“The Last Checkmate”: Survival (and Chess) in Auschwitz

The Last Checkmate (William Morrow, $16.99), a novel about a young Polish woman who stays alive by playing chess in Auschwitz taps into the chess zeitgeist while going into some very dark historical places.

Debut author Gabriella Saab talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the power that the game exerts in her character’s life—and her own. 

YZM: Your background is in business and marketing—how did you find your way to writing a novel?  And why this novel—what drew you to the story? 

GS: Honestly, writing a novel has always been the dream, and to be a writer, I knew I had to learn how to market not only my work, but myself, so I pursued a business degree. As for this story, I have always been fascinated by women in history and World War II, specifically ordinary people who were extraordinarily brave in resisting the Nazis. Since Auschwitz was a men’s political prison until 1942, I wondered if I could come up with a historically plausible answer to the following question: If a woman had been sent to Auschwitz in 1941, how might she have been spared execution and what might she have done to fight for survival? I found my answer by researching the Polish resistance, the prisoner resistance movement in Auschwitz, and the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz. This orchestra was made up of women, mostly Jews, who were spared execution but were forced to entertain the guards with music and play while other prisoners marched to labor assignments or were executed. My main character, Maria, is a young Polish resistance worker who is caught and sent to Auschwitz, where she is forced to play chess to entertain the guards in exchange for her life.

YZM: You went to Auschwitz and Poland to do research; how long did that take and can you talk about your process?  Did anything you learned surprise you? 

GS: To accurately capture the setting, I wanted to visit Poland. After writing my first draft, I planned my week-long itinerary accordingly— a few days in Warsaw, where my main character is from, and a couple in Auschwitz. There, I spent one day exploring the camp on my own and another on a six-hour guided tour. Words cannot describe how powerful of an experience this was, almost as if something palpable was in the air: suffering, death, and evil, yet also the resilience and courage of victims and survivors. In Warsaw, at the Pawiak Prison Museum, I learned that political prisoners mixed their bread rations with hair and mud to fashion games to keep up their morale, and I saw a chess set entirely handmade by prisoners. It was so unexpected and surprising and a detail I was thrilled to discover, considering Maria is an avid chess player. I immediately included it in my story.

In writing violence, one must strike a proper balance between historical accuracy and not including excessive, gratuitous violence as if for shock value.

YZM: Why chess and why now?  Are you a chess player/fan of the game?  Did The Queen’s Gambit have anything to do with your interest, or was that just a coincidence?

GS: I did not begin writing this book with the intention of writing a book that involved chess. Believe it or not, this came from my character. As I was developing ideas and getting to know Maria, I had the nagging sense that she was a highly skilled chess player. I tried to ignore it, as I played only on a basic level, but she didn’t relent! I soon realized this was the thread I needed to tie my ideas together. Research sent me deep into chess history, grandmasters, and the history of women in chess. Now I have a much deeper appreciation for the game and especially for Vera Menchik and other women’s chess champions whose names are not often remembered by history. The Queen’s Gambit happened to be a coincidence, but I loved the Netflix series and was thrilled by the response to it; it was wonderful to see such excitement for a series featuring a female chess player. The Queen’s Gambit brought a fresh, dynamic approach to chess, and I hope its fans will enjoy my approach as well.

YZM: Let’s talk about the violent scenes in the novel, because there are many of them.  They were hard to read; were they hard to write?  What kind of research went into creating them and what do you hope your reader will take away? 

GS: The violent scenes were incredibly difficult to write. In writing violence, one must strike a proper balance between historical accuracy and not including excessive, gratuitous violence as if for shock value. Most of the violent scenes were inspired by survivor testimonies and research—autobiographies, interviews, and other resources, all of which had a significant impact on me emotionally. I balanced this research with a lot of self-care. When they read the scenes, I hope readers understand how hatred lead to such wickedness, but I also hope to give them a deeper appreciation for survivors and victims. Those who endured these evils are some of the bravest people I have ever encountered, and their stories should never, ever be forgotten.

YZM: How would you describe the arc of Maria’s journey? What is she seeking?  Justice? Vengeance? Forgiveness? Peace?  

GS: Maria, like myself, is not Jewish, but in her efforts to stop the persecution of Jews for their faith, she is thrust into evil and brutality unlike any she has ever known. What begins as a quest for justice and vengeance is, at its core, a journey for forgiveness, peace, and family, something both Maria and the reader will learn along the way. Maria must forgive herself and let go of her guilt in order to find peace, but ultimately she must also find the sense of family she has lost and the courage to come to terms with her experiences.