The Immortal Game

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I originally published this in my chess journal in Sept. 2006.  As I find this book particulary important and timeless,  I wanted to highlight it once again.


The Immortal Game - A History of Chess
or how 32 carved pieces on a board illuminated our understanding of war, art, science, and the human brain
by David Shenk  
 a review -



A chess game, like many things, can be divided into three distinct sections: the opening, the middle and the end.


The Opening

1.e4 e5    2.Nf3  Nc6    3.Bc4  Bc5    4.b4  Bxb4    5.c3 A-R1.gif...

Samuel Rosenthal was born in Poland just a few months after Paul Morphy was born in New Orleans. Like Morphy, he would become a blindfold specialist but he would also revel in sighted simultaneous events. He gained a certain amount of renown as the house player at the Café de la Régence. He was also author David Shenk's great-great-great grandfather.

In this game, Rosenthal was playing black against the great tactician from Breslau, Adolf Anderssen. Although he was 55 when this game was played in Vienna in 1873, Anderssen was still a powerful force in chess.

Richard Eales' Chess: The History of a Game has been to me a benchmark for a particular genre of chess history that deals with the societal aspects of the game. While Eale's book attempted to understand the growth of the popularity of chess through the ages, Mr. Shenk explored the impact of chess on the societies in which it flourished. There's little doubt in my mind that either book achieved it's purpose.

                   Samuel Rosenthal                                                                                                                     Adolf Anderssen

       AAnderssen.gif        SamuelRosenthal.jpg                                 









5. ... Ba5   6.d4  exd4   7.O-O

This opening is known as the Evans Gambit. White sacrifices a pawn for development and central control. While this opening was highly popular during the 19th century, with advancing theory it lost much of its bite until Garry Kasparov revived it in 1995 with his famous win against Anand. Anderssen was considered a specialist in the Evans Gambit. Over a dozen years earlier,  his handling of the black pieces against Morphy, who called the Evans "that most beautiful of openings," caused Morphy to believe that the game was "indubitably lost for the first player if Black plays correctly."

Just as openings follow a known course, The Immortal Game treads on familiar territory with its story of the history of chess. But such a history is so rich and varied that each retelling leaves its own footprints. Mr. Shenk contrived to tell the story of this immortal game within the framework of Anderssen's so-called Immortal Game played against Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851.
The story flows in a most engaging fashion, presented in such a way that players and non-players alike could find intriguing. But the known course, however well presented, is just so much familiar ground. The real fun begins with...

The Middle Game


7. ...d3    8.Qb3  Qf6    9.Re1  Nge7

Anderssen had poised his pieces to attack. Rosenthal  prepared to castle and complete his development. But his forces, while well defended, were disjointed.

Mr. Shenk's opening sentence reveals the essence of his book:   

Stories do not exist to tell facts, but to convey the truth.

The Immortal Game is all about truth. Truths and ideas on how these truths connect together, relate to us, affect the culture where they developed and impact mankind in general. Chess, throughout history, has had many roles-  as a game, as a symbolic representation, as a political tool, as an intellectual benchmark. The perfunctory, even if astutely written, history presented by Mr. Shenk was a necessary feature particularly since the book is targeted towards the general population. But the history contains only the facts and telling facts was not the book's raison d'etre.  The power of this book, and the thing that kept me turning it's pages, was the perceptive, and sometimes surprising, glimpses into some of the truths that the history conceals.

Mr. Shenk tenders insight into some of the sociological implications of chess, such as:
Chess, as a true game of skill, reinforced that "ideas were more important and more powerful than luck or brute force"
    and demonstrated that man had control over his life and wasn't totally subject to the whims of fate -
            "...the chess allegory imagines its subjects to possess independent bodies
              in the form of pieces bound to the state by rules rather than by biology.

as well as some common sense, yet rarely expressed understandings, such as explaining the wealth of tactics, even at the expense of strategic soundness, that was the hallmark of the Romantic Era:
"In a game that presented trillions upon trillions of possibilities, effective strategic planning
               was simply too difficult to intuit; instead it took hundreds of years to evolve."




10.Bg5  Qg6    11.Bxe7  Kxe7    12.e5

Black is paying dearly for its single pawn advantage.
                (11. ...Nxe7 seems a much better move....
                 12. Ne5 Qf6  13. Nxf7 Bb6  14. Rf1 Rf8)


In Chess, as in Life,  mistakes are often punished severely.


