Monday, April 20, 2009

Chess book review: The Immortal Game - A History of Chess by David Shenk

Most chess books are by chess experts, often the top-ranked players of the game. This is all well and good most of the time, but it does leave a gap in the literature for this remarkable game, because most of us are not experts and never will be. Yet chess is more than just a game for experts. It has infiltrated the culture so deeply that every educated person is expected to know enough about how the game is played that they can make sense of analogies to pawns, understand that a contest is over when checkmated and that the queen in chess is the most powerful piece.

With the possible exception of Monopoly, no game has such a lock on popular references, so it's appropriate to look at chess not just as a game, but as a phenomenon. Describing the fascinating history of chess in a way that is not dry or too technical is a challenge, however, but David Shenk hit upon an interesting solution with his 2006 book by framing his narrative around what may be the most famous single game of chess ever played, The Immortal Game played in 1851 between Adolph Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritsky. This astounding game saw Anderssen sacrifice both of his rooks AND his queen on his way to checkmating Kieseritsky! I think it's truly an eye-opening game for any novice chess player to view, because it shook shake them out of any overly materialistic or attrition-based view of strategy.

On his way through describing The Immortal Game Shenk discusses the hsitory of the game from its obscure origins somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, through its popularization by Arab culture to its signifaicnt rules changes at the hands of Europeans that resulted in the game that's become the global standard. He discusses the great figures of chess such as Morphy, Nimzowitsch, Fischer and Kaparov. He explains the different styles of play such as Romantic, Scietific and Hypermodern. And he takes us through a personal journey that any casual player of the game can understand.

Shenk has more than a casual connection to the game. His great great grandfather was Samuel Rosenthal, a noted player in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century himself. Shenk, himself, dabbled in the game as a young man, then didn't play for years before rediscovering the game in 2002. Unwilling to devote the effort needed to become even a bad chess player, he decided instead to write a good chess book.

The Immortal Game is well-worth the read. I doubt experienced chess players will learn much new to them, but for the rest of us it's a great read.

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