Michael Dirda

The game of all ages, for all ages: Walter Wisby, 8, plays  with T. Whiltard, 91, in 1913.
The game of all ages, for all ages: Walter Wisby, 8, plays with T. Whiltard, 91, in 1913. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 29, 2006


A History of Chess

By David Shenk

Doubleday. 327 pp. $26

Chess may or may not be the most intellectual of all games, but it is certainly the most romantic. Say the word "chess," and the images start to flicker through our minds: black-cowled Death hunched over a chessboard with the crusader in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal"; Alice adventuring through the Looking Glass; the thin-lipped grandmaster Kronsteen planning the destruction of James Bond in "From Russia with Love." Some lucky readers will remember Beth Harmon, the abused young girl who discovers her lonely destiny in Walter Tevis's superb novel The Queen's Gambit ; others will recall the darker fate of Luzhin in Nabokov's The Defense . Then there's the legendary Paul Morphy -- the Edgar Allan Poe of chess -- who dazzled the world in his early 20s before sinking down into delusion and paranoia. More recently, 1997 headlines announced the defeat of a human world champion, Garry Kasparov, by the implacable machine-intelligence of the computer known as Deep Blue.

David Shenk recognizes all this romance, though The Immortal Game tends to emphasize chess's actual history and development. For most of us, Shenk's book possesses an almost inestimable advantage over the many other publications about chess: It isn't entirely made up of page after page of little chessboards, decorated with knights, pawns and bishops in seemingly random patterns, followed by arcane notations such as "N-QB3!!" In fact, you can be an utter novice, just a simple wood-pusher, and enjoy the author's engaging prose, honest self-deprecation (he's a lousy player) and the charm of his personal connection with the game: Shenk's great-great-grandfather was Samuel Rosenthal, once the champion of France.

Shenk, who has also written on health and aging, relates the history of chess from its origins in India and Persia to the development of the modern super-computers that now regularly surpass the skill of grand masters. In between, he traces the game in Arab culture and its refinement during the Middle Ages in Europe, discusses such influential figures as Benjamin Franklin (probably colonial America's strongest player) and Franklin's French contemporary François-André Danican Philidor, who first recognized the power of massed pawns. Shenk tells lots of good stories and anecdotes. Napoleon and Marx both adored chess without being very good at it; Marcel Duchamp gave up art ("Nude Descending a Staircase") to spend all his time thinking about openings and gambits; the Viennese expert Rudolf Spielmann (the perfect name!) famously advised that one should aim to "play the opening like a book, the middle game like a magician, and the endgame like a machine."

My own favorite story involves the British champion Harry Golombek -- later a chess columnist for the New York Times -- and Alan Turing, the pioneer visionary of artificial intelligence. Both men worked as code-breakers during World War II at Bletchley Park. To unwind from their cryptographic labors, the two would sometimes sit down to a game. "Golombek's chess superiority over Turing," writes Shenk, "was such that he could overwhelm Turing in a chess game, force Turing's resignation, and then turn the board around to play Turing's pieces against his own original pieces -- and win."

In the more thematic chapters of The Immortal Game , Shenk considers the connections between chess and schizophrenia, discusses the insights into cognitive psychology derived from studying blindfolded players (they don't so much "picture" the exact positions of the pieces as visualize fields of force around the board), and explains why Russia dominates international competitions. Shenk also lays out the four major schools in chess history: the Romantic (razzle-dazzle surprise tactics), the Scientific (patient positional play), Hypermodernism (rejection of traditional theories, e.g., a refusal to "overburden" the center of the board with pawns) and the New Dynamism (more organic play, going with the flow).

Shenk recognizes that all talk and no play can make for a dull book, so he periodically interrupts his historical chapters to analyze, move by move, what was supposed to be just a casual pick-up game. Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky happened to be in London for a 16-player championship tournament and sat down to relax a little at Simpson's Grand Divan Tavern, hardly knowing they were going to make history. That afternoon, on June 21, 1851, the two played out what has come to be known as "the Immortal Game." In this astonishing encounter, Anderssen, playing white, eventually gives up his two rooks to gain positional advantage and, in a breathtaking moment of sheer genius, deliberately, shockingly sacrifices his queen to clear the way to an unforgettable checkmate.

Sheer genius, did I say? Most people tend to believe that superior skill at chess is simply innate, a genetic mutation. Not so, says Shenk, in what may be his most surprising chapter. In truth, chess -- like so many other fields -- rewards study, discipline, passion. The more you practice, the better you get. Early mentoring leads to early success, which leads to feelings of pride, which encourages even greater effort, which results in further success. Shenk relates an impressive story about "mentored genius." In the late 1960s a Hungarian psychologist named Laszlo Polgar embarked on an experiment "to prove that any healthy baby can be nurtured into a genius: he publicly declared that he would do this with his own children, who were not yet born." He and his wife later home-schooled their three daughters in, among other subjects, chess:

"From a very early age, the three Polgar daughters, Zsusza, Zsofia, and Judit, studied chess for an average of eight to ten hours every day -- perhaps a total of some 20,000 hours from age eight to eighteen. . . . They all became 'chess' geniuses. In 1991, at age twenty-one, Zsuzsa . . . became the first woman in history to earn a grandmaster title through qualifying tournaments. The second child, Zsofia, also became a world-class player. Judit, the youngest, became at age fifteen the youngest grandmaster in history (a record previously held by Bobby Fischer), and was considered a strong candidate to eventually become world chess champion."

Shenk's dust jacket adds, beneath the title and subtitle, a cumbrous but accurate précis of this fine book's overall theme: "How 32 carved pieces on a board illuminated our understanding of war, art, science, and the human brain." In fact, The Immortal Game does all this with easy-going savvy and without making altogether inflated claims for chess. If you're new to what has been called the 64-square madhouse, you'll certainly learn a lot about its history from Shenk. But -- despite an appendix reprinting a handful of memorable games -- he's not going to teach you the intricacies of the King's Gambit Declined or the Nimzo-Indian Defense. Of course, most of us are pretty content just to checkmate our children and friends occasionally or, at the least, not be trounced by them with such ignominious regularity. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. He conducts a weekly book discussion on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com.

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