which occupies only
a few lines) than Dodgson's little readers" (Selected Letters, 99).Shortly after
its publication in the Partisan Review, the chess problem in question was
incorporated by Nabokov into Chapter Fourteen of his autobiography,Speak,
Memory/Conclusive Evidence. It has since been reproduced in chess diagram
format, in Poems and Problems (1972, p.182) where it is accompanied by Nabokov's
succinct comment "composed in Paris, mid-May 1940…The irresistible try is for
the bafflement of sophisticated solvers".
Within Chapter Fourteen of Speak, Memory Nabokov clearly indicated that his 1940
chess problem contained an encoded message. This can be inferred by how he
ascribed specific qualities to his chess pieces. The Bishop, he explained, was a
metaphor for a search light, whereas the Knight was "a lever adjusted and tried,
and readjusted and tried again," (much like the nursery door-handle that must be
tried and tried again to gain sexual access to a child) (Speak Memory, p.227).
Chapter Fourteen ends with Nabokov's confessing that the controller who normally
censored information had allowed some vital pieces of information to pass so
that the concealed meaning of his chess symbols could finally be "divulged"
(Speak Memory, p.230).
Lewis Carroll's Chess World
Along with Shakespeare's plays and the Bible, the two enchanted stories
Dodgson/Carroll dedicated to Alice Liddell (i.e. Alice's Adventures in
Wonderlandand Through the Looking-glass)are amongst the most widely read pieces
of literature in the Western world. During her first Wonderland adventures Alice
kept company with a weird assortment of characters, including a pack of animated
cards. In Carroll's second Alice book, Through the Looking-glass, Alice is
surrounded by animated chess pieces and is cast in the role of the White Pawn.
Over the last half century, questions relating to the reasons for Dodgon's
uneasy obsession with Alice have troubled the public's mind. One of the first
writers to address this issue directly was the Scotsman Alexander Taylor, author
of The White Knight (1952). In his book, Taylor surmised (correctly I believe)
that Dodgson had masqueraded within the mirrored chess game as the lamenting,
ageing White Knight. The quests of lonely knights featured reasonably regularly
in Dodgson's writings. An earlier example is the 1862 poem Stolen Waters penned
by Dodgson before he was rendered persona non grata in the Liddell
household. Stolen Waters details how a knight was betrayed by a maiden who stole
his heart and replaced it with a cold stone. He fears he is going mad, but then
rejoices at the sound of "a rosy child" singing (Carroll 1989, 965). Ultimately
the knight prefers the madness of her world, which contains death as well as
eternity, to that of his own. (Stolen Waters is considered by some scholars to
be Dodgson's most conscious confession to his pedophilia.)
The central purpose of Carroll's chess game in Through the Looking-glass was to
demonstrate the significance of a pawn's 'queening.' A pawn is 'queened' in
chess when it reaches the opposite end of the board. Should it do so, it is
typically exchanged for a queen, as this is the most powerful piece on the
board. John Tenniel's still unsurpassed illustrations in Through the
Looking-glass suitably depicted Queen Alice with a heavy golden crown on her
It is impossible to say categorically what this act of enthronement meant to
Charles Dodgson. However, it is certainly possible that it may have reflected
Dodgson's fervent wish that Alice could mature psychologically, and thus
understand and respond to his sexual interest in her, while staying a child in
every other way, especially physically.
The chess game in Through the Looking-glass was conveniently illustrated by
Lewis Carroll with the following frontispiece:

White pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves
[NOTE: actually white to play wins easily in three, but hey, who counts...
