The Immortal Game

Or How 32 Carved Pieces On a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain

A surprising, charming, and ever-fascinating history of the seemingly simple game that has had a profound effect on societies the world over.
Why has one game, alone among the thousands of games invented and played throughout human history, not only survived but thrived within every culture it has touched? What is it about its thirty-two figurative pieces, moving about its sixty-four black and white squares according to very simple rules, that has captivated people for nearly 1,500 years? Why has it driven some of its greatest players into paranoia and madness, and yet is hailed as a remarkably powerful intellectual tool? Nearly everyone has played chess at some point in their lives. Its rules and pieces have served as a metaphor for society, influencing military strategy, mathematics, artificial intelligence, and literature and the arts. It has been condemned as the devil’s game by popes, rabbis, and imams, and lauded as a guide to proper living by other popes, rabbis, and imams. Marcel Duchamp was so absorbed in the game that he ignored his wife on their honeymoon. Caliph Muhammad al-Amin lost his throne (and his head) trying to checkmate a courtier. Ben Franklin used the game as a cover for secret diplomacy.In his wide-ranging and ever-fascinating examination of chess, David Shenk gleefully unearths the hidden history of a game that seems so simple yet contains infinity. From its invention somewhere in India around 500 A.D., to its enthusiastic adoption by the Persians and its spread by Islamic warriors, to its remarkable use as a moral guide in the Middle Ages and its political utility in the Enlightenment, to its crucial importance in the birth of cognitive science and its key role in the aesthetic of modernism in twentieth-century art, to its twenty-first-century importance in the development of artificial intelligence and use as a teaching tool in inner-city America, chess has been a remarkably omnipresent factor in the development of civilization. Indeed, as Shenk shows, some neuroscientists believe that playing chess may actually alter the structure of the brain, that it may be for individuals what it has been for civilization: a virus that makes us smarter.

Reviews

A Toronto Star Best Book of 2006

Praise for The Immortal Game

“Before reading David Shenk’s wonderful new book, I had at best a casual interest in chess. It seemed too ancient to untangle, too complex to decipher with any real appreciation. But Shenk, in a book filled with daring moves and cunning patience, has made a believer out of me.”
—Stephen J. Dubner, coauthor of Freakonomics

“I loved this book. Full of burning enthusiasm for the greatest intellectual game in the world, it shows just what can happen when an accomplished author, full of fire and passion, tackles a most wonderful and intricate story. Like a great chess game, this is an achievement that will be talked about for many years to come.”
—Simon Winchester, author of A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 and The Professor and the Madman

“It’s audacious enough to write a book about the world’s most written-about game. To say something fresh and smart seems almost unfair. But that’s just what David Shenk has done. With the depth and insight of a grandmaster, The Immortal Game explores and explains not only the addictive power of chess but its shockingly important, Zelig-like role in the history of humankind.”
—Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players

“David Shenk takes us millennia back and light-years ahead. The Immortal Game is an insightful look at chess, the icons of culture it has inspired, and the surprising part the game plays in the narrative of the modern world.”
—Bruce Pandolfini, legendary chess instructor, author of Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess