I don’t know how to play chess. I know that it’s played on a Checkers board, and that Pepperidge Farms makes some pretty good Chessmen cookies. Chess seemed like too much work to be fun…until now!
The Immortal Game: A History of Chess is David Shenk’s examination of chess’s impact on culture and on the people captivated by the game. Whether or not you know anything about chess, I think you could find this to be an enjoyable read. It’s sort of a history of civilization as told through chess.
As governments change, the game changes. A powerful European queen makes chess’s queen powerful. The power of the all pieces, great and small, subversively moves a people from monarchy to democracy. An exiled dictator’s escape plans are implanted inside a special chessboard. Artificial intelligence experiments abound.
It would be easy to shrug off the book’s claims that chess has been in the middle of many cultural shifts and personal flourishing. I’ts a book on chess, of course it will make big claims. What’s hard to argue against are the facts. Famous political figures like Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, and Karl Marx loved the game. The USA and USSR used the game as a proxy proxy war of sorts. Many champions have been driven mad by the consuming fire of chess. It traveled the world with trade routes. It was, at times, a unifier and a universal. It was banned by three religions.
My favorite tidbit was David Shenk’s remark that chess was a sort of medieval Powerpoint. Before computer-generated slideshows and flip charts, chess was often used to illustrate all kinds of intangible ideas and ideals.
On a side note, there are also a ton of cool chess boards. Do a Google image search for “cool chess boards“. My favorite is the vacuum tube set.