Nabokov's Defense
When composing his chess problems Nabokov drew specific inspiration from the
strategy Lewis Carroll's had adopted in Through the Looking-glass where the
moves made by the various pieces on the chess board closely reflect the action
unfolding within the narrative. Setting out on a mission to defeat
Dodgson/Carroll Nabokov ensured that his 1940 chess problem similarly lurked as
a ghostly presence behind the scenes of Bend Sinister (1947). Within Bend
Sinister Vladimir Nabokov's quasi-autobiographical character, eight year old
David, is admitted to an 'Institute for Abnormal Children' where he is sexually
tortured by the other inmates. This 'Institute' is a variant on the 'police
state of sexual myth' which Nabokov accused Sigmund Freud of creating and
Nabokov was especially suspicious of the phallic connotations attached to the
opening move made by the Red Queen in Carroll's chess game, as illustrated in
the chess diagram below:
Figure 1
The Red Queen's move from square e2 to h5 could be regarded, à la Freud, as the
symbolic equivalent of the phallus (or erect penis.). Nabokov was not alone in
regarding the Red Queen's opening gambit with a jaundiced eye. In The White
Knight Alexander Taylor (1952, 101) similarly concluded that in devising his
chess game Carroll "was not interested in the game as a game, but in the
implications of the moves". Nabokov used the suggestive trajectory of the Red
Queen as a foil for the elegant, solution he himself devised to the incestuous
abuse of children by adult males. Nabokov's analysis of the malevolent undertow
pervading Carroll's chess game where Alice is 'queened' motivated him to include
a coronation scene as a crucial climax to the Lolita riddle. Acts of crowning
(symbolizng learning the art of fellatio) and beheading (symbolizng castration)
were destined to become key components of Nabokov's encoded language of incest.
In the stunning1940 chess problem Nabokov composed, White has been set the task
of achieving check-mate in two moves. As the chess diagram at Figure 2 below
illustrates, two pawns in this game face immanent danger of being 'queened.' The
White Pawn on b7 is one square away from reaching the end of the board, whereas
the Black Pawn on c3 is two squares away from his 'coronation.' If the Black
Pawn advances from c2 to c1, we can expect it will be molested by the
incestuously-minded Black Knight that stands, poised and at the ready, nearby.
Figure 2
For White it is always tempting to advance the White Pawn to b8 where it would
normally be exchanged for a queen. Within his memoirs, however, Nabokov
idiosyncratically instructed that the pawn should be exchanged for a knight.
(This may be Nabokov-speak for how a queened pawn, or sexually abused boy, is in
danger of developing a pedophilic orientation as an adult.) In any case, whether
it is exchanged for a knight or a queen, advancing the White Pawn to b8 (a ruse
that is the equivalent of the 'irresistible try') is the wrong move to make.
White cannot ensure check-mate in the prescribed two moves if it 'queens' the
pawn on b8. This is because Black can then move the Black Pawn on square d7 to
d6, thus placing the White King under check from the Black Rook on g7. White
must get out of check before it can proceed to check-mate Black and win the
Provided that we follow Nabokov's instructions and exchange the pawn for a
knight, the author then insisted that the best move open to Black was to avoid
placing the White King under check from the Black Rook. Instead he advised that
the Black Pawn on c3 should be advanced to square c2. This move, I strongly
suspect, is the equivalent of the "modest dilatory move" (Speak Memory, 230).
Via this ingenious code Nabokov managed to divulge how Uncle Ruka escalated his
abuse from fondling to anal digital penetration. (Ruka richly deserved his
reputation as a 'bottom-feeler.') The Black Pawn is now only one move away from
his fraught rendezvous with the Black Knight on square c1 and no chess piece can
intercede to prevent its perilous advance.
Non-traumatic anal penetration can be very pleasurable for children (as well as
adults). It is clear that this indelicate maneuver, performed by Ruka upon
Vladimir, placed his nephew in grave and immediate danger. It set Vladimir off
on a disastrous course whereby he agreed to meet his uncle in private. So began
a long and painful period of sexual enslavement and tuition. Nabokov's acute
sensitivity to how adults 'seduce' children in order to gain their co-operation
and compliance (escalating from fondling, gift-giving, and lavishing the child
with special attention to tickling games, and more sexual forms of stroking and
genital contact) is well illustrated in Nabokov's novella The Enchanter where
Arthur knows he must perform certain unspecified actions on Marie in order to
awaken her sexual curiosity. This disastrous, seductive sequence of events,
which invariably results in the 'queening' of a pawn, is precisely what the true
solution to Nabokov's chess problem must prevent.
