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The Immortal Game: A History of Chess [Paperback]

David Shenk
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Those curious about chess and wishing to learn more about the game (but not too much more) will welcome this accessible, nontechnical introduction. Shenk (The Forgetting) succinctly surveys the game's history from its origins in fifth- or sixth-century Persia up to the present, touching along the way on such subjects as his own amateurish pursuit of the game, erratic geniuses like Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer, chess in schools today, computer chess and his great-great-grandfather Samuel Rosenthal, who was an eminent player in late 19th-century Europe. To heighten the drama, Shenk intersperses the text with the moves of the so-called "immortal game," a brilliant example of "romantic" chess played between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky in London in 1851. Appendixes include transcripts of five other great games, along with Benjamin Franklin's brief essay "The Morals of Chess." Readers will come away from this entertaining book with a strong sense of why chess has remained so popular over the ages and why its study still has much to tell us about the workings of the human mind. 50 b&w illus. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

David Shenk is the author of four previous books, including The Forgetting, an acclaimed study of Alzheimer's, and Data Smog, about information overload in the Internet age. The greatest asset of The Immortal Game is its accessibility. Through an educated layperson's knowledge of chess, Shenk focuses on his subject's more intriguing points and leaves arcane rehashes of famous games for more technical texts. (An appendix obliges those who revel in such details.) At its most engaging, the book meditates on the ways that chess can enrich lives. Given its brevity, Shenk's overview sometimes sacrifices depth to coverage, though such an approach barely decreases the pleasure even an interested "wood-pusher"—chess slang for a weak player—might take away from this passionate and well-researched history.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Versatile author Shenk has conceived a bright idea for marching through the history of chess. His title a double entendre, Shenk alternates narrative passages on the ancient lineage of chess with move-by-move analysis of a spectacular 1851 contest that lore has dubbed "the immortal game." Shenk is also an Everyman-guide, and his attitude is one that many readers will share--he is attracted to the game's infinite possibilities but also intimidated by its difficult body of analytic knowledge. Trying to master chess has deranged more than a few, such as artist Marcel Duchamp and former champion Bobby Fischer, but it has also given great pleasure to others, such as Benjamin Franklin. Seeking a reason for the popularity of chess from its Persian and Indian origins 1,500 years ago to the present, Shenk decides it lies in chess' fluidity as metaphor. It was plainly conceived as a war game, but feudal European society found deeper meanings within it, as cognitive psychologists and logicians do today. Rangy, anecdotal, and nontechnical, Shenk's is popular chess history at its most readable. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Elegant . . .  a true page-turner, and a superb introduction to the game of chess."—Wall Street Journal“Clear, elegant, sophisticated and easy to understand. . . . Just the thing to get you in the thrall of this ancient game.” —Los Angeles Times“Shenk, a spry writer....[offers] a strong case for the game’s bewitching power.” —The New York Times Book Review“Fresh and fascinating...a world-spanning story [Shenk] relates with skill and verve.” —Chicago Sun-Times

About the Author

David Shenk is the author of Data Smog, and The Forgetting. A former fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, he has written for Harper's, Wired, Salon, The New Republic, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine, and is an occasional commentator for NPR's All Things Considered. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter.

From The Washington Post

Chess may or may not be the most intellectual of all games, but it is certainly the most romantic. Say the word "chess," and the images start to flicker through our minds: black-cowled Death hunched over a chessboard with the crusader in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal"; Alice adventuring through the Looking Glass; the thin-lipped grandmaster Kronsteen planning the destruction of James Bond in "From Russia with Love." Some lucky readers will remember Beth Harmon, the abused young girl who discovers her lonely destiny in Walter Tevis's superb novel The Queen's Gambit; others will recall the darker fate of Luzhin in Nabokov's The Defense. Then there's the legendary Paul Morphy -- the Edgar Allan Poe of chess -- who dazzled the world in his early 20s before sinking down into delusion and paranoia. More recently, 1997 headlines announced the defeat of a human world champion, Garry Kasparov, by the implacable machine-intelligence of the computer known as Deep Blue.

