Chess is the most enduring and universal game in history. Here, bestselling author David Shenk chronicles its intriguing saga, from ancient Persia to medieval Europe to the dens of Benjamin Franklin and Norman Schwarzkopf. Along the way, he examines a single legendary game that took place in London in 1851 between two masters of the time, and relays his own attempts to become as skilled as his Polish ancestor Samuel Rosenthal, a nineteenth-century champion. With its blend of cultural history and Shenk's personal interest, The Immortal Game is a compelling guide for novices and aficionados alike.
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 (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 02, 2007
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Excerpt from The Immortal Game by David Shenk
"UNDERSTANDING IS THE ESSENTIAL WEAPON"
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.