Monday, January 08, 2007


I have been playing chess off and on most of my life since I was eight years old. In high school, my desire to play was almost obsessive. However, as I have gotten older, I find myself playing no more that five or six games a year. I think much of this has to do with my skill level. I can beat most novices fairly easily but anyone with skill tends to take me a part in short order. As such, I found The Immortal game: A History of Chess to be a worthwhile read.

I discovered this book by David Shenk to be a thoroughly enjoyable survey of chess history. Like me, Shenk admits that he is not very good at chess but has long been fascinated by the game. The book alternates between chapters detailing the history of the development of chess, the author's personal recollections of the game, and a move by move analysis of the so called "Immortal Game" between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky played in 1851 in London. Although the shifting back and forth in the narrative can be a bit unsettling if you are reading it straight through, it actually makes it an easy book to put down and come back to over a long period of time.

The history chapters look at how the game has developed over time. No one can say for certain who invented chess or where it came from but it is clearly ancient and is probably from India. Shenk examines this and then in subsequent chapters moves into how important the game was in the Medieval Islamic world and how the game spread to the west. This allows him to also write about how the game has changed and how the embrace of different cultures of chess meets different cultural or religious needs. Later chapters in the book take the reader through the 20th century (including Soviet chess history) all the way up to the prospects of computers being able to defeat human chess world champions.

The book is also loaded with tons of chess lore. One of my favorites is from early in the book. Shenk writes of chess master Marcel Duchamp and his chess passion, "Even true love could not moderate his fixation. In 1927 Duchamp married Lydia Sarazin-Lavassor, a young heiress. On their honeymoon he spent the entire week studying chess problems. Infuriated, his bride plotted her revenge. When Duchamp finally drifted off to sleep late one night, Lydia glued all the pieces to the board. They were divorced three months later" (p. XVII.)

My favorite chapter looked at the connection between chess and mental illness. Unfortunately, a significant number of chess masters have suffered serious mental problems which may be connected to their deep immersion in the game. For example, Paul Morphy (a 19th century American) dazzled Europe on a tour in the late 1850s. However, when he returned home to New Orleans, he abandoned the game and wandered the French Quarter talking to invisible people. Another 19th century master was Wilhelm Steinitz. After a brilliant career, he was confined to an asylum where he reportedly played chess with God over an invisible telephone wire and won. Modern American master (and former world chess champion) Bobby Fischer also has some of his strange behaviors examined in the book.

One drawback of the book is that it strangely packed with a large number of appendixes. For some reason, Shenk includes the official rules of chess, recaps with varying degrees of analysis of six famous chess games, and a 1786 essay on chess by Ben Franklin. While all of this is interesting, it can also all be found on the Internet easily. Rather than including all of this supplemental material, I wish Shenk had used the pages to write another chapter.

David Shenk has written an excellent book. It provides a good overview to the history of chess. It also examines many other issues relating to chess. One does not have to be passionate about chess to appreciate this book. However, I have found my reading of this book has actually reawakened my desire to play and I have been online playing chess with anonymous strangers and being crushed repeatedly.

(This review was originally published in Ohioana Quarterly.)

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