David Shenk recognizes all this romance, though The Immortal Game tends to emphasize chess's actual history and development. For most of us, Shenk's book possesses an almost inestimable advantage over the many other publications about chess: It isn't entirely made up of page after page of little chessboards, decorated with knights, pawns and bishops in seemingly random patterns, followed by arcane notations such as "N-QB3!!" In fact, you can be an utter novice, just a simple wood-pusher, and enjoy the author's engaging prose, honest self-deprecation (he's a lousy player) and the charm of his personal connection with the game: Shenk's great-great-grandfather was Samuel Rosenthal, once the champion of France.

Shenk, who has also written on health and aging, relates the history of chess from its origins in India and Persia to the development of the modern super-computers that now regularly surpass the skill of grand masters. In between, he traces the game in Arab culture and its refinement during the Middle Ages in Europe, discusses such influential figures as Benjamin Franklin (probably colonial America's strongest player) and Franklin's French contemporary François-André Danican Philidor, who first recognized the power of massed pawns. Shenk tells lots of good stories and anecdotes. Napoleon and Marx both adored chess without being very good at it; Marcel Duchamp gave up art ("Nude Descending a Staircase") to spend all his time thinking about openings and gambits; the Viennese expert Rudolf Spielmann (the perfect name!) famously advised that one should aim to "play the opening like a book, the middle game like a magician, and the endgame like a machine."

My own favorite story involves the British champion Harry Golombek -- later a chess columnist for the New York Times -- and Alan Turing, the pioneer visionary of artificial intelligence. Both men worked as code-breakers during World War II at Bletchley Park. To unwind from their cryptographic labors, the two would sometimes sit down to a game. "Golombek's chess superiority over Turing," writes Shenk, "was such that he could overwhelm Turing in a chess game, force Turing's resignation, and then turn the board around to play Turing's pieces against his own original pieces -- and win."

In the more thematic chapters of The Immortal Game, Shenk considers the connections between chess and schizophrenia, discusses the insights into cognitive psychology derived from studying blindfolded players (they don't so much "picture" the exact positions of the pieces as visualize fields of force around the board), and explains why Russia dominates international competitions. Shenk also lays out the four major schools in chess history: the Romantic (razzle-dazzle surprise tactics), the Scientific (patient positional play), Hypermodernism (rejection of traditional theories, e.g., a refusal to "overburden" the center of the board with pawns) and the New Dynamism (more organic play, going with the flow).

Shenk recognizes that all talk and no play can make for a dull book, so he periodically interrupts his historical chapters to analyze, move by move, what was supposed to be just a casual pick-up game. Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky happened to be in London for a 16-player championship tournament and sat down to relax a little at Simpson's Grand Divan Tavern, hardly knowing they were going to make history. That afternoon, on June 21, 1851, the two played out what has come to be known as "the Immortal Game." In this astonishing encounter, Anderssen, playing white, eventually gives up his two rooks to gain positional advantage and, in a breathtaking moment of sheer genius, deliberately, shockingly sacrifices his queen to clear the way to an unforgettable checkmate.

Sheer genius, did I say? Most people tend to believe that superior skill at chess is simply innate, a genetic mutation. Not so, says Shenk, in what may be his most surprising chapter. In truth, chess -- like so many other fields -- rewards study, discipline, passion. The more you practice, the better you get. Early mentoring leads to early success, which leads to feelings of pride, which encourages even greater effort, which results in further success. Shenk relates an impressive story about "mentored genius." In the late 1960s a Hungarian psychologist named Laszlo Polgar embarked on an experiment "to prove that any healthy baby can be nurtured into a genius: he publicly declared that he would do this with his own children, who were not yet born." He and his wife later home-schooled their three daughters in, among other subjects, chess:

"From a very early age, the three Polgar daughters, Zsusza, Zsofia, and Judit, studied chess for an average of eight to ten hours every day -- perhaps a total of some 20,000 hours from age eight to eighteen. . . . They all became 'chess' geniuses. In 1991, at age twenty-one, Zsuzsa . . . became the first woman in history to earn a grandmaster title through qualifying tournaments. The second child, Zsofia, also became a world-class player. Judit, the youngest, became at age fifteen the youngest grandmaster in history (a record previously held by Bobby Fischer), and was considered a strong candidate to eventually become world chess champion."

Shenk's dust jacket adds, beneath the title and subtitle, a cumbrous but accurate précis of this fine book's overall theme: "How 32 carved pieces on a board illuminated our understanding of war, art, science, and the human brain." In fact, The Immortal Game does all this with easy-going savvy and without making altogether inflated claims for chess. If you're new to what has been called the 64-square madhouse, you'll certainly learn a lot about its history from Shenk. But -- despite an appendix reprinting a handful of memorable games -- he's not going to teach you the intricacies of the King's Gambit Declined or the Nimzo-Indian Defense. Of course, most of us are pretty content just to checkmate our children and friends occasionally or, at the least, not be trounced by them with such ignominious regularity.

Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


Chess and Our Origins

When Sissa had invented chess and produced it to King Shihram, the latter was filled with amazement and joy. He ordered that it should be preserved in the temples, and held it the best thing that he knew as a training in the art of war, a glory to religion and the world, and the foundation of all justice.
ibn Khallikan, thirteenth century

Stories do not exist to tell the facts, but to convey the truth. It is said that in ancient India, a queen had designated her only son as heir to the throne. When the son was assassinated, the queen's council searched for the proper way to convey the tragic news to her. They approached a philosopher with their predicament. He sat for three days in silent thought, and then said: "Summon a carpenter with wood of two colors, white and black."

The carpenter came. The philosopher instructed him to carve thirty-two small figurines from the wood. After this was done, the philosopher said to the carpenter, "Bring me tanned leather," and directed him to cut it into the shape of a square and to etch it with sixty-four smaller squares.

He then arranged the pieces on the board and studied them silently. Finally, he turned to his disciple and announced, "This is war without bloodshed." He explained the game's rules and the two began to play. Word quickly spread about the mysterious new invention, and the queen herself summoned the philosopher for a demonstration. She sat quietly, watching the philosopher and his student play a game. When it was over, one side having checkmated the other, the queen understood the intended message. She turned to the philosopher and said, "My son is dead."

"You have said it," he replied.

The queen turned to the doorkeeper and said, "Let the people enter to comfort me."

The annals of ancient poetry and weathered prose are filled with many such evocative chess stories, stretched over 1,400 years. Over and over, chess was said to have been invented to explain the unexplainable, to make visible the purely abstract, to see simple truths in complex worlds. Pythagoras, the ancient mathematician heralded as the father of numbers, was supposed to have created the game to convey the abstract realities of mathematics. The Greek warrior Palamedes, commander of troops at the siege of Troy, purportedly invented chess as a demonstration of the art of battle positions. Moses, in his posture as Jewish sage, was said to have invented it as a part of an all-purpose educational package, along with astronomy, astrology, and the alphabet.

Chess was also considered a window into other people's unique thoughts. There is the legend of the great medieval rebbe, also a cunning chess player, whose son had been taken away as a young boy and never found. Many decades later, the rebbe was granted an audience with the pope. The two spoke for a while, and then decided to play a game of chess. In their game the pope played a very unusual combination of moves which, to any other opponent, would have been astonishing and overpowering. But the strange combination was not new to the rebbe; he had invented it, in fact, and had shared it only with his young son. The pope, they both instantly realized, was the rebbe's long lost child.

And there are hundreds—maybe thousands—more. Hearing these stories, we care less about whether they are completely true and more about what they say. Myths, said Joseph Campbell, "represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums." Chess myths, in particular, tell us first that chess goes way, way back, and that it has always been regarded not just as a way to pass the time, but also as a powerful tool for explanation and understanding. While chess is ostensibly about war, it has for 1,400 years been deployed as a metaphor to explore everything from romantic love to economics. Historians routinely stumble across chess stories from nearly every culture and era—stories dealing with class consciousness, free will, political struggle, the frontiers of the mind, the mystery of the divine, the nature of competition, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the emergence of a world where brains often overcome brawn. One need not have any passion for the game itself to be utterly captivated by its centuries of compelling tales, and to appreciate its importance as a thought tool for an emerging civilization. Chess is a teaching and learning instrument older than chalkboards, printed books, the compass, and the telescope.

As a miniature reflection of society, it was also considered a moral guidepost. Yet another myth has chess invented to cure the cruelty of Evil-Merodach, a vile Babylonian king from the sixth century b.c. who murdered his father King Nebuchadnezzar and then disposed of his body by chopping it into three hundred pieces and feeding the pieces to three hundred vultures. Desperate to curb the brutality of his new leader, the wise man Xerxes created chess in order to instill virtues and transform him into a just and moral ruler: Here is how a king behaves toward his subjects, and here is how his grateful subjects defend their just king . . .

Separately, each chess myth conveys a thousand truths about a particular moment in time where a society longed to understand something difficult about its own past—the source of some idea or tool or tradition. Taken together, they document our quest to understand—and explain—abstraction and complexity in the world around us. The paradox of illuminating complexity is that it is inherently difficult to do so without erasing all of the nuance. As our developing civilization faced more intricate facts and ideas in the early Middle Ages, this was a fundamental challenge: to find a way to represent dense truths without washing out their essence. (This ancient challenge is, of course, also very contemporary, and, as we will see, makes chess fundamentally relevant in the Age of Information.)


When and how and why was chess invented? The very oldest chess myths point toward its actual origins. One story portrays two successive Indian kings, Hashran and Balhait. The first asked his sage to invent a game symbolizing man's dependence on destiny and fate; he invented nard, the dice-based predecessor to backgammon. The subsequent monarch needed a game which would embrace his belief in free will and intelligence. "At this time chess was invented," reads an ancient text, "which the King preferred to nard, because in this game skill always succeeds against ignorance. He made mathematical calculations on chess, and wrote a book on it. . . . He often played chess with the wise men of his court, and it was he who represented the pieces by the figures of men and animals, and assigned them grades and ranks. . . ."

"He also made of this game a kind of allegory of the heavenly bodies (the seven planets and the twelve zodiacal signs), and dedicated each piece to a star. The game of chess became a school of government and defense; it was consulted in time of war, when military tactics were about to be employed, to study the more or less rapid movements of troops."

King Balhait's wide-ranging list of the game's uses has a connecting thread: chess as a demonstration device, a touchstone for abstract ideas. The reference to "mathematical calculations" is particularly noteworthy, as math comes up over and over again in many of the oldest chess legends. One tale, known as "The Doubling of the Squares," tells of a king presented with an intriguing new sixty-four-square board game by his court philosopher. The king is so delighted by chess that he invites the inventor to name his own reward.

Oh, I don't want much, replies the philosopher, pointing to the chessboard. Just give me one grain of wheat for the first square of the board, two grains for the second square, four grains for the third square, and so on, doubling the number of grains for each successive square, up to the sixty-fourth square.

The king is shocked, and even insulted, by what seems like such a modest request. He doesn't realize that through the hidden power of geometric progression, his court philosopher has just requested 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 (eighteen quintillion) grains of wheat--more than exists on the entire planet. The king has not only just been given a fascinating new game; he's also been treated to a powerful numbers lesson.

This widely repeated story is obviously apocryphal, but the facts of geometric progression are real. Such mathematical concepts were crucial to the advancement of technology and civilization--but were useless unless they could be understood. The advancement of big ideas required not just clever inventors, but also great teachers and vivid presentation vehicles.

That's apparently where chess came in: it used the highly accessible idea of war to convey far less concrete ideas. Chess was, in a sense, medieval presentation software—the PowerPoint of the Middle Ages. It was a customizable platform for poets, philosophers, and other intellectuals to explore and present a wide array of complex ideas in a visual and compelling way.

The game, in reality, was not invented all at once, in a fit of inspiration by a single king, general, philosopher, or court wizard. Rather, it was almost certainly (like the Bible and the Internet) the result of years of tinkering by a large, decentralized group, a slow achievement of collective intelligence. After what might have been centuries of tinkering, chatrang, the first true version of what we now call chess, finally emerged in Persia sometime during the fifth or sixth century. It was a two-player war game with thirty-two pieces on a sixty-four-square board: sixteen emerald men on one end and sixteen ruby-red men on the other. Each army was equipped with one King, one Minister (where the Qu...

From AudioFile

You don't have to be Garry Kasparov--or even a chess player--to find David Shenk's history of chess fascinating. While he does include a play-by-play on one famous match, his book isn't a dry account of moving pieces around a board. Instead, it looks at aspects such as chess's role in military tactics (and Napoleon's final days), diplomacy, and artificial intelligence. Rick Adamson brings Shenk's enthusiasm for chess to listeners' ears, making games, people, and events come alive. Adamson delivers the anecdotes in Shenk's lively conversational style, letting listeners in on Shenk's passion for the 64-square game. You won't be a grandmaster when you're done, but you'll understand the obsession that fuels champions. J.A.S. © AudioFile 2007, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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