Monday, November 13, 2006

The Immortal Game and Chess History

samuel rosenthal and david shenk

Samuel Rosenthal and David Shenk

Most chess historians are like scientists bent over their lab tables; they rarely step back to view the larger meaning of their subject or to find ways of communicating their insights to non-specialists. It often takes an outsider to construct a paradigm that can help interpret the insiders' knowledge for the rest of us. In his excellent new book, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain (Doubleday 2006), David Shenk serves that outsider's role, and he demonstrates a remarkable capacity for explaining the power of our game for both masters and the masses, even though he admits to playing it himself no better than Paul Morphy's romantic contemporaries. He succeeds because his thesis is large enough in scope to frame the full sweep of chess history. Put simply, he argues that chess offers a model, metaphor, problem, or symbol that is complex enough to help people comprehend their world in important ways. His thesis thus not only explains why chess has fascinated us throughout history but also offers an implicit argument for why chess will be useful in the future, despite the fact that computers are already better at it than all but the best human players.

If anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss claimed that "animals are good to think with" (especially among hunter-gatherers), Shenk would claim that chess is even better (especially for those living in large, complex societies), and he traces how multiple generations have used the game as a model for explaining their world. Along the way, he touches on some of the following ways that the game has been an aid to human thought and expression:

  • Chess offered kings used to bloody conflict over land a powerful model for the "bloodless war" of diplomacy.

  • Understood the way Philidor saw it, where "pawns are the soul of chess," the game offered a social model where everyone, including the most lowly, could see themselves as making important contributions to society.

  • Its dialogic and dualistic nature helps to train the healthy mind to understand the world and anticipate the motives of others, but it equally can cause a psychologically disturbed player's undoing, offering a vehicle for schizophrenic cleavage from reality or for delusional paranoia (after all, in chess someone really is always out to get you).

  • It "became a symbol of nationalistic pride for totalitarian regimes seeking to prove their moral and intellectual superiority" (163).

  • It provided modern artists with a powerful symbol for the type of abstract and complex (even difficult) aesthetic experience that they wished to convey in their art.

  • It provided a perfect problem for computer scientists seeking to improve the ways that computers solved problems, with the goal of duplicating or perfectly imitating human intelligence.

Though his book explores complex ideas like these, it remains accessible even for those who barely know more than the way the pieces move. After all, Shenk is an experienced writer of creative non-fiction, and he knows how to present even technical material without making it boring. His style is very engaging and readable. He also has lent his book two narrative elements -- one personal and one historical -- that help carry the reader along and stitch the chapters together.

The personal element gives our chess-outsider author an insider's credential: his great great (and maybe great great again) grandfather on his mother's side was Samuel Rosenthal, one of the better (if lesser known) players of the nineteenth century (see pictures above). Rosenthal lost a few more spectacular games than he won, including Rosenthal-Steinitz, Vienna 1873 which is featured in a lecture at our website. Shenk's personal narrative of trying to understand his distant ancestor's legacy not only helps him move from chapter to chapter, it also gives him a place to stand and a personal voice in telling the story (what rhetoricians might call his "ethos" or ethical claim to the tale).

The second narrative element, while somewhat more artificial (except for the fact that it lends the book its rich title) is the interspersed discussion of "The Immortal Game" itself, Anderssen - Kieseritsky 1851, which is annotated between the chapters with a diagram for each move. The story of this game carries the book from beginning to end and helps to lend it a narrative unity to supplement the conceptual unity created by his overarching motif of chess as multivalent metaphor.

The book is a great success and, given its vigorous promotion, is bound to do well in the marketplace, especially during the upcoming holiday season. Where it may not do as well is among chess historians, but I think it would be a mistake for the members of that tribe to dismiss it for