The Death’s Head Chess Club tells the story of an unlikely relationship between a Jewish Auschwitz survivor and an SS officer. The officer, Paul Meissner, sent to Auschwitz after being badly wounded, is put in charge of SS morale. He starts a chess club, which thrives because of gambling on the games. The survivor, Emil Clément, is a gifted chess player.
In Auschwitz, Emil’s children are sent to the gas chamber and he is forced to become a slave labourer. Each day he endures starvation, indignity and brutality under the constant threat of the gas chamber.
In a chance conversation, Meissner learns that chess is played by the prisoners, and that one of them is said to be unbeatable. The idea of an unbeatable Jew is an affront to SS sensibilities, and a challenge is issued.
At first, Emil refuses to play for the gratification of the SS. Eventually, he agrees to play because, if he wins, a prisoner’s life will be spared from the gas chamber. In the games that follow, Emil’s victories infuriate the SS.
The story moves between 1944 Auschwitz and 1962 Amsterdam, where Emil is participating in an international chess tournament. Here, Emil encounters Meissner, now a Catholic priest, who has terminal cancer. Meissner carries his SS culpability endlessly. He is determined to become reconciled with Emil before he dies.