Susan Reads: The Immortal Game: A History of Chess

[Cover] People have been doing it for more than 1300 years.  James Bond did it. So did Kirk and Spock.  Ben Franklin was addicted to it. Harry Potter did it the wizard way, but never once did Doyle ever directly say Sherlock Holmes did. I picked up The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, expecting it to be the dorkiest book ever written, a checkered feather in my Nerd cap.  I expected it to be boring and confusing, full of that chessy shorthand I can’t seem to follow despite its simplicity, and I never expected to actually finish it.

            I was so wrong.

            Author David Shenk presents a surprisingly fascinating history of the game, starting with its roots in India in the 600’s, played in similar fashion on a squared but monochrome board. The game spread to the Middle East just as Mohammad was gathering his followers, and the spread of Islam throughout the Mediterranean carried the game to Spain, where it spread upwards all the way to the Vikings. Chess underwent several incarnations as different kings and clerics tried to ban it, adding the familiar two-toned board to make it easier to follow.  In the late 1400’s, the king’s minister became the all-powerful queen, in response to the presence of several very strong queens in Europe at the time, such as Isabella of Spain and Mary, Queen of Scots. It was during this renaissance that our current game was born.

            Chess has been used throughout the ages as a teaching tool of the masses, from teaching peasants their place in society, to teaching the peasants that they are just as powerful as kings and helping to fuel revolutions (Ben Franklin allegedly told a player who check-mated him to go ahead and take his king; America had no need of kings and he would continue to play without it), to teaching battlefield strategies, to almost freeing the imprisoned Napoleon, but the man sent to tell him of the rescue plans stored in the game died en route.

            Shenk alternates his chapters of history with play-by-play explanations of one historic game, explaining why each move was important. This breaks up the history with examples of strategy, without delving too deep into QH4/BH3 shorthand, and makes for an enjoyable and educational read. Shenk argues that chess masters are made, not born (reiterating M. Gladwell), and that any person can become a Grand Master at any age, if enough practice is given. I am no chess master, playing on an entertainment level in a very random and haphazard fashion and doing rather well at it. However, after reading the book, with very little thought effort on my part, I was able to beat my computer chess program – four times in a row.

            A very painless and interesting book whether you actually play or just want to read about it. As Spock would say : Fascinating.

One thought on “Susan Reads: The Immortal Game: A History of Chess

  1. Some of my favorite non-fiction books are the ones that take a small topic and make an interesting story out of it and it sounds like this book did a really good job with that. Thanks for the great review 🙂


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