Review: The Immortal Game

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The Immortal GameAs an experienced player, when I came across “The Immortal Game: A History of Chess”, by David Shenk, I didn’t feel much inclined to pick it up. I mean, after having read such classics as The Development of Chess Style by Max Euwe, and Chess History and Reminiscences, by Bird, what could some general history have to offer? Further, the author, by his own admission, far from an expert player, is not even a rated amateur.

By Robert T. Tuohey

It was this last point, in fact, that nearly caused me to shut the cover on this book before I had even opened it. To be blunt, non-chess players writing about chess is something akin to Norman Mailer scribbling about boxing (i.e. just this side of ridiculous). Ostensibly, only the seasoned practitioner or the true aficionado (as, for example, Papa on Death in the Afternoon), can have anything of depth to say.

Well, life has a wonderful way of proving us wrong, and I was certainly wrong about Shenk’s book. The Immortal Game is well-researched, interestingly written, and, in a general way, informative. Shock of shocks, it’s actually entertaining. I can’t even remember the last time I said that about a chess book.

Having now had time to consider the matter, I believe that David Shenk’s unique qualifications (i.e. expert writer, very average player) are what make this book so good. For the novice, Shenk serves up a general history in fine style: key points are presented in an engaging, non-technical manner. For those of us who have been pushing wood for longer than we’d care to admit, much here we may have heard before, but the perspective is rather different. Shenk is always thoughtful, and often very insightful.

It’s really something of a rarity that players at either end of the chessic spectrum can profit by the same book. In fact, anyone who has even the vaguest interest in chess would find this little book a good read.

Wow! I had to interview this guy.

Please tell us something of your general background. Thanks for your interest, Bob. I'm a non-fiction author of six books, and a contributor to National Geographic, Wired, Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and NPR. I am currently a correspondent for My ambition is to write literary non-fiction, to explore fascinating worlds usually known to a relatively small group of insiders and to make those worlds accessible to a general audience. Often, if I do my job right, my books can also be interesting and informative to the experts themselves. There are many disadvantages to my outsider approach, and one big advantage. The advantage is that I can stand back far from the trees and hopefully see things about the whole forest.

What was your inspiration for the book? What type of research did you do? And how long did it take you to write it? Several things led to me to chess. I'm interested in the history of ideas, and also in the workings of the brain. When I learned that chess was 1500 years old, and not just 400 or 500, I became intrigued. I wanted to understand how a game could last so long, and be so accessible to people of all ages and cultures. I also have some chess ancestry I wanted to explore.

I spent three years researching and writing the book. What type of research? Everything. I read everything I could get my hands on, talked to historians and players, traveled, chased down apocryphal stories, etc. etc. I went to Germany and to London to spend time with chess historians and to learn more about the Immortal Game from 1851.

David Shenk

David Shenk

The overall structure of the book is paired chapters of basic analysis from the famed Immortal Game (by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky), followed by a chapter of more general historical review. I believe this idea is somewhat unique in chess literature, and certainly serves several purposes. Could you tell us how you came up with this interesting design? It goes back to one of first tenet of writing: You have to keep people reading. A basic 1500-year chronology is so boring I don't think I could even stay away awake writing it. I had to come up with a way of organizing all this fascinating information that would keep people reading all the way through. A great story or idea on p. 192 is completely worthless unless readers actually get to that page and read it. Interspersing The Immortal Game was a way to keep people reading, and a way to talk about the basic dynamics of the game -- all inside an amazing story.

Your great-great-grandfather Samuel Rosenthal was something of a luminary in the 19th century Paris chess scene. Only the hardcore aficionado would know his name today. Please give us a bit of background on this by-gone chess teacher. From my book:
"Rosenthal’s young competitors in Warsaw [Poland] had been among the very sharpest in Europe, and he brought to Paris a stamina and consistency that immediately overwhelmed most of his native French competitors. He won the [Café de La] Régence’s championship in 1865 and repeated his triumph in 1866 and 1867. As the new dean of French chess, he began drawing invitations to the leading international tournaments. He represented Paris in Baden-Baden in 1870, in Bonn in 1877, and in London in 1883, where he twice defeated the great champion Wilhelm Steinitz.* In 1884–85, Rosenthal led a Paris team against Vienna in a two-game correspondence match that lasted twenty months. (For his effort, Rosenthal was presented with a spectacular engraved gold pocket watch—the watch that entered our family lore.) In 1887 he was awarded, by the Spanish queen regent, the Charles III Order for his contributions to chess.

With his public displays, café and tournament wins, magazine columns, and private tutoring, Rosenthal was said by Wilhelm Steinitz to be one of the few chess players in the nineteenth century who made a nice living from chess. It didn’t hurt that he mentored some of the leading public ?gures in France—Prime Minister Pierre Tirard, the society portraitist Raimundo de Madrazo, and the powerful French banking family Pereire. His star pupil was Prince Napoleon, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte."
In the book you touch upon the phenomenon of chess prodigies, and come down on the side of nurture, as opposed to nature (i.e. great chess players are made not born). Of course, this is contrary to the popular conception. Could you summarize your view for the readers? It's not quite that simple, because "nature" and "nurture" really cannot be separated. But having spent another three years researching and writing a follow-up book about human talent and intelligence, I'm convinced that most people are not doomed to mediocrity by their genes. There is an extraordinary abundance of talent waiting to be tapped if individuals, families, and cultures can learn how to do it. My new book about this is called The Genius in All of Us. It will be published March 9, 2010. I write regularly on the subject for

Having now studied something of the greats in chess, do you have any favorites as players, or even just as personalities? I admire Ben Franklin, because he was very serious about both the game itself and about chess as metaphor.

Computers and the internet have certainly been a boost to chess activity; however the contemporary view of chess is also radically different as a result. Having worked through the history of chess this must be apparent to you. Could you make some general comparisons? On the whole, I think computers make chess a lot less interesting. I personally can't stand to play against a computer, not because I always lose -- that happens with my human competitors too -- but because it's not a human experience. Chess is many things, but above all else it is a game between two individual human beings.

After all you research and thought on chess, can you take a stab at what you think is the enduring fascination of the game? Sure. It's a game that is simple enough that a five year old can learn to play, but complex enough that a 95 year-old can still be flummoxed even after spending his whole life studying it. The five year old can play the 95 year old and they can share an intimate human experience, even if they don't know each other's name and don't speak the same language. It's a game that can endlessly fascinate the human brain and also being human beings together.

Any predictions on the future of chess? It will last forever. Longer than cockroaches.

Last, was this book a one-shot for you, or do you plan any further works on chess? I'm very proud of the book and the work that went into it. An epic project like that lives on forever in a writer's head and affects everything he or she does in the future. But I doubt that I'll ever write another full-length book on chess per se.

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, Doubleday, 352 pages, US $25,95 is well worth the read. You can find more info on the publisher's website. The author's website is


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