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

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


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400034086
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/02/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 377,366
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

David Shenk is the nationally bestselling author of six books, including The Genius in All of Us, The Immortal GameThe Forgetting, and Data Smog. He has written for The New York Times, The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’s, National Geographic, Slate, NPR, and PBS, among others. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt


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.

As a miniature reflection of society, it was also considered a moral guidepost. Yet another myth has chess invented to cure the cruelty of Evil-Merodach, a vile Babylonian king from the sixth century b.c. who murdered his father King Nebuchadnezzar and then disposed of his body by chopping it into three hundred pieces and feeding the pieces to three hundred vultures. Desperate to curb the brutality of his new leader, the wise man Xerxes created chess in order to instill virtues and transform him into a just and moral ruler: Here is how a king behaves toward his subjects, and here is how his grateful subjects defend their just king . . .

Separately, each chess myth conveys a thousand truths about a particular moment in time where a society longed to understand something difficult about its own past—the source of some idea or tool or tradition. Taken together, they document our quest to understand—and explain—abstraction and complexity in the world around us. The paradox of illuminating complexity is that it is inherently difficult to do so without erasing all of the nuance. As our developing civilization faced more intricate facts and ideas in the early Middle Ages, this was a fundamental challenge: to find a way to represent dense truths without washing out their essence. (This ancient challenge is, of course, also very contemporary, and, as we will see, makes chess fundamentally relevant in the Age of Information.)


When and how and why was chess invented? The very oldest chess myths point toward its actual origins. One story portrays two successive Indian kings, Hashran and Balhait. The first asked his sage to invent a game symbolizing man's dependence on destiny and fate; he invented nard, the dice-based predecessor to backgammon. The subsequent monarch needed a game which would embrace his belief in free will and intelligence. "At this time chess was invented," reads an ancient text, "which the King preferred to nard, because in this game skill always succeeds against ignorance. He made mathematical calculations on chess, and wrote a book on it. . . . He often played chess with the wise men of his court, and it was he who represented the pieces by the figures of men and animals, and assigned them grades and ranks. . . ."

"He also made of this game a kind of allegory of the heavenly bodies (the seven planets and the twelve zodiacal signs), and dedicated each piece to a star. The game of chess became a school of government and defense; it was consulted in time of war, when military tactics were about to be employed, to study the more or less rapid movements of troops."

King Balhait's wide-ranging list of the game's uses has a connecting thread: chess as a demonstration device, a touchstone for abstract ideas. The reference to "mathematical calculations" is particularly noteworthy, as math comes up over and over again in many of the oldest chess legends. One tale, known as "The Doubling of the Squares," tells of a king presented with an intriguing new sixty-four-square board game by his court philosopher. The king is so delighted by chess that he invites the inventor to name his own reward.

Oh, I don't want much, replies the philosopher, pointing to the chessboard. Just give me one grain of wheat for the first square of the board, two grains for the second square, four grains for the third square, and so on, doubling the number of grains for each successive square, up to the sixty-fourth square.

The king is shocked, and even insulted, by what seems like such a modest request. He doesn't realize that through the hidden power of geometric progression, his court philosopher has just requested 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 (eighteen quintillion) grains of wheat--more than exists on the entire planet. The king has not only just been given a fascinating new game; he's also been treated to a powerful numbers lesson.

This widely repeated story is obviously apocryphal, but the facts of geometric progression are real. Such mathematical concepts were crucial to the advancement of technology and civilization--but were useless unless they could be understood. The advancement of big ideas required not just clever inventors, but also great teachers and vivid presentation vehicles.

That's apparently where chess came in: it used the highly accessible idea of war to convey far less concrete ideas. Chess was, in a sense, medieval presentation software—the PowerPoint of the Middle Ages. It was a customizable platform for poets, philosophers, and other intellectuals to explore and present a wide array of complex ideas in a visual and compelling way.

The game, in reality, was not invented all at once, in a fit of inspiration by a single king, general, philosopher, or court wizard. Rather, it was almost certainly (like the Bible and the Internet) the result of years of tinkering by a large, decentralized group, a slow achievement of collective intelligence. After what might have been centuries of tinkering, chatrang, the first true version of what we now call chess, finally emerged in Persia sometime during the fifth or sixth century. It was a two-player war game with thirty-two pieces on a sixty-four-square board: sixteen emerald men on one end and sixteen ruby-red men on the other. Each army was equipped with one King, one Minister (where the Queen now sits), two Elephants (where the Bishops now sit), two Horses, two Ruhks (Persian for "chariot"), and eight Foot Soldiers. The object was to capture, trap, or isolate the opponent's King.*

Chatrang was a modified import from neighboring India, where an older, four-player version of the game was known as chaturanga—which itself may have been a much older import from neighboring China. The game probably evolved along the famous Silk Road trading routes, which for centuries carried materials, information, and ideas between Delhi, Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, Kandahar, and China's Xinjiang Province. On the Silk Road, merchants transported cinnamon, pepper, horses, porcelain, gold, silver, silk, and other useful and exotic goods; they also inevitably blended customs picked up from various locales. It was the information highway of the age. No doubt many other games were invented and transported by the same roving merchants. But there was something different about chaturanga and chatrang. In a critical departure from previous board games from the region, these games contained no dice or other instruments of chance. Skill alone determined the outcome. "Understanding [is] the essential weapon" proclaims the ancient Persian poem Chatrang-namak (The book of chatrang), one of the oldest books mentioning the game. "Victory is obtained by the intellect."

This was a war game, in other words, where ideas were more important and more powerful than luck or brute force. In a world that had been forever defined by chaos and violence, this seemed to be a significant turn.

It is clearly no coincidence that chaturanga's emergence happened around the same time as India's revolutionary new numeral system, rooted in the invention of the number zero. Zero as a concept had been used on and off for centuries, but it was the Indians who formally adopted zero both as a number (as in 5-5=0 or 5´0=0) and as a placeholder (as in "an army of 10,500 men"), and who explored it deeply enough to allow for the development of negative numbers and other important abstractions. India's decimal arithmetic was the foundation of the modern numeral system, which served as a critical building block for the advancement of civilization.

The new numeral system was a great breakthrough. But who or what could effectively convey it, in all of its nuance, to others? In the centuries to follow, chess carried the new math across the world. "Chess was the companion and catalyst for the cultural transfer of a new method of calculation," writes Viennese historian Ernst Strouhal. The early Islamic chess master al-Adli mentioned using a chessboard as an abacus—that is, as a tool to perform calculations based on the new Indian numerals. The Chinese and Europeans later used the chessboard in exactly the same way. In medieval England, accounts were settled on tables resembling chessboards, and the minister of finance was given the playful title "Chancellor of the Exchequer." A twelfth-century text explains how the reference was doubly apt:

Just as, in a game of chess, there are certain grades of combatants and they proceed or stand still by certain laws or limitations, some presiding and others advancing: so, in this, some preside, some assist by reason of their office, and no one is free to exceed the fixed laws; as will be manifest from what is to follow.

Moreover, as in chess the battle is fought between Kings, so in this it is chiefly between two that the conflict takes place and the war is waged,--the treasurer, namely, and the sheriff who sits there to render account . . .

Chess also turned up in a late-twelfth-century Cambridge manuscript as a game that "thrives in the practice of geometry," and in Dante's Paradiso ("And they so many were, their number makes / More millions than the doubling of the chess"). Chess, like any great teaching tool, didn't create these sublime notions and complex systems, but helped make them visible. Math and other abstractions were just slippery notions floating in the air; chess, with its simple squares and finite borders, could represent them in a visual narrative played out on a tiny, accessible stage. Chess could bring difficult notions to life. Understanding, just as the ancient text said, was the essential weapon.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Prologue     XV
Introduction     1
Piece and Mows     9
Openings: (When: We Come From)
'Understanding Is the Essential Weapon': Chess and Our Origins     13
The Immortal Game: Move 1     21
House of Wisdom: Chess and the Muslim Renaissance     29
The Immortal Game: Move 2     39
The Morals of Men and the Duties of Nobles and Commoners: Chess and Medieval Obligation     43
The Immortal Game: Move 3     60
Making Men Circumspect: Modern Chess, the Accumulation of Knowledge, and the March to Infinity     65
The Immortal Game: Moves 4 and 5     76
Middlegame: (Who We Are)
Benjamin Franklin's Opera: Chess and the Enlightenment     87
The Immortal Game: Moves 6 and 7     99
The Emperor and the Immigrant: Chess and the Unexpected Gifts of War     107
The Immortal Game: Moves 8 and 9     117
Chunking and Tasking: Chess and the Working Mind     123
The Immortal Game: Moves 10 and 11     134
"Into Its Vertiginous Depths": Chess and the Shattered Mind     141
The Immortal Game: Moves 12-16     151
A Victorious Synthesis: Chess and Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century     163
The Immortal Game: Moves 17-19     178
Beautiful Problems: Chess and Modernity     185
The Immortal Game: Moves 20 and 21     193
Endgame (Where We Are Going)
"We Are Sharing Our World with Another Species, One That Gets Smarter and More Independent Every Year": Chess and the New Machine Intelligence     199
The Immortal Game: Moves 22 and 23 (Checkmate)     222
The Next War: Chess and the Future of Human Intelligence     227
Coda     239
Acknowledgments     241
The Rules of Chess     245
The Immortal Game (Recap) and Five Other Great Games from History     255
Benjamin Franklin's "The Morals of Chess"     281
Sources and Notes     287
Index     315

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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 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
DuctorCE More than 1 year ago
"Think of a virus so advanced it infects not the blood, but the thoughts. But of its human host. Liver and spleen are spared; instead this bug infiltrates the frontal lobes of the brain, domination such prime cognitive functions as problem solving, abstract reasoning, time motor skills and, most notably, agenda setting. It directs thoughts, actions, and even dreams. This virus comes to dominate not only the body, but the mind." So begins David Shenk's The Immortal Game. The game of course is chess. If you have never played, never wanted to and have no interest in it; then neither this review nor the volume itself will hold any interest for you. Good bye - see you next time. However, if you are intrigued by the game, and the fact that after four moves there are 10 to the power of 120 possible moves (that is one with 120 zeros or one thousand trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion), then this slim volume will captivate you. Certainly the information about the trillion, trillion stuff, made me feel better about my own game; now I know why my computer keeps thrashing me with morbid regularity. Shenk's book is supported on two planks. One is the fact that his great grandfather, Samuel Rosenthal was a 'legendary chess master', and two, the friendly game between the German Adolf Anderssen and the Estonian Lionel Kieseritzky in London on June 21st 1851 known as the Immortal Game. Samuel Rosenthal was born at Suwtki, Poland 7 September 1837, and died, almost exactly 65 years later at Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. He became a law student and moved from Warsaw to Paris during the Polish revolution in 1864. He settled in Paris as a chess professional and writer. The actual immortal game between Anderssen and Kieseritsky, was a 'warm-up' for the London International Tournament. Anderssen won; and walked away with the tournament, clutching the equivalent of half a million dollars in today's money. The tournament was propitious for Anderssen in another sense: he went on to be the leading player in the world until 1866 (save for a couple of years when he wasn't trying). Kieseritsky's life by contrast, ended two years later in a Paris mental hospital: very dead and very broke. It is said that not a single person attended the interring. Subtitling the chapters as move numbers in the Anderssen/Kieseritsky game, Shenk takes the reader on an extravaganza of chess history. From its origins in Persia in the fifth century, to an aid to education in today's America, Shenk misses nothing. There are answers here to all our ".I always wondered about that". Shenk's sources and notes are comprehensive and copious, as are his appendices. However, I thought Appendix I, pointless. If a reader didn't know the rules of chess, I doubt they would stay with Shenk for 244 pages. That said, appendix II and III are worth the purchase price of the book alone. If you love chess, you must buy this book. If you only know the moves - but enjoy the game, you must buy it. For everyone else - you should buy it too. Who knows, there could be a Grand Master lurking within you just waiting to come out.
MasterChessTeacher More than 1 year ago
I have only seen one other chess book on the History of Chess that is this book's equal ("The Chess Kings" by Olson). If you love chess and history this book is a must for you (If you don't play chess well, add "Chess for Everyone" to cover the material to understand Chess). This book is a very enjoyable read!
Smiley on LibraryThing 24 hours ago
Elegant, short overview of chess history and what the game may mean. History is done in broad strokes and alternate chapters focus on the play by play of "The Immortal Game" Anderssen vs. Kieseritzky 06/21/1851 London.The alternate chapter structure works well and adds to the overall understanding of the subject. Shenk's writing is light handed, flexiable and very readable.
Katya0133 on LibraryThing 24 hours ago
Combines a general history of chess with a play-by-play account of one of history's most famous chess games. Interesting even for those who don't seriously play chess.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jefferson_Thomas More than 1 year ago
I've played chess most of my life (I'm old enough to remember Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky at Reykyavik). Because I'm not quite as big a chess fanatic as some of this book's other reviewers, I didn't love this book as much as they did, but I still liked it. I especially like the Immortal Game itself -- who could have predicted that anyone crazy enough to sacrifice so many powerful pieces was going to emerge with a win so simple and elegant? It's all the more beautiful when you consider that, once the sacrifices start, you realize that something MUST be afoot, and, even though you're suspicious, you STILL can't seem to see what's about to happen, or stop the inevitable! Magnificent! I'm playing the other games at the end of the book out on a board as I write this, and they're pretty darned cool, too. As a history of chess, this book is good, and I recommend it. I also recommend "The Kings of Chess" by William Hartston, ISBN 0-06-015358-X. Be sure to search for this one by ISBN, because there is another book by the same name by William Winter, and it is the only one that comes up if you search by title. By the way, if you're a chess beginner, be sure to read "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess," one of the most thorough introductions to chess I've ever seen.
Justin2543 More than 1 year ago
It is an excellent source of information on the history of the game of kings and I recomend that anyone interested in the history of chess should get this book first.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The Immortal Game' gives a different and intriguing insight not only into the history of chess, but points out how chess has had an impact in the lives of even non-chess players today (i.e. terminology and analogies taken from chess). It is obvious that the author (David Shenk - an established author outside of the filed of chess) has done his homework, and shows great appreciation for the 1400 year old game. His sources are documented in his sources and notes segment as well as the use of footnotes throughout the text. Is this a dry and boring history of chess? Absolutely not! You will find numerous interesting stories about some of the top chess players in the world, but also there is a heavy focus on famous people who play chess (who didn't gain their fame from chess). The author is quick to point out when something is a 'story' or 'legend' and that often a certain amount may contain some fact. Do you need to know how to play chess to enjoy and learn from this book? No! In fact as you go through the book, basic rules are pointed out. Though not intended to be a book that teaches chess, for an absolute beginner, you will be gently introduced to the basics. There are a nice number of diagrams, pictures, maps and complete games (with light analysis to make the book of interest to the casual chess player). Great detail with diagrams for every move of the 'immortal game' is given in segments throughout the book - an interesting way of going through the game - you can skip over the in between pages if you want to follow the game from start to finish with a diagram for each move (the pages with the game stand out and are easy to find). Interesting is also a look into the impact of artificial intelligence on chess and how chess is being used as a tool to teach children in school (improving math and reading ability). If you are looking for a history book on the mechanics of the development of the game in great detail then 'The History of Chess' by Murray is the classic work (from early chess to around the 18th century). If you are looking for a book with the major focus on the history and politics of top level chess players (with moderate number of well annotated games) over the last several centuries, the 'The Chess Kings' by Olson, Volume One has been released. If you are non-chess player or a chess player looking for a little bit of everything on 'Chess History' in a very well-rounded way that is scholarly yet not boring then 'The Immortal Game' should be your first choice.
Guest More than 1 year ago
First of all, I'm a chess fanatic. Anyone who is a fanatic, will love it. Second, I love history. It's amazing to me how much this game was a part of history, is used to explain history, and even helped shape history. History buffs will enjoy this book. Third, Schenk writes very well. The stories he tells are captivating and interesting and enjoyable for broad audiences. I was fascinated by the one about the guy who prefers to checkmate his opponent instead of defending his city. The book opens with that story and it's intriguing right from the start. A very enjoyable read. Even if I were not a chess fanatic, I still would have loved this book. Very interesting!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great Book....telling the history of chess...around the story of a famous chess game from the past. It was enjoyable...and exciting the way he presented 'The Immortal Game' to you in pieces...allowing the reader time to study the board...and wonder...'what would I do??'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I purchased The Immortal Game recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. The part of the book that struck the strongest chord with me was the chapter, The Next War. (Some background first...) I went through my 'midlife crisis' a couple years ago. Instead of buying a Harley and heading for Sturgis, I decided to take up chess. Oh, I had learned the moves in my youth but, all my buddies were into baseball cards and Hardy Boys, so I never did much playing. I absorbed as much theory and general principles as I could handle and joined the local chess club. After many drubbings at the hands of the more experienced players, I won a few games which provided encouragement. About four months ago, I decided to take a break from chess and do a reassessment of the game and my relationship with it. My overriding question was 'why chess'? Dr. Viktor Frankl had picked up on Nietzche's quote about if a person had a why to their life, they could put up with almost any how. I didn't have the 'why' for continuing chess. In the chapter, The Next War, Mr. Shenk writes: 'One common response to our splintered, postmodern, slippery-truth age is not to think but to instead fall back on a fixed set of beliefs, a strict ideology. In consequence, we have -- inside the United States and worlwide -- a growing schism between enlightened, skeptical, thinking individuals and close-minded, fundamentalist ideologues. We are also literally in a war rooted in these differences. We must fight a real war with real weapons, of course. But we must also address the underlying schism. The single greatest danger to ourselves and future generations is to stop thinking, and it behooves us to do anything we can to encourage spinning skeptical minds. To do this, we will need powerful thought tools like chess that help our minds expand, grow comfortable with abstraction, and learn to navigate complex systems.' This book provided the answer for me. Those inspired words gave me the reason I was searching for to continue with all the frustrations, set backs, hours of study and rigorous analysis that chess requires. Chess surely is one of the sternest taskmasters. I would recommend this book to anyone that has a passion for pushing the wood and anyone else who has an interest in chess.