A chess genius loses his grip on reality and begins to conflate the very fabric of his life with the logical parameters of the chessboard, reducing every person to a game piece and every action to the game's complex attacks and defenses, and soon succumbs to the mounting pressure this creates. As a boy, Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin seemed destined for nothing of any importance whatsoever. Ugly, socially inept, and withdrawn to the point of nonexistence, his family worries for his future. A chance encounter with a chess set, however, finally unlocks Luzhin's true potential. Luzhin proves his talent right away, encouraging his father to find a mentor, named Valentinov, to further hone his son's latent abilities.
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Under Valentinov's guidance, Luzhin climbs the provincial ranks, defeating all local challengers in short order. His genius for the game keeps growing, and In a mere ten years, he reaches the global rank of Grandmaster. But there's a cost. Luzhin's mind has begun to fetishize the game, raising its ordered world of moves and countermoves above the relatively senseless, and trivial, deliberations of the world around him.
And yet he's not completely detached; close, but not quite there just yet. Because it's at this time, soon after attaining Grandmaster, that Luzhin meets a young woman. He is immediately taken with her. She finds the air of genius about him to be mystical and alluring, and she agrees to marry him.
But this momentary pause in Luzhin's transformation into a mental automaton is only that, a pause. Soon he finds himself matched up with another Grandmaster, an Italian named Turati, to decide who will face the reigning chess world champion. Turati, despite also being a chess genius, is nothing like Luzhin. Turati is smooth, composed, and seemingly without any of the mental and emotional hiccups that plague Luzhin.
During the match, Luzhin prepares a beautifully elegant defense, all planned out ahead, but Turati possesses something else Luzhin does not: unpredictability. Turati smashes Luzhin's defenses with a series of bold, almost reckless moves. While neither player can quite pull out a win, and the game is temporarily suspended, Luzhin is personally destroyed. His last connection to reality is severed and he wanders the city in a daze.
His doctor diagnoses it as a nervous breakdown, and instructs his wife to keep him well-rested and away from chess. Luzhin's wife agrees. She does her best to mother him and nurse him back, but eventually chess, with its dehumanizing constructs, leaks back into Luzhin's consciousness. He makes the final complete transition to seeing life as a game of chess, and his defenses against madness and despair under attack.
Deciding he can no longer play, he locks himself in the upper-floor bathroom at a party. The guests, worried for him, begin banging on the door. When they finally burst in, the window is open and Luzhin is gone. The implication, which is never confirmed, is that he leaped to his death.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's rare for a writer to actually grasp the game he's writing about, but Nabokov clearly understands the epic nuances of chess. Without that, this book would never have worked even a fraction as well as it does.
Best scene in story:
The final scene, with its ambiguous ellipses as to what really happens to Aleksander, is particularly haunting, especially since its concluding statement -- "But there was no Aleksandr Ivanovich" -- could very well apply to him at any point in the previous 50 pages.
Opinion about the main character:
Even with all Aleksander's faults and the steady dehumanization Nabokov subjects him to as the novel progresses, by beginning the novel with his abusive and pathetic childhood, we never quite lose our empathy for him, no matter how ridiculous he becomes.