Wednesday Book Club: The Immortal Game

Wednesday, 20 May 2009 — 4:41pm | Board games, Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Immortal Game: A History of Chess (2006) by David Shenk.

In brief: The book’s alternate subtitle—”How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain”—offers a hint of Shenk’s scope of thought. Full of colourful stories and painstaking research, this thoroughly accessible work probes into the mystery of how chess has endured for 1400 years and why it delights us still. Shenk guides us on a tour through everything from the intrigue of warring nations to the play-by-play thrill of a historic game, and muses as much about how chess has shaped humanity as how humanity has shaped chess. A must-read for hobbyists and serious players alike.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Immortal Game, keep reading below.)

The Immortal Game is a book so bubbly with intellectual excitement that it can’t seem to decide what to be about. I say this as a compliment. There’s an old Indian proverb that chess is an ocean where a gnat may drink and an elephant bathe (or drown—I’ve seen it rendered both ways, and both make sense for different reasons). To boil it down to one thesis, or one narrative thread, would fail to capture the bottomless complexity at the core of the game’s appeal.

Not for lack of trying, though. There’s a paragraph four chapters into the book where the author, David Shenk, attempts to bind his entire project together into a single statement. It’s a pretty long statement:

How could one game symbolize so many different entities, structures, relationships, notions? It largely came down to the fact that chess had been designed as a symbol to begin with. Out of the box, it came furnished with a wide variety of generic attributes that lent themselves to an even wider variety of metaphorical applications: chess was a battle between two groups, each stratified by social ranking, contesting for dominance over a finite piece of geography, interacting in a dynamic so complex it seemed to take on a life of its own, each army manipulated by a player, battling each other with wits rather than brawn, employing both tactics (short-term planning) and strategy (long-term planning), in a game that could never truly be mastered.

This passage provides a decent summary of what The Immortal Game tries to do. It isn’t a history of chess in a dry, chronological sense. Rather, it asks why chess has recognizably survived for over fourteen centuries, why it has evolved into its current standardized form with respect to game mechanics as well as strategic wisdom, and why it has repeatedly taken a central role as the exemplary specimen in studies of the mind (as the fruit fly is to genetics)—and answers these questions by placing chess in the context of not only its own history, but the intellectual history of human civilization.

Why is chess special? It incontrovertibly is, but why? To answer this, it is not sufficient to look at the appeal of chess on its own, or its relevance to the world outside the board—the thinking skills Benjamin Franklin identified as foresight, circumspection, and caution in “The Morals of Chess”, his lesson in gentlemanly chess etiquette (reproduced in full in The Immortal Game‘s appendices). One must show why chess has inspired the human imagination in countless ways while other board games have not: not checkers, despite its game-theoretic similarities and the likeness of the board; not Go, which is mathematically on a whole other plane of complexity; not backgammon, the prototype of which (nard) was contemporaneous with chess’s Persian ancestor, shatranj.

Shenk rises to the challenge, and his answers are often inventive on top of being sensible. There is more to chess, we learn, than its nature as a deterministic abstraction—a bloodless battlefield with no dice and no rotting corpses, no fates to answer to but the aims of sparring minds. It also possesses the qualities of representational art. (This is very interesting as chess spreads via the Islamic Renaissance, given Islam’s prohibition on representational imagery; the solution, in those times, was to carve pieces that were almost abstract but not quite.) The class stratification of the pieces—a king that must be protected, pawns that are weak by themselves but powerful as a structured whole, knights that hop around and do their own thing to throw everyone off—is a reflection of our society. The pieces work collectively towards a common goal, but they do it with their own unique abilities.

