The Immortal Game (330 pps) by David Shenk Published by Doubleday @ $26.00
“Think of a virus so advanced it infects not the blood, but the thoughts. But of its human host. Liver and spleen are spared; instead this bug infiltrates the frontal lobes of the brain, domination such prime cognitive functions as problem solving, abstract reasoning, time motor skills and, most notably, agenda setting. It directs thoughts, actions, and even dreams. This virus comes to dominate not only the body, but the mind.”
So begins David Shenk’s The Immortal Game. The game of course is chess. If you have never played, never wanted to and have no interest in it; then neither this review nor the volume itself will hold any interest for you. Good bye – see you next time. However, if you are intrigued by the game, and the fact that after four moves there are 10 to the power of 120 possible moves (that is one with 120 zeros or one thousand trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion), then this slim volume will captivate you. Certainly the information about the trillion, trillion stuff, made me feel better about my own game; now I know why my computer keeps thrashing me with morbid regularity. Shenk’s book is supported on two planks. One is the fact that his great grandfather, Samuel Rosenthal was a ‘legendary chess master’, and two, the friendly game between the German Adolf Anderssen and the Estonian Lionel Kieseritzky in London on June 21st 1851 known as the Immortal Game.
Samuel Rosenthal was born at Suwtki, Poland7 September1837, and died, almost exactly 65 years later at Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. He became a law student and moved from Warsaw to Paris during the Polish revolution in 1864. He settled in Paris as a chess professional and writer. The actual immortal game between Anderssen and Kieseritsky, was a ‘warm-up’ for the London International Tournament. Anderssen won; and walked away with the tournament, clutching the equivalent of half a million dollars in today’s money. The tournament was propitious for Anderssen in another sense: he went on to be the leading player in the world until 1866 (save for a couple of years when he wasn’t trying).
Kieseritsky’s life by contrast, ended two years later in a Paris mental hospital: very dead and very broke. It is said that not a single person attended the interring. Subtitling the chapters as move numbers in the Anderssen/Kieseritsky game, Shenk takes the reader on an extravaganza of chess history. From its origins in Persia in the fifth century, to an aid to education in today’s America, Shenk misses nothing. There are answers here to all our “…I always wondered about that”. Shenk’s sources and notes are comprehensive and copious, as are his appendices. However, I thought Appendix I, pointless. If a reader didn’t know the rules of chess, I doubt they would stay with Shenk for 244 pages. That said, appendix II and III are worth the purchase price of the book alone.
If you love chess, you must buy this book. If you only know the moves – but enjoy the game, you must buy it. For everyone else – you should buy it too. Who knows, there could be a Grand Master lurking within you just waiting to come out. End