Rather than advance the White Pawn to b8, the best move open to White is
actually to propel the protective White Bishop (i.e. the searchlight) into
action. We must move the Bishop to occupy square c2 on the board, as illustrated
in Figure 3 below:
Figure 3
By occupying the square immediately in front of the Black Pawn the White Bishop
stops the Black Pawn's advance. This effectively prevents the "modest dilatory
move" from ever taking place. The White Queen is then free to check-mate the
Black King by moving to c5 on the board, thus achieving 'end game' in the
prescribed two moves.
This, absolutely brilliant, two move solution accomplishes nothing less than a
retrospective intervention which thwarts Vladimir's seduction at the hands of
Uncle Ruka! What is additionally noteworthy about the White Bishop's protective
move to c2 is that it literally deflates the phallic innuendos vested in the Red
Queen's opening move in Through the Looking-glass.
Further complexity can be read into the Red Queen's opening move as it is the
equivalent of a 'bend sinister' - a fact that goes a long way toward explaining
the title of Nabokov's novel. Within heraldry, a bend sinister is a diagonal bar
that, from the viewer's perspective, ascends from the bottom left to the top
right. In the introduction to Bend Sinister Nabokov equated this trajectory with
a mirror distortion, a mistaken choice and a sinister underworld. Heraldic bars
commonly feature on coats of arms and flags of the European nobility. A bend
sinister is considered by some heraldry experts to convey a sense of bastardry
or illegitimacy.
On a purely symbolic level, Nabokov's stunning two-step solution achieves much
more than Vladimir's retrospect rescue. Theoretically speaking, it organises the
rescue of every child who is suffering (or who has suffered) sexual abuse at the
hands of a male perpetrator. It does so by, quite literally, deflating the erect
penis! Nabokov was perfectly well aware of the importance vested by Freud (and
patriarchy in general) in the phallus. Freud ably communicated a sense of the
phallus' significance in the oedipal myth, where the fear of castration compels
a young boy to relinquish his first 'erotic object'- his mother. It is now
possible to see that the defensive trajectory of the White Bishop was meant to
tackle and defeat Freud on an entirely different level. This second, perhaps
even more astonishing coup de grâce, explains why within Speak, Memory, Nabokov
discussed inventing a chess strategy "with an unusual line of defense; it might
be a glimpse of the actual configuration of men" (i.e. it might imitate a part
of the male anatomy.) The author went on to explain that this line of defense
was intended to encapsulate, "with humor and grace," a difficult theme he had
long otherwise despaired of expressing (Speak, Memory, 226).
The protective move made by the searchlight White Bishop discloses yet another
fervent wish on Nabokov's part. The solution requires a vigilant adult or parent
(the White Bishop) to watch over the child (the Black Pawn) to prevent the
dangerous 'modest, dilatory' move that rendered Vladimir vulnerable to accepting
Ruka's (the Black Knight's) invitation to meet with him in secret and be
'queened.' The solution vividly communicates Nabokov's profound desire that his
mother Elena had intervened in Ruka's activities, just as Lorina Liddell had
once done with Charles Dodgson. On a macro-conceptual level, Nabokov's chess
problem solution provides astonishing proof of the author's immodest claim to
"think like a genius" (SO, xi). I can only say that I applaud his intentions,
understand his wishes and in terms of its sheer technical brilliance, I take my
hat off to him.
1. Nabokov did not address the issue of the sexual abuse of children by female
adults. Research in the human sciences indicates that women constitute a
minority of child sex offenders at between 5% - 20%. Female child sex offenders
are rarely motivated by pedophilia (i.e. an erotic attraction to the biological
child.) My decision to focus in on Nabokov's concern with pedophilia and
incestuous male relatives should in no way be interpreted as underestimating the
trauma and confusion experienced by children who are sexually abused by female

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