three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
By: 
David Shenk
user_rating: 
0

A History of Chess

A-Immortal GameChess—to devotees a maddening, thrilling, enigmatic microcosm of life—was first played more than 1,500 years ago in India. Since then, the game has spread to all corners of the world. At times it has served as a diplomatic salve, as a moral guide, and as a determiner of military strategy; today, it has even become a powerful tool in the development of cognitive studies and artificial intelligence. David Shenk—a mediocre player who boasts a 19th-century chess master in his family tree—illustrates the game’s profound reach. He describes the delight of children being introduced to the game in a Brooklyn classroom, dredges up interesting facts about the game’s origin, and gives hope to novices by suggesting that diligent practice, not genetics, might predict a player’s success.
Doubleday. 352 pages. $26. ISBN: 0385510101

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"David Shenk’s exhilarating account of chess across the centuries and cultures and brain synapses. … [He] weaves a masterful tale that all readers can enjoy, no matter how little they know about chess." Phil Hanrahan

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although the book’s subtitle promises a history of chess, its more interesting pages offer something closer to meditation, personal revelation and the exploration of what he calls ‘the deep history of chess’s entanglement with the human mind.’" Katie Hafner

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Shenk’s description … misses one of the most crucial reasons for chess’s popularity: the fact that what happens on the board, the move sequence that is actually played, is just a fraction of the beauty—the vast and intricate architecture of strategy—present in a single game. … Still, there is much to enjoy when reading The Immortal Game." Christopher F. Chabris

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Michael Dirda

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"The Immortal Game can be read with interest and profit by someone who does not know the Sicilian Defense from the Bryan Countergambit. … In the end, [the book] undermines its argument for chess as a microcosm of life, because Shenk flaunts the fact that mere luck figures not at all in the play—forgetting that luck is indeed a very large part of life." Robert Finn

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"[Shenk’s book] bounces halfway around the world over nearly 1,500 years of history in less than 250 pages, making it concise but sometimes insubstantial. … The Immortal Game offers readers an interesting if flighty glimpse into the world of chess—and the world that chess was designed to mirror." Richard Thompson

San Antonio Exp-News 3 of 5 Stars
"The Immortal Game is a welcome addition to any chess library, but keep in mind it is a chess book written by a smart and competent outsider. In the end, something critical is missing." John MacCormack

Critical Summary

David Shenk is the author of four previous books, including The Forgetting, an acclaimed study of Alzheimer’s, and Data Smog, about information overload in the Internet age. The greatest asset of The Immortal Game is its accessibility. Through an educated layperson’s knowledge of chess, Shenk focuses on his subject’s more intriguing points and leaves arcane rehashes of famous games for more technical texts. (An appendix obliges those who revel in such details.) At its most engaging, the book meditates on the ways that chess can enrich lives. Given its brevity, Shenk’s overview sometimes sacrifices depth to coverage, though such an approach barely decreases the pleasure even an interested "wood-pusher"—chess slang for a weak player—might take away from this passionate and well-researched history.