- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006

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, $26, 327 pages

REVIEWED BY DOUG BANDOW

Some of us have loved the game of chess all of our lives. Others, like book author David Shenk, discovered their passion as an adult. But we all profit from his late-blooming interest with “The Immortal Game.” The book is less about the game of chess and more about man’s passion for the game.

Mr. Shenk introduces the subject with the tale of the fall of Baghdad in 813, when Caliph al-Amin “preferred to soak in the details of his chess battlefield than reports of the calamitous siege of his city,” since “on the board he still might win.” And he did win his last chess game, only to lose his head to his triumphant enemies shortly thereafter.

Introduced to chess when he was a senior in high school, Mr. Shenk left it behind for adulthood. However, he writes that “The remarkable scope of this game began to infect my own brain” after he learned that his great-great-grandfather was one of the top chess players of his time.

He explains: “Much to my wife’s dismay, I got hooked. It is an intoxicating game that, though often grueling, never grows tiresome. The exquisite interplay of the simple and complex is hypnotic.”

The intoxication that Mr. Shenk felt might help explain why Afghanistan’s Taliban banned the game. So did Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. As well as Caliph Ali Ben Abu-Talib, Muhammad’s son-in-law, more than a millennium before. Christian clerics and Western monarchs have done the same over the years. None apparently were prepared to accept this temptation for men’s hearts.

“The Immortal Game” offers an enjoyable read, but it is not for the linear-minded. That is, Mr. Shenk has not written a history of the game or guide on how to play. Instead, he brings together the game’s fascinating mountaintops, linking them with a running commentary on what has been termed the “Immortal Game,” played a century and half ago in a London cafe. The result is an enjoyable, if slightly disjointed, read.

Chess is thought to have begun in India around 500 A.D. Its later spread intersected the rise of Islam. Even then Muslims differed on whether it passed muster under the Koran. The answer was yes — but, notably, the pieces could only be shapes, not representations of humans or animals.

Explains Mr. Shenk: “Muslim craftsmen abstracted the explicit Persian figures into elegant, hard-carved, cylindrical or rectangular stones with subtle indentations, bumps, and curves to symbolic a throne or a tusk or a horse’s head.” Eventually the game spread to the West and its rules evolved as well.

Mr. Shenk skips along, describing how the game touched public figures who saw chess as more than just a game. Explains the author: “as society became more enlightened, the game’s metaphoric use mushroomed, moving in several directions at once. It became, says Oxford University’s William Poole, the ‘Renaissance symbol of courtly, aristocratic entertainment, even of sexual equality.’ What stands out, he says, is its breadth, its ‘metaphorical richness in many different spheres of reference.’”

At the same time Mr. Shenk moves along with the Immortal Game. All players face an enormous mental task: “After three moves each, the players have settled on one of approximately nine million possible board positions. Four moves each raises it to more than 315 billion,” he writes.

The ability to discriminate among so many possible moves is what long has given humans an important advantage over computers. But that gap has closed, with machines increasingly “thinking” strategically as well as tactically. In this area, at least, a development in chess may be more important than chess.

Writes Mr. Shenk, the 1997 victory of IBM’s Deep Blue over World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov “was a profound and chilling moment whose importance was immediately and intuitively understood around the world: technology was now moving into an ominous new realm. It was one thing to build machines that could move earth or fly over the ocean or even recognize a face. Deep Blue’s victory over Kasparov signaled that we were now making machines that could conceivably compete with us.”

Mr. Shenk worries even more about the many nut cases who seem to have gravitated towards, and sometimes dominated, the game. American champion Bobby Fischer mixed self-absorption, bizarre eccentricity and virulent anti-Semitism. A surprising number of the game’s leading lights exhibited similar degrees of mental distress.

Can chess cause mental illness? Perhaps, Mr. Shenk suggests. In fact, however, chess does not seem to have turned tens of millions of chess players into ax-wielding Jasons across America.

There’s much more in “The Immortal Game.” Mr. Shenk offers chess players a glimpse at how their game transcends the action on the 64 squares in front of them. The book helps non-players — a perplexed spouse or parent, perhaps — understand the intense devotion that it creates in so many people, such as David Shenk.

Doug Bandow is the Vice President of Policy for Citizen Outreach. He has finally accepted the fact that he will never be a chess grandmaster.

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