Books: How Chess Became the King of Games
By Christopher F. Chabris
1000 words
4 November 2006
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2006, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

The Immortal Game

By David Shenk

(Doubleday, 327 pages, $26)

LAST MONTH, the world chess championship title was reunified in a match between the two rival claimants, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria. Despite forfeiting one game during a dispute over his frequent bathroom visits, Mr. Kramnik won, 8.5-7.5, keeping the title he gained by defeating his countryman, Garry Kasparov, six years ago.

Newspapers world-wide covered every move of every game, and millions of people followed the story. David Shenk's "The Immortal Game" is a book that tries to answer a simple question: Why do they all care? Or more precisely: Why did chess, of all the games ever invented by man, attain such cultural ubiquity, being played today in almost every country, according to exactly the same rules, by people of all ages, and being held in near-universal regard as the king of games, as Goethe's "touchstone of the intellect"?

Mr. Shenk, an amateur player whose fascination with chess is admittedly greater than his facility for it, seeks his answer in the game's history, beginning with its origins in ancient India and Persia. He explains the rules of shatranj, the Islamic version, and recounts tales of kings in Baghdad, knights in medieval Europe, and queens in the Renaissance who played chess. Two critical developments came around the 15th century, when the rules were standardized across Europe and changed to make the queen the most powerful piece on the chessboard. Here begins the era of modern chess, where games and ideas recorded centuries ago still have meaning and influence today: The "Ruy Lopez" series of opening moves is named for a 16th-century Spanish priest, and "Greco's sacrifice" refers to an Italian player of the same era.

Mr. Shenk argues that chess is popular because it represents powerful forces in human life: myths, Freudian conflicts, moral precepts, social structures and of course war. From the start, chess seemed to evoke extreme responses. The U.S. government's recent efforts to limit online wagering "involving chance" seem quaint in light of the long list of rulers who have banned outright the entirely skill-based game of chess (Ayatollah Khomeini, the Taliban and some Iraqi clergy being the most recent examples). Even sober Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay (reprinted in an appendix here) on "The Morals of Chess," and the cold-blooded commissars of the nascent Soviet Union saw domination of world chess as a way to demonstrate the superiority of their system. The idea that you can find anything in chess if you look hard enough has a lot going for it, and Mr. Shenk piles up the evidence in entertaining style.

Woven throughout the book is a move-by-move description of one of the most famous chess games ever played (and the source of Mr. Shenk's title). This encounter, between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, occurred in London in 1851, a time when good players were able to pull off dazzling attacks mainly because defensive skill was in short supply: Anderssen sacrificed over half his pieces, while Kieseritzky never even moved most of his. Mr. Shenk succeeds admirably in guiding the reader through every move. He deploys chess notation and diagrams liberally, in appendices and in the main text, almost daring browsers to put the book down and walk away. Everything, though, is explained in clear terms without assuming, on the reader's part, any knowledge of chess.

But Mr. Shenk's description of this particular match 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. The reasons for playing certain moves, and for not playing others, lend themselves to endless analysis, by the players themselves, by commentators and by future generations of enthusiasts. And Mr. Shenk does not note that modern opinion holds that Kieseritzky and Anderssen traded numerous errors virtually until the end of the game, and the step-by-step brilliance attributed to Anderssen is largely a just-so story, chess history's version of how the leopard got its spots.

Mr. Shenk is entirely too credulous on several other subjects, such as the purported educational benefits of chess and the notion that youthful "talent" for chess is a myth. And he fails to even wonder why, if chess touches so many universals of human life, the game is many times more popular among men than women. Still, there is much to enjoy when reading "The Immortal Game," and much to admire in the author's prodigious research, his evident enthusiasm for his subject and his elegant threading together of so much material. The book is a true page-turner, and a superb introduction to the game of chess.

Meanwhile, freshly exhausted from his world championship victory, Vladimir Kramnik is scheduled to face a computer this month in the latest "man versus machine" battle. Artificial intelligence has made so much progress in chess that Mr. Kramnik gives himself less than a 50% chance of winning. When computers definitively surpass human chess ability, will the game start to die off?

The concluding section of "The Immortal Game" hints at the answer. Mr. Shenk visits chess experts teaching in the New York City public schools and marvels at the game's ability to hold the attention of today's famously multitasking children. Even when a computer can beat the world champion, the history of chess will be as rich as it has always been, and the mental challenge for one human player to defeat another will be as deep.


Mr. Chabris, a research associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, holds the National Master title in chess.

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