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A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain

by David Shenk

Pub Date: Sept. 5th, 2006
ISBN: 0-385-51010-1
Publisher: Doubleday

In this compelling, accessible study, Shenk (The Forgetting Alzheimer’s, 2001) ponders the question: Does playing chess require great minds, or are great minds formed by playing chess?

The history of chess is the history of the dissemination of culture, notes Shenk, and he nimbly employs the various disciplines in history, anthropology and psychology to convey the importance and usefulness of the game over its 1,400-year span. His work is conscientiously structured around an actual game, from Openings (the origins of chess and its civilizing attributes), to Middlegame (from the Enlightenment to Soviet domination of the game), to Endgame (chess in the age of technology). Alternating sections illustrate and analyze the moves of one “Immortal Game,” played June 21, 1851, in London between grandmasters Adolf Anderseen and Lionel Kieseritzky. From its evolution along the Silk Road as chatrang, the game drew on the use of skill rather than dice or chance. Thanks to its enthusiastic embrace by Muhammad, the new bloodless war game shatranj caught on in the Muslim world, where chess pieces were abstractions (due to religious strictures) rather than representational images. With its migration to medieval Spain, the game underwent some modifications: The Elephant figure became the Bishop, while the King’s Minister was replaced by the Queen—inspired by the emergence of powerful female rulers such as Isabella. Chess became a metaphor for war, social ranking and human behavior. From history, Shenk moves into cognitive science, i.e., how chess can make us think, combining memory, logic, calculation and creativity. He acknowledges the great eras of chess play (Romantic, Scientific, Hypermodern, and New Dynamism) and offers respective strategies—his own forebear Samuel Rosenthal was a grandmaster. A concluding chapter of this comprehensive study explores chess and artificial intelligence as illustrated in Garry Kasparov’s faceoff against the supercomputer Deep Junior.

With appendices offering detailed game analyses, illustration of rules and Ben Franklin’s essay “The Morals of Chess,” this proves an enriching guide for lay readers who’d like to be chess aficionados but don’t know where to start.