Game of the Gods
The story of a lowly servant who, for an instant, becomes a king
In 1930s British India, a humble servant learns the art of chaturanga, the ancient Eastern ancestor of chess. His natural talent soon catches the attention of the maharaja, who introduces him to the Western version of the game. Brought to England as the prince’s pawn, Malik becomes a chess legend, winning the world championship and humiliating the British colonialists. His skills as a refined strategist eventually drag him into a strange game of warfare with far-reaching consequences. Inspired by the unlikely true story of chess master Malik Mir Sultan Khan, Game of the Gods is a fascinating tale of karma and destiny, by the author of the multimillion-copy bestseller The Lüneburg Variation.
Paolo Maurensig was born in Gorizo, and lives in Udine, Italy. Now a bestselling author, he debuted in 1993 with The Lüneburg Variation, translated into … Read more
Book Club Questions
- The novel’s preface states that it “makes no claim to being a biography” and that its events are “partly true and partly imagined.” Does this affect how you approach the book? Is the line between fiction and history―between imagination and truth―important?
- What is the significance of chaturanga for Sultan Khan? What, for him, does chaturanga have that chess lacks?
- How is chaturanga representative of the workings of karma in the novel?
- Does Sultan Khan’s status as a servant make him a better chess player?
- Do you approve or disprove of Sir Umar Khan and his actions throughout the narrative?
- Sultan Khan declares that he is ashamed of how his talent at chess made him proud in a way that was unfitting for his caste. Do you believe his pride and shame are justified?
- Consider the various ways in which Sultan Khan has been a pawn. How does he reconcile his karma and the ways he was used by his master?
- Why do you think Sultan Khan chooses exile in America instead of immediately returning to India?
- What do you believe are the journalist Norman La Motta’s intentions behind interviewing Sultan Khan and compiling his biography? Do you think this is an act of goodwill, or does La Motta only do it to satisfy his own curiosity?
- What do you believe is the reason for framing a fictionalized story about a forgotten chess master within the context of the Indo-Pakistani conflict? What effect does this have?
- Why do you think Norman La Motta accepts the gift of the tiny dog and her puppies?
- Consider the last few paragraphs of the novel. Do you believe the ending is a cynical or a hopeful one?
“Italian novelist Maurensig spins an intriguing historical narrative of Indian chess master Malik Mir Sultan Khan (1903–1966)…Maurensig’s tragic tale of genius and destiny duly salvages a forgotten hero.”
“Brisk footwork and dazzling prose rendered into English by Anne Milano Appel…with this bold and compelling act of historical imagination, Maurensig imbues another great but marginalised figure of chess history with a capacious interiority and a history as intricate and elegant as the most calculated chess games; a minor history played against and with the grand History of imperialism, fascism, and migration.”
“Game of the Gods is fast and consistently entertaining.”
“If the overused word ‘originality’ has meaning, it can especially be applied to Paolo Maurensig, who since his first brilliant novel, The Luneburg Variation, has created a narrative universe all the more imaginative as it is rationally disturbing, a departure from the ordinary.”
Claudio Magris, award-winning author of Blameless
“In Game of the Gods, Paolo Maurensig returns, as in some of his finest work, to the past and to chess. In it, he tells a tale—partly inspired by that of a chess player from British India nearly a century ago—of a sudden, surprising champion plucked briefly from obscurity only to disappear into a life where the unexpected still has some games in store. This haunting, delicately written novel, which reads, at times, like myth or fable, is a story of genius, colonialism, and class, and of a curious fatalism that lingers in the memory long after the last move is made.”
Andrew Stuttaford, Contributing Editor, National Review
“With his elegant writing, and via an intriguing chess game, Maurensig relates the life and deeds of an extraordinary character lost to history.”
“Maurensig has not only given us another great character from the enchanting world of chess―in these pages we find the spirit of an entire era. This novel has deep historical roots, numerous surprising twists, and contains infinite worlds in which karma provides many sharp turns to existence.”
Gli amanti dei libri
“The passion for the game of chess, in Game of the Gods, is linked to themes of another order: the scenario of war, the element of racial distinctions and colonialism, the different conception of life between East and West. The elegance with which Maurensig manages to tie these into the plot is another of the typical elements of this author, and a merit of this book: a fluid novel that weaves historical reality and literary inventiveness in an astounding and fascinating way.”
Libri la mia vita
“Game of the Gods, the fictional story of Sultan Khan, who truly was one of the strongest chess players of his time, is of such beauty that it leaves one astonished, even in the face of sadder and more painful events.”
L come Libro
“Maurensig has the incredible gift of bringing back dreams that seemed to have vanished. Drawing fully from the great Kiplingian literature and reconverting it to the author’s central European figure is not at all easy. But Maurensig is a writer of immense value. This book is a jewel, a gift.”
FABIO PONZANA, blogger
“The novel is a beautiful fresco of cultural clashes and historical conflicts transposed on the board of a strategy game. Sultan’s adventurous life turns sadly towards a destiny where karma, Hindu myths, and resignation come together in a poetic and reflective way.”
BRUNO ELPIS, blogger
Why You Should Read This Book
“After writing four books set in the chess world, I had decided not to write another one. And yet it felt like something was missing, and giving up such a fascinating world entirely left me dissatisfied. As fate would have it, however, a small publishing house just starting out proposed that I write a novel with chess as its theme. And that’s when I recalled a character who had actually existed and who had been unjustly forgotten: Sultan Khan.”
PAOLO MAURENSIG, the author
“The changing settings mirror the protagonist’s rather extreme reversals of fortune: the challenge was to maintain an apt tone throughout the shifting destinies of his adventurous life and not slip into theatrical melodrama. Because Malik Mir Sultan Khan is an enigma and an outsider to the world, poised as he is between East and West, it was important to ensure that he did not remain alien to the reader, which Maurensig accomplishes with his sometimes droll, always considered prose.”
ANNE MILANO APPEL, the translator
“In this colorful novel, the bestselling author of The Lüneburg Variation returns to his old passion: chess. Maurensig’s humble protagonist has a God-given talent for the game, which leads him—and the reader—through India to England to the United States, becoming embroiled in major historical events of the twentieth century. Paolo Maurensig, one of Italy’s best contemporary authors, proves himself once again to be a captivating storyteller.”
JUDITH UYTERLINDE, the publisher