The Immortal Game
By David Shenk
September 2006, 352 pp., $26
For more than 1,500 years, chess has framed the thinking of the world's greatest minds. Gazing at the same 64-square board, generals envision a battlefield, monks picture social order, and mathematicians imagine complex formulas. David Shenk, a chess neophyte whose distant relative Samuel Rosenthal was a grandmaster, set off to find out why.
In this engaging, breezy tome, Shenk discovers chess occupying some pivotal role in the progress of mankind century after century. In contrast to games of chance, chess taught responsibility and demanded intelligence. "Chess...helped to introduce the concept of nonviolent rivalry," writes Shenk. "Civilization today would be lost without the option of bloodless war," which is business's realm.
The game's metaphorical punch has also made it an ideal vehicle for explaining complex ideas—the "PowerPoint of the Middle Ages," Shenk goes so far as to say. The first major book about it, On the Game of Chess, was written in 1300 by a Dominican monk who likened an individual's social rank to a certain piece on the board. In the modern era, artists as diverse as Vladimir Nabokov and Aaron Sorkin (in an episode of The West Wing) have used chess as a literary device because of its symbolism.
Although Shenk doesn't explicitly discuss the intersection of chess and business, he makes clear the game's value for strategic and creative thinkers. Chess presents a playing field of limitless complexities (a chessboard offers more potential games than there are electrons in the universe), and so each game is a chance to test conservative or aggressive tactics and gauge the result. Psychologists have made significant discoveries about how the brain uses logic, memory, and creativity by studying chess players. Good chess players recognize patterns faster and their brains are more efficient, which is why chess has emerged as an elementary-school subject. And Shenk credits computer scientists with using chess to advance artificial intelligence, leading to computers that can detect credit-card fraud and recognize human speech.
Besides detailing chess's broader social significance, Shenk brings it to life with tales of its personal impact, from the geniuses driven mad by it to the passion and knowledge it brought the author. Shenk's passion will leave readers yearning to play, joining the ranks of Spain's Queen Isabella, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, and, yes, Madonna—all of whom have been captivated by the game's enduring power.
The literary lineage of The Immortal Game, including the next move.
On the Game of Chess → Salt: A World History → Every Move Must Have a Purpose → The Immortal Game → Modern Chess Series, Part One
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.