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Reviewed by Nathan Jones

Not Just Another Game

How to think about chess.

David Shenk opens his history of chess with a disturbing portrait of the artist Marcel Duchamp, who moved from painting (Nude Descending a Staircase) to conceptual art before devoting much his life to the pursuit of beauty at the chessboard.

To casual players, Duchamp's decision may seem ludicrous. Why give up a critically acclaimed art career in order to spend every waking moment poring over a little checkered board? But this is Shenk's point. He wants to provoke us to question our accepted scale of values, our condescension to chess as a mere game. (Of course, Duchamp's case also has to do with a radical revaluation of "art," but that's another story.)

Beginning with Duchamp, Shenk's book pushes the reader to appreciate the game's deep history and the profound aesthetic and social questions that it raises. Shenk's hyperbolic subtitle encapsulates his own view of the game's value. Alas, his journalistic style has difficulty bearing the weight of his own thesis. Shenk is attempting to establish a layman's road map through the complex world of chess, but he seems crippled by the op-ed instinct, sometimes painting his own conclusions on the subject as if they were obvious and indisputable.

In chapter 12, for example, Shenk attempts to connect chess to public education, emphasizing the game's value as an indispensable tool for the mental fitness that is necessary to compete in today's world. He reports on his visit to a New York public school, where he interviewed a chess teacher and sat in on several chess classes. Shenk observes the hesitant, bumbling attempts at pawn-play by the second-grade novices and then fast-forwards to the excited game analysis and concentrated thought demonstrated by the advanced fourth- and fifth-grade class. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the advanced class and impressed by their proficiency in the language of the game, Shenk ends the chapter with confident assertions of the ability of chess to mentally prepare young people for the meritocracy of the global economy.

And that's not the only reason to make chess a part of the curriculum. Chess, it turns out, is also an antidote to "fundamentalism." Indeed, Shenk gets a bit carried away at the end of chapter 12, preaching a standard postmodern mini-sermon against the follies of "fundamentalist ideologues" who "stop thinking" simply because the truth has become "slippery." In contrast, he claims, the emphasis chess places on flexible problem-solving could be an important part of our public education, fitting our children to avoid fundamentalist beliefs as well as preparing them to compete in the global marketplace.

Hmmm. As a sport, chess may indeed instill good mental habits in its practitioners, but will those practitioners ever have access to the educational and entrepreneurial opportunities necessary to achieve success in the global environment? Russia, probably the most chess-infused state on earth, is also famed for its corruption and the tremendous concentration of economic power in a few hands. While the Russian chess machine is fearsome over the board, the millions of Russian pawn-pushers have hardly overwhelmed the Russian economy with their transferable skills, nor have Russian chess players astonished the world with their staunch commitment to the flexible thinking championed by postmodern humanism. If anything, Russia appears to have experienced a modest religious revival, with many young people returning to their Christian roots.

Despite such flaws, The Immortal Game is both interesting and thought-provoking. Shenk is certainly correct in assuming that  a 1,400-year-old board game whose rules have not been changed in 500 years must have some value beyond mere recreation. This game's lifespan is particularly impressive given the notoriously short attention span of the modern consumer. Most video games are hopelessly out of date after three years. Even traditional favorites like backgammon have been mutable over the centuries, making it difficult to trace a concerted history.

But chess has been different. Shenk argues that chess has played a significant role in human history because of its supreme capabilities as a powerful, accessible metaphor. While Shenk's description of the game as "the PowerPoint of the Middle Ages" is a bit silly, I think most chess players would agree that the game has a strange, mirror-like quality. Chess seems to be able to absorb the complexities of a real-world problem while maintaining much-needed symbolic clarity and detachment.

Throughout the book, Shenk argues strongly that much of chess' metaphorical power stems from its mathematical nature. He even suggests that the moves of the chess pieces were based on ancient numerology, which was fascinated with the numbering relationships found in mathematical magic squares. Such speculation aside, it makes sense that the mesmerizing power of the game derives from the mathematical world that the pieces inhabit. A knight or bishop will always move the same way, but the common board multiplies the capabilities of individual pieces exponentially, so that a 32-piece symphony can dazzle the mind.

Most of us live in a designed world — a world whose components started life on the drawing board before being passed to the construction crew or taking final form as a product of Target. As such, we are familiar with the ability of mathematics to model our messy reality. Engineers manipulate mathematical equations with the help of computers to design chairs, while climate scientists use computers to mathematically project the impending consequences of our artificial world. Mathematical metaphors allow us to work through design problems inexpensively or to gain greater insight into a problem by filtering reams of data to find meaningful patterns.

Chess does something similar. Granted, chess's symbolism is too general for exact mathematical work. However, it is precisely the general symbolism of the game that has made chess so enduring. Successive generations of players bring to the game their own personal hang-ups or burning social questions. Inside the game's world, the particular problem is distilled down to its essentials. The players have a space to work out their thoughts in peace — away from the messy details of reality.

Can a game possibly encapsulate the vagaries of  21st-century life just as effectively as it did the socially stratified nature of 6th-century Persia? Somehow, chess can and does. And it is in overcoming the casual reader's initial skepticism about the true value of chess that Shenk's book shines. His anecdotes, taken together, powerfully illustrate the extent to which chess has functioned as a intellectual metaphor and social mirror for 1,400 years. Lest readers think that chess's golden days of societal application are well-behind it, Shenk spends a large portion of the book talking about modern chess-driven advances. Shenk even explains how recent analysis of computer chess variations has shed significant light on the basic principles of warfare.

The Immortal Game helped me as, a seasoned chess player, to crystallize my own wonderings about the game's addictive draw. For occasional players, Shenk's accessible account should serve as a powerful introduction to the aesthetic value and surprising power of chess. It's not just another game.

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