Wednesday, October 8, 2008

David Shenk's "The Immortal Game": Book Review.

Despite the subtitle, this is less a "history of chess" than a survey of its subtitular impacts upon "art, science, and the human brain." It works better as a series of interconnected chapters on chronologically arranged topics rather than as a comprehensive study. Shenk argues that the game encouraged medieval acceptance of free will over fate, and skill over chance. He tries to trace this admittedly ambitious thesis through the spread of the game from sixth century Persia to the West and then globally.

He's at his best with metaphors, as these illuminate the game for newcomers like me. Shenk delves into the symbolic nature of chess, and his own images assist our understanding. He uses Jenny Adams' research from the Middle Ages in her book "Power Play," examining the formative period for the game, to emphasize how pieces could be seen as a miniaturization of society, from peasants to royals. Shenk agrees with Adams about how this conception paralled the creation of an individual self related to the community, moving about in a pattern that left nothing to caprice and all to control.

Speaking of images, Shenk deploys them well. The spread of chess was as if "the game had been shot out of Arabia like a shotgun shell, scattering similar but distinct fragments all across the Continent." (57) He compares water molecules changing from water to ice with one movement of a pawn affecting a game's outcome. He thinks about how near-death experiences allow one to glimpse the beyond in a fashion resembling chess players who can skim "close enough to infinity" for them "to peer over the ledge and envision the fall." (70) The middlegame seems like you're away from the beach, finally enjoying the "high, crashing, erratic ocean waves. Is that a life raft headed your way, or a saw-toothed shark?" (105) Developing one's pieces may be as crucial as vaccinating a youngster, for while if you neglect this action, fatality "isn't certain," one "can expect to face serious trouble."

He explains that he wrote this book after taking up chess as an adult after a brief stint as a youngster, but he still lacks the requisite ambition that, he tells us, makes a chess "genius," rather than any innate brilliance. Practice 20,000 hours at anything, Shenk reasons, and you will achieve success!
"It wasn't so much that I minded losing; I just got tired of my own mediocrity, and realized that I preferred to stay up nights trying to write a better book about chess than studying to be a better player. For whatever reason, my drive was to understand the relentless drive of others to play masterful chess." (135)

He sums it up as a combination of a battle between two forces, each socially stratified, competing to dominate a "finite piece of geography," interacting dynamically and in complex manner, as "each army manipulated by a player," with "wits rather than brawn," and using short-term tactics along with long-term strategy, "in a game that could never truly be mastered." (73) The alliance of tactics with strategy, Shenk finds, separates-- at least for now-- Kasparov from Deep Blue. Humans still, if tenously, thrive in unpredictable variations on strategy that a processing intelligence system appears not yet to have mastered.

Near the conclusion, Shenk has an epiphany in a NYC classroom as he watches a master coach a school team. Shenk wonders if teaching chess could help us respond to the blasts of consumer-driven manipulation, political chicanery, and ideological rhetoric we're subjected to daily. Instead of retreating back to comforting beliefs, he muses, we should nourish our enlightened sense of skepticism. Chess makes us think for ourselves. We learn to deal with abstraction, navigate complexity, and expand our mental horizons.

While this narrative lacks the personal touch and the extended travelogue with its byways and idiosyncracies featured in J.C. Hallman's engaging "The Chess Artist" (also reviewed by me recently on Amazon and here), "The Immortal Game" succeeds by brevity. Shenk, nevertheless, may prove too rapidly paced a guide into the realms he glimpses. For a longer entry into the tournament world, you may want to try Paul Hoffman's "King's Gambit," about his relationship with his father as analyzed through the filter of competition.

Intriguingly, Shenk's own great-great grandfather. Samuel Rosenthal, was one of the best French masters of the later 19c. I'd have wished for more about him; the hurried, two-page coda, both in the German visit and the brief encounter with his ggg-father's portrait in a London chess pub, does not satisfy the reader finishing this work. You want to learn more about the German town, his ancestor, and his European talk that appears to have condensed his book's thesis.

Often in this book, Shenk moves too quickly. I can see why he favors the Romantic game with its parries and attacks. Complex ideas rush past you as they intersect with chess, although such a format, usually with terse chapters, does seem suited more to a quick scan than any in-depth study of the many subjects he necessarily touches upon.

I liked the interspersion of the "The Immortal Game" between Anderssen & Kieseritzky on June 21, 1851, as this helps beginners follow the pieces, learn notation in an entertaining manner, and comprehend a bit of Romantic strategy at its best. However, the subsequent shifts of chess theory into the positional or scientific, the hypermodern, and the New Synthesis in turn earn only cursory attention. Likewise, I did not fully figure out why he includes the Kasparov vs. Deep Junior moves that he's diagrammed, as these two moves gain only momentary attention and insufficient elaboration.

He does recapitulate the Immortal Game at the end, along with a few other legendary games, with some comments of his own. The appendices helpfully list his print and electronic sources, although a spot check revealed an endnote slightly off from its pagination; his final excerpt, from an article in Tikkun magazine, even though it inspired him to write this book, is not cited in the documentation.

Still, it's an instructive introduction, suited for novices like me, and doubtless more advanced devotees of this 1400-year-old pursuit. There's a need for a popular introduction such as this to explain chess to those who may not want to learn how to play so much as how to appreciate how the game's evolved, represented, and influenced. Certainly, finishing this short and accessible overview, one will want to find out much more about chess.

(Posted to Amazon US today, where I broke the barrier at 916 reviews and #496 as a Top 500 member! Ten years in the making! P.S. Here's a four-minute You Tube video by Shenk. Negatively rated by the kibitzers, who resent his crashing their checkboarded party.)

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