Have you ever read exactly the right book at exactly the right time? That’s what The Immortal Game: A History of Chess was for me. I picked it off the shelf at the library, attracted by the subject and the beautiful cover design, and it turned out to be a real winner. It is a very well-organized book and very well-written, with a friendly, self-deprecating style. The author, David Shenk, has a fine chess pedigree (his great-great-grandfather was the illustrious Samuel Rosenthal) but acknowledges that he is little more than a “patzer” at the game. No matter—he makes up for it with his writing, and has done a wonderful job of making chess accessible and fascinating.
The Immortal Game traces the development of chess over time, from hazy myths about its invention (I posted a bit about it here), to the latest “hypermodern” style of play. He also touches on various topics related to chess, from how chess has been used to defend and critique rigid social systems, to how it is used to understand and mimic the brain.
What fascinates Shenk (and me) is how chess has been used over the last fifteen centuries to illustrate innumerable concepts and theories, from straightforward training for war to postmodern nihilism. (Samuel Beckett’s ideal game was one in which the pieces returned to their original places.) The book could have been called “The Infinite Game” because humans seem to be able to put the game to an infinite number of intellectual (and sometimes political) uses.
The title of the book actually refers to a specific game which took place in a pub in London on June 21, 1851 between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. Shenk explains the whole game in a series of sub-chapters that come between each main chapter of the book. It’s a sneaky trick to keep you reading the book so you can see what happens next, though it’s not really required since the whole thing is a pleasure to read. The game was actually just a practice game played outside of the major tournament that Anderssen and Kieseritzky were attending, but it turned into one of the most memorable games of all time. ***CHESS SPOILER ALERT!*** What made it breathtaking was the way Anderssen sacrificed major pieces (both his Rooks and his Queen) in order to establish the positions he needed for checkmate. It was his lowly Knights and a Bishop that sealed Kieseritzky’s fate.
***End of Spoiler***
I should point out that you don’t have to know anything about chess to read this book. Shenk teaches you everything you need to know in a very simple and quick manner. I found my game improving with every chapter of this book, making it as much a beginner’s manual as a history book. Right now I’m going through some other “legendary” games detailed in the appendix and learning even more. I’m playing them out on the chess board, but you can also go through them online at TheImmortalGame.com. The website also offers two options for free online play, real-time and by e-mail. Anyone interested?