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Book Review: The Immortal Game

Book Review: The Immortal Game

Sep 3, 2008, 12:00 AM 6,924 Reads 12 Comments For Beginners

With a title like “The Immortal Game: A History Of Chess” you would think the subject of this book is pretty obvious.  Not quite, my friend.  Witness the subtitle, “Or How 32 Pieces On A Board Illuminated Our Understanding Of War, Art, Science, And The Human Mind.”  That’s an awful mouthful, but it does lend a bit more context to this book’s interior.

David Shenk, the author of The Immortal Game: A History Of Chess has managed to squish together some slightly disparate information about chess into a reasonably cohesive and novel package.

As the title implies, this book leads the reader through the chess timeline, beginning 1400 years ago in Persia, with the forerunner to chess, the game called chatrang.  Back in the day, the game had somewhat different pieces, rules and board, but it was certainly recognizable as chess.  From there, the game trucks on through to the present day and The Immortal Game documents the various changes to the game that made chess what it is today.

That, in itself, is an interesting tour.  Along the way, Shenk treats us to brief profiles of some of the historic masters of chess, like Philidor, Morphy, Alekhine and others.  As it turns out, the author’s great-great-grandfather, Samuel Rosenthal, was a chess player of some repute and was one of Shenk’s reasons for investigating the history chess.

If you happen to be one of the few chess players on the planet that has never heard of The Immortal Game, I should probably tell you that the title (or at least, part of the title) of this book shares it’s name with possibly the most historic of all chess games.  This was a game played by Anderssen and Kieseritsky in London, 1851.  Every few chapters, Shenk includes moves from The Immortal Game into the text of his book, and as the end of the book arrives, so does the end of the annotated game.  This sounds a bit more artificial and ridiculous that it really is, and I thought the method Shenk used to include the Anderseen v. Kieseritzy game worked surprisingly well.

Some might find the most interesting part of this book to be what is hinted at by the subtitle, “How 32 Pieces On A Board Illuminated Our Understanding Of War, Art, Science, And The Human Mind.”  Shenk describes how chess has been used by people to further their goals unrelated to chess in a wide variety of contexts.  There is a substantial part of the text describing Benjamin Franklin, his affinity for chess, and how it allowed him entrance into important political circles.  Writers have often used chess as a metaphor for the human condition.  The Nazis used chess to persecute the Jews.  The Soviets used chess as a means to display the prowess of communist ideals.  The Fischer-Spassky chess match was one fat, big-ass metaphor for the struggle between the Soviet Union and the west during the cold war.  The list of such things goes on and on.

Chess has also been used as a testbed for studies into the workings of the human mind, and has been instrumental in artificial intelligence studies.  We know better how the mind works because of chess, and we can attempt to simulate how the mind works because of chess, and Shenk covers much of that.  Of course, none of that could be said without paying homage to the famous match between Kasparov and the chess program Deep Junior.
At the end of the text are included a few famous games from the history books.  I won’t bother to name them here, because you can check them all out at theimmortalgame.com.

On a more personal note, I enjoyed the book and found it reasonably well written and informative.  I have to admit that I would have preferred more detail about famous chess players, and more detailed description of archeological finds.  The social and psychological ramifications of chess were both unexpected and interesting.  I don’t think it would have been necessary to hack out a bunch of the book in order to accommodate more historical evidence, but rather the book should have just been about a couple hundred pages longer to keep folks like myself happy.  The Immortal Game is only about 300 pages long so a couple hundred pages or so wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for what is (or could be) a history text.

So, “What’s the Stickness on this book?” you ask.  Good book.  Read it.  Being the cheap bastard that I am, I borrowed it from the library, but I may actually buy a copy to keep on my bookshelf.

As always, I’m Stick, and I’ll see y’all out there on the gridiron!

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