on September 9, 2006
"The Immortal Game" by David Shenk
Chess was the "game of Kings" for over a thousand years. Around 1492, even while Columbus was asking Queen Isabella & King Ferdinand of Spain to fund his explorations, the court players were changing the rules of chess to speed the game up. They named their faster game, "Mad Queen" Chess". It is the game under these rules which eventually became popular in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Great Britain. It is the game we play today. Many people know that the first book printed by Gutenberg was the Holy Bible. How many people know that the second book printed by Gutenberg was a PRIMER on CHESS?
Author David Shenk has composed a concise, yet illuminative history of chess from it's foundation to the present. His fascinating accounts of chess in regard to war, to science, and to art and culture generally will cut a swath in the world of chess literature, as author Shenk guides us through the Four Great Eras of chess play: (1) Romantic (2) Scientific (3) Hypermodern, and (4) New Dynamism.
*** CHESS AND THE TRANSCENDANT, THE ABSTRACT, THE COSMIC ***
Shenk identifies the Transcendent, the Abstract, and the Cosmic in Chess, which is something I have also discovered. In Shenk's own words:
"Chess, with its move/countermove dynamic, is inherently dialectical..." p. 171
In numerous passages, I find that author Shenk's conclusions reflect my own. For example, on page 148 where he observes that "...chess taps into primal forces beyond our immediate control."
We love the game as though we were infected with a virus; but it has always been so. Whether it is a Caliph in Bagdad or a European Monarch, the Royal Game not only endures, but flourishes even now as we play. Most homes in Mongolia have a chess set. If only America could boast of that claim.
*** AUTHOR DAVID SHENK AND HIS HISTORICAL RESEARCHES ***
Shenk has revisited sources of chess history, and decided to overcome a problem with much of the chess literature, the lackluster passing reference or OBLIQUE REFERENCE. Instead, Shenk gives us much of the original source material in quotes so that we may examine it for ourselves. His source material is listed in the back pages.
**** BAGDAD, year 813 (A.D.) of the Common Era: an era Shenk covers in his book ***
In one of the many Bagdad palaces, Caliph Muhammad al-Amin of the Abbasid Empire, one of the largest kingdoms in world history, was playing chess against his favorite eunuch Kauthar. If you were to walk entirely around the main outer wall, you would travel a full six miles before returning to your starting point. Moreover, the main wall was one hundred forty-five feet thick, and one hundred feet tall. Bagdad, in 813 C.E., rivalled Rome and Constantinople in prestige. Bagdad was a center for science, religion, art. The city was on the central trade route between Central Asia, Africa, and Europe. Several centuries before chess became the obsession of Europe, it had long infected the lands of the Islamic Caliphate.
Caliph al-Amin's own brother had challenged the throne since 811 C.E., and thrown the kingdom into a bloody civil war; but in the late summer of 813 C.E, Caliph al-Amin played chess, while his brother besieged Bagdad. Catapaults hurled rocks, arrows flew, flaming oil rained down upon attackers, and elite mounted cavalry ran men down, spearing them wickedly. The imperial city was crumbling; but Caliph al-Amin played on. A panicked emmissary rushed in to deliver the following message, according to the Islamic historian Jirjis al-Makin:
" Oh Commander of the Faithful, this is not the time to play. Pray arise and attend to matters of more serious moment."
This is the manner of history that Author David Shenk pursues, and it is delightful, fascinating, and informative in the extreme. The illustrations of chess positions throughout the book are pleasing to the eye. His book will become highly-valued in the First Edition I am sure.
*** WHY HAS CHESS NOT VANISHED LIKE MOST GAMES ****
The question must be asked about the game of chess; why has it not fallen into the oblivion which nearly all games sink? Why has chess endured for 1500 years? As generations pass away, so do their pastimes. Chess has become an international language.
**** THE ROLE OF JOHN J. PERSHING AND CHESS DIPLOMACY ****
John J. Pershing is special to chess history, although few people know of the occasion when Pershing used the game of chess to negotiate peace treaties with Moro tribesmen of the Phillipines.
Spain had ceded the Phillipines to the U.S. following the Spanish-American War of 1898, where Lieutenant Pershing had led the Tenth Calvary, a black troop. The dismounted Tenth excelled in the attack up San Juan Hill, in which Pershing, cool under withering fire, led his troops.
Transferred after to the Phillipines as a Lieutenant, Pershing committed himself to educating himself to the situation. Many in the American military and state department viewed the Moros as barbaric. For certain, they were a warrior people who honored bravery with respect. They were also Muslim, and polygamous. Their culture had been connected to Mecca since the 13th Century. The Moros hated Christians, and especially Christian Filipinos. Ferdinand Magellan had raised the Spanish flag over the Phillipines in 1521. Hostilities had existed ever since. Three hundred years of Spanish colonization had left little that could be called modern.
The American Army had mostly been restricted to a "Coastwise Colonization." Little contact with the interior had been ventured. A military governor was appointed, but the Moros had practiced slavery, piracy and banditry for centuries. The Moro mind was a different world from that of the American military. In Moro culture, (1) things written, would be, and (2) Infidels and their doings were irrelevent. With such a mindset both the colonial regulations and military officers would be flouted. Moros would simply refuse to acknowledge the power held by the infidel. With such extreme polarization of culture, Pershing realized that there would be massive bloodletting if working relationships with Moro tribes were not developed.
What the American military ceded as merely a problem of suppression of the "Insurrectos," Pershing saw as a human problem. The Moros reminded him of the Apache and Sioux warriors of the American continent. Ever the professional, Pershing began educating himself in Moro culture. He studied Moro language and customs. He read the Koran. Moros of different tribes and regions were led by a headman called a "Datto." If religious taboos could be by-passed, Pershing held some hope for relationships of trust. Pershing learned that the Moros played chess.
Pershing walked into the center of a virtually deserted Moro village and set up a chess board. After a wait, the Muslim headman appeared, willing to play a game. Over the course of hours, a mutual respect was developed, the opponents learning much of each other. By this method, Lieutenant Pershing was able to establish relationships of understanding with many Moro headmen, and treaties often formed, saving many lives on both sides. For his success, Pershing was promoted to permanent captain in 1901. In 1903, President Roosevelt addressed the U.S. Congress, naming Pershing as an officer deserving promotion on merit.
The Denver Chess Club used to meet at the VFW at 9th & Bannock Streets, where a small museum was kept on the first floor, dedicated to the Colorado volunteers in the Phillipine campaign. This was the very first Veterans of Foreign Wars chartered in the continental United States, VFW POST #1. There were swords, ammo displays, pictures, and Moro weapons. I do not think any of us made the connection at that time, between our chess play in Denver, Colorado and the winning chess diplomacy of John J. Pershing.
In Denver Colorado, the Adams City High School Chess Coach, Larry Grohn, a social studies teacher, will not be in bed before midnight on Tuesday, because he drives his students to the Denver Chess Club's Tuesday night meeting. It is the best way to acquaint his students with strong competition. The next morning, Larry Grohn must teach school again. He needs chess clocks and equipment, for which there is no funding; but Larry Grohn prevails through sheer determination. His dream is to give his players a chance in life, a chance which might be found through the lessons of chess.
To the extent that David Shenk can make the world more aware of the satisfaction to be found in chess, of the friendships to be made, of the rewards of developing mind and soul, we shall all be much in his debt. Many people could handle life better, I think, if only they had developed only a little of the qualities of character that chess teaches; how to handle confict, how to think 'out-of-the-box' and how to develop a genuine respect for those who seem to oppose us in daily life. Indeed, there is an ancient maxim: THINE ADVERSARY IS BECOME THINE INSTRUCTOR.
Chess is, dollar for dollar, one of the most affordable of all pastimes. It brings people together in bonds of friendship. It can teach deep lessons about life and mankind. It can free us from worry and care, and assuage the feeling of being alone and 'not-fitting-in'. It is a most excellent stepping stone to connecting to the basics of life, in a world where many people are utterly bereft, not knowing which way to turn or where to go.
Most importantly though, people need to get rid of the delusional notion that the game is only about "winning."
on March 21, 2007
There have been a number of chess books published recently, most of them in expensive hardback format: Bobby Fischer vs. Russians, Kasparov's My Illustrious Predecessors, even Shahade's uneven Chess Bitch. Now add to those titles The Immortal Game, a great overview of chess by David Shenk. The author became interested in chess rather late, and he'll never be a great player, and he knows it. But that doesn't mean the game can't be fascinating. One of the things to take away from this book is you don't have to be a Grandmaster to get a lot of out chess.
The book follows the history of the game as it also tracks one famous encounter between two chess players in 1851. Dubbed "The Immortal Game," it sums up what is so magical about chess--its unpredictability, its sudden reversals, and the feeling that no matter how much you play it, you will never fathom its depths. That's also the point Shenk drives home in the part of the book not devoted to the game, as he looks at how chess has shaped thinking on everything from math to science to social class to warfare to art to computers to psychology. He talks about great achievements brought about by chess, and the game's darker side, which has led to more than one case of madness, more than one suicide, and a reclusive American genius' raving anti-semite comments. No other game, he argues, has impacted the world as much, and few have lasted as long.
This is a well-written book, and very engaging. It does not have to be read by a person deeply-immersed in, and it's not overly-technical. I have to quibble a little about his insistence that chess geniuses are made and not born. While I don't doubt that thousands of hours puts the Garry Kasparovs and Susan Polgars of the world ahead of the rest of us, he ignores the fact that many other a would-be champ devoted equal effort to the game and failed miserably. He also doesn't seem to get that much of the "research" that has "proven" effort over aptitude is effected and infused by social and PC bias of the time, just as research on the subject half a century ago was similarly biased in the other direction. We seem to hesitate to say there may be a "chess gene" because the game is predominantly male and almost completely excludes certain racial groups. Be honest and ask yourself if we'd approach the sport of basketball with the same convictions.
Overall this is a very good book, however, and I recommend it for both the devoted fan and the casual, as well as curious, person, as a fine entertainment. Hopefully we are seeing a chess-publishing revival in the book world, and renewed interest in the game in the U.S.
on September 16, 2006
Having recently obtained a copy of this just this past week, I immediately set about reading it.
First of all, this is NOT a chess book! What I mean by this, this is not the kind of book the average chess player buys. It is not a book to help you improve; it is not a book about openings, middlegames or endgames. It's not a book about eliminating mistakes or helping you to increase your rating. So why would you buy this book? JUST FOR THE SHEER FUN OF IT!!!
What is this book? I would say it is part a history lesson, and it is also a look at one of the greatest chess games ever played. It is also an entertaining look at some of the great players of the past and an examination of why a game like chess has survived for over 1000 years when so many other games have come and gone. Even deeper, it is a book on philosophy and how ideas and concepts are formed and perhaps what part chess has played in the overall development of human history.
I am sure that historians will pass this book off as bunk, that scientists will slam it as gestalt, in short - I expect all the "so-called" experts in their respective fields will dismiss this book out of hand. I also want to go on record as predicting that it will become an all-time best seller.
Why? Because it is so brilliantly written! All the other articles and books on chess are nothing more than a tiresome collection of facts; you are bored with them five minutes after you have picked them up. But this is a book you will not want to put down. It makes for interesting reading, and you do not have to be a chess player to understand it. David takes you by the hand, and leads you on an adventure, providing you with everything that you need to know along the way. I used to hold my nose during history class, and I was jilted by the traditional academic courses, but once I picked this book up, I could not let go of it. It is truly engaging!!
In the end, David uses chess as a lens on life, examining nearly everything we know about ourselves and what we have learned collectively as a species. He uses chess to bring this all into focus and links it all together in a very fascinating way.
This is a book you should buy and give to every non-chess-playing friend that you have out there! Maybe everyone won't love it ... that's a distinct possibility. But I am sure that everyone who takes the time to read this book will have a good time, and if you are not real careful, you will even learn something along the way!