We follow Mr. Shenk as he sketches chess on its long migratory sojourn from Persia to Spain accompanying the caches of ancient knowledge, often as a means of conveying, or at the least reflecting, that knowledge.  We follow him as he traces chess through time with such diverse guides as Fra Jacobus de Cessolis, John Locke, Alfred Binet, Ben Franklin, Marcel Duchamp and Vladimir Nabokov until we reach the present and anticipate the future of this seemingly endless, nearly infinite, immortal game.


The End Game

This game really has no striking endgame phase as it ends abruptly with a tactical coup.



12. ...Kf8  13.Nbd2  Bb6  14.Ne4  Nd8

         13. Nbd2, such a quiet move...... will lead to mate.




Within the framework of Anderssen's Immortal Game, Mr. Shenk employed a sub-text of his own venture into the world of Chess, trying to understand its connection to the cultures it touched as well as his own personal connection to his ancestor, Samuel Rosenthal. As his understanding grew, mirroring the historic developmental stages of the game, he became increasing aware of the complexity, the depth and the potentially addictive appeal that chess possesses - something one can only really taste through immersion. He visited the Chess-in-Schools program in New York City where he found light in the black hole of chess' depths; he traveled to Ströbeck, the medieval chess village of Germany on his way from Berlin, where he participated in a symposium of chess historians, to London to take in the atmosphere of Simpson's on the Strand where Anderssen and Kieseritzky created their Immortality.




15.Qa3+  Ke8  16.Nf6+
          16. ...gxf6 17. exf6+ Qe4 18. Rxe4+ Ne6 19. Qe7#

          The unassuming Knight, traveling its three squares unimpeded
          and with surprising subtlety, forced black into resignation.

The games ends.

But the end is just a new beginning. Chess started nearly a millennium and a half ago as a different breed of  game  -one of skill, not of chance-  a game for the intellect.  Today, it's still a game for the intellect, even a scale on which to measure the intellect.   New technology, technology that chess helped to develop, has in turn changed the way chess is played as well as the direction chess is likely to follow.
Many people have predicted the end, the solving, of chess -  forgetting that immortals never end.

The Post-Mortem

Chess, out of respect and necessity, is generally played in austere silence. Ideas, calculations and observations ferment inside the players and those watching the game frothing and building up emotionally-charged pressure, waiting for a moment of release - a moment that  only occurs when the game has ended. This is the post-mortem phase where the game is analyzed and discussed.

 The Immortal Game, comprised of 327 pages, seems too thin for its contents. This can only be explained by the tightness of Mr. Shenk's writing. The cover features an immense black rook with the title (a long title reminiscent of those of early chess books) presented in an eternal circle. A content list in the front and an index in the back help in navigating the pages. In addition to the text of the book, Mr. Shenk offers a detailed list of "Sources and Notes," four pages of acknowledgements, the Rules of Chess, five annotated historic games, and the text to Ben Franklin's The Morals of Chess.
The book contains too few photographs or illustrations but an adequate number of chess diagrams.

While any history of chess can be as involved or as sparse as the author desires, Mr. Shenk seems to have found an ideal proportion, balancing the general with the specific. Since the book is more about ideas, the specifics are used mostly illustrate or support those ideas. If one wanted to try to understand how and why chess developed from its beginnings to the present, I can think of no better book than this one. It's well researched, carefully edited, succinctly written and cleverly arranged.

While I'm somewhat interested in chess history myself and had encountered most of the information within the book, I was pleasantly surprised to learn a few things - such as how Marco Polo and Kublai Khan communicated through chess.

While the book is highly accurate (in my opinion), there are some points where I tend to hold a differing viewpoint. One was the conclusions in Mr. Shenk's discussion of genius and another in his evaluation of Alekhine. I thought not enough emphasis was given to the role of the invention of the printing press in the development of chess and that Nikolay Krylenko's role was presented as somewhat benign with no mention of his problemists purge.

The one (very minor) verbal blunder that I noticed, ironically enough, occurred in the final moves of the Immortal Game itself. After 22.Qf6+, Mr. Shenk wrote,  "Anderssen offered up his Queen to Kieseritzky's g8 Knight." Since Kieseritzky had no other move, there was no offer but rather a forced sequence. Sometimes Chess gives you no choice.

(The above game)


Some Pertinent Links:
The Immortal Game Homepage
David Shenk's personal page
Outline of The Immortal Game by Bill Wall
The Immortal Game at
New York Times Review

Interview with David Shenk
(4 min. 30 sec.) from Good Morning America  (9/4/06  10:45 am EST)

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