At the same time a prestigious chess tournament is being held, in which many of the world's strongest players are competing, including Lasker, Capablanca, Tarrasch, Blackburne, Nimzowitch. The tournament was real, but departing from historical fact is the inclusion of a fictional GM named Rozental (though he is based on Rubinstein). He is favoured to win.
In a third narrative strand, the main character, Dr. Otto Spethmann, is a psychoanalyst treating not only Rozental, but also Petrov, the de facto leader of the Bolsheviks with Lenin in exile, and a woman named Anna, with whom Spethmann falls in love. Thus we have the intricacies of chess mirrored by the intricacies of revolution, psychoanalysis, and love -- an impressive and ambitious conceit.
Finally, to top it all off, Spethmann is playing a correspondence game against his friend, a gifted violinist named Kopelzon. Spethmann has never beaten him, but this time he feels he has a good chance. As the book opens, they have reached a rook and pawn endgame. Spethmann has just played 34. Rxg4 -- and the body of a liberal newspaper editor has been retrieved from a canal.
Over the course of the novel, the progress of this game is followed by means of 12 diagrams.
"Psychoanalysis is like panning for gold"
Rozental is on the verge of a mental breakdown and has been brought to Spethmann by Kopelzon. The latter is very keen that Rozental win the tournament, for both are Polish Jews, and with Poland occupied and partitioned by Russia, a victory by Rozental would be a symbolic victory against their country's oppressors. Soon after Spethmann's first session with the Rozental, two thugs invade his office and steal the GM's file.
Petrov is a champion of the city’s poor and an electrifying speaker, but he is also exhausted and depressed. His life is hellish and the party a snakepit, especially since its penetration by a traitor, codenamed King, who has been betraying comrades. He visits Spethmann under the alias of Grischuk, and tells Spethmann, "I want you to make my lives possible."
Anna is suffering from nightmares, which appear to be related to a traumatic event that happened when, as a young girl, she visited Kazan with her father, Zinnurov, from whom she is now estranged. Zinnurov, nicknamed the Mountain, is an influential industrialist and anti-Bolshevik. He warns Spethmann that his daughter is erratic and cannot be trusted to speak the truth. Their stories about events in Kazan do not match.
"A series of ingenious slayings"
That is how Spethmann describes the chess tournament. They are matched by actual slayings beginning with the newspaper editor and quickly followed by that of a young man, whose body is found with Spethmann’s card in his pocket. Inspector Lychev of the St. Petersburg police believes Spethmann’s 17-year-old daughter, Catherine, is somehow involved.
Bodies continue to pile up as Bolsheviks clash with the secret police. A notorious Polish terrorist is on the loose and a plot to assassinate the Tsar is uncovered. Nothing can be taken at face value. Everyone has a secret, allegiances shift, complications spring up, lies and spies proliferate. The dizzying complexities suggest the many possible lines in a chess match. Spethmann observes:
…I tried to be as logical about Lychev’s story as about the variations in a chess game. In chess it is easy to be panicked by a complicated position and the aggressive manoeuvring of an opponent. What is needed always is a cool eye and a clear head. Calculate. Calculate concrete variations. What do I do if my opponent does this? What do I do after that?
Spethmann's cool approach to life is turned upside-down when he is drawn into a torrid affair, thrown into jail, shot at, blown up, and finally has to flee the country. The dilemma he faces cannot be won. He, like Russia itself, is in zugzwang.
Author interview on Chessbase