No wonder chess is a wellspring of political and literary rhetoric: the game is directly a metaphor for war, and indirectly a metaphor for life. One may object that chess players don’t really imagine themselves as generals commanding armies on the other side of Alice’s looking-glass: they see positions and geometries, not romantic battles, right? But as Shenk shows us in one colourful anecdote after another, they often do. A French ambassador used chess to advise Elizabeth I of the political threat from the Stuarts. Benjamin Franklin’s chess games in England segued into last-ditch diplomatic talks to avoid the Revolutionary War. Nazi Germany trained its children on sets with the pieces replaced by modern artillery, and hired the Russian legend Alexander Alekhine to write anti-Semitic tracts on the cowardice of Jewish chess strategy.

Shenk tells these stories so vividly that one is inclined to disbelieve them. This says more about his gift as a writer than it does about his research, which is extensively corroborated. His presentation of how computers have tackled the game is a superb introduction to minimax algorithms, better than the explanations in many computing science texts.

As a responsible journalist, Shenk is judicious about consulting multiple professional opinions from different fields. Heaven knows he has a stunning range of sources to draw upon. In one of The Immortal Game‘s most compelling chapters, Shenk confronts the uncomfortable but undeniable quandary of the high incidence of mental illness among serious chess players. The Freudians, quaint as they seem now, regarded chess as an outlet for the patricidal impulse of the Oedipus complex. A short story by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig links the simulation of games against oneself to a “self-produced schizophrenia”. As for the delusional paranoia best known to us through the story of Bobby Fischer, literature professor and United States Chess Federation past president Tim Redman offers this choice quotation:

“A chess tournament is, by definition, an activity in which you spend many hours each day, using your best intellectual and imaginative abilities to figure out how the other player is out to get you.”

In between chapters, Shenk tells the story of one of chess’s most iconic moments, the game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzsky known as the Immortal Game, from which the book takes its title. There is something here for everyone. A novice player is likely unable to distinguish a good chess game from a bad one, but will still be able to appreciate the drama of every thrust, the excitement of every parry, as fortunes reverse this way and that. A developing player, familiar with rules and tactics but unable or unwilling to rise to the next level with hundreds of hours of study, will have fun stepping through the game and predicting every move, only to have Anderssen and Kieseritzsky shatter all expectations. An expert player will have seen it all before and may even be frustrated at the finer strategic minutiae that Shenk’s annotation omits, but should appreciate the uniqueness of this game all the more—especially given the way Shenk contextualizes it as the definitive example of the daring Romantic style.

Shenk is of that second class of player, thrilled with the game but intimidated by the thought of being straitjacketed into a regimen of study. (There is a personal attraction there too: Shenk is a direct descendant of the nineteenth-century master Samuel Rosenthal.) Like most disciplines in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the wealth of accumulated expertise in chess raised the bar of entry to seemingly insurmountable heights. One can no longer be a Benjamin Franklin these days, dabbling here and there; not in medicine, physics, and diplomacy, and not in chess.

In Shenk’s words, here’s the truth of it—the truth I, for one, had begrudgingly learned about too many of my own exploits to name:

Playing well requires study—period. There are more and less sophisticated ways to play the game, and those unwilling to face up to the reality of chess knowledge will be consigned forever to be ineffective, ignorant underachievers.

[…]

One learns from past play; one does not start from scratch. Every notable game is entered into the historical record, studied by humans—and now computers—until it becomes an essential part of the foundation of knowledge that future games will be built on. In not wanting to study openings, I was the equivalent of an unenlightened medieval cleric ranting against intellectual discovery.

Humbling, to be sure. But, to be honest, that still didn’t make me want to study opening theory.

Which is the central problem of human creativity, isn’t it: the search for something new when it seems like everything has already been done. We all get into the business hoping to innovate, but without an extensive literacy in the form—which, in chess, is an art form with evolutions and revolutions in aesthetic thought, from the Romantic to the Scientific era, from the Hypermodern school to the New Dynamism—you’re just wanking. And therein lies the constant struggle of our finite existences: to find that elusive balance between the desire to improve and the reluctance to give up one’s life.

Then again, you could always surrender to your limitations and write a good book instead—a book like The Immortal Game.

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