Book Report: The Immortal Game

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.


3 thoughts on “Book Report: The Immortal Game

  1. I’ve always felt like there was a lot more to chess than the game, like it was a tradition of sorts. This looks like a good read. I’d also like to find a good book on Go, the other ancient game. I think Go and Chess present two very different approaches to conflict. Chess is a contest of strategy: planning, thinking ahead. Go, I think, is a contest of response, the board changes so unexpectedly. It would be interesting to read about the role of Go in the military history of east.

  2. Growing up my dad and I both had a disdain for board games, however for some reason Chess is the only game I remember us playing together (queue sappy father/daughter bonding type music) so it’s always held some special memories for me.

    And yes, I agree there are some amazing chess boards out there of which I actually have a small but growing collection. This is by far my favorite and one day I will own it. I will.

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