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Book Review: The Death’s Head Chess Club


The Death’s Head Chess Club is a historical fiction book by the British author John Donoghue. It was published on March 5th 2015 by Atlantic Books.

It details the story of a Jewish man who survived one of the slave camps of Germany during World War II.


SS Obersturmführer Paul Meissner arrives in Auschwitz from the Russian front. After being badly wounded he is fit only for administrative duty and his first and most pressing task is to improve flagging camp morale. He sets up a chess club which thrives, as the officers and enlisted men are allowed to gamble on the results of the games. However, when Meissner learns from a chance remark that chess is also played by the prisoners, he hears of a Jewish watchmaker who is ‘unbeatable’. Meissner sets out to discover the truth behind this rumour and what he finds will haunt him to his death…

(Thanks to goodreads for providing the summary, and encouraging my laziness.)

My reading experiences:

First, after reading the table of contents, I kind of got confused. I started to think that I picked up a chess book by mistake, where all sorts of openings and tactics will be examined.

Leaving aside the usefulness of those books to a blind guy like me, I breathed a sigh of relief when I started the first chapter.

Why did that confusion occur though? You may ask. It is because all the chapters are titled with the names of a chess opening, or some other chess tactic like zugzwang.

The story moves back and forth between 1962, where Emil, the watchmaker, is participating in a chess tournament, in which he is scheduled to face against Wilhelm, the guy who worked for the ministry of propaganda.

Incidentally, I would like to point out to those old people who think that people and governments were honest back in the day, that propaganda existed ever since the civilization dawned. so please stop calling the younger generation dishonest.

Emil, of course, dislikes Wilhelm, and due to their history, the match is high profile enough to receive the attention of press. Paul Meissner, who has become a priest by this point, tries to reconcile them, and may be help Emil find forgiveness.

However, one thing which I just cannot ignore. One Nazi German officer thinks that chess was invented by the master race. Which is fine, what can you expect from the people who appropriate the achievements of the other civilizations, and blame them for their own failures?

But Emil also states in this book that chess was created by angels to please God. And I say, no it wasn’t! But what else can you expect from the Europeans of that era?


First, the bitterness of Emil of being enslaved on those prison camps is played straight. Because any person would be bitter after experiencing those things. Second, the idea of forgiving and moving on is a great and positive thing.

And that is where the book falls short for me. it would have been rather great if Emil found forgiveness for his tormentors by himself, rather than an ex-officer turned priest encouraging him to become friends with Wilhelm. Don’t get me wrong, the plot is good enough, but I think that this book and me exist on a different emotional length.

If you like that, then go ahead, read this book. Otherwise, stay away, you will be disappointed just like me.

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Published by Tanish Shrivastava

I'm a guy who likes programming, chess, and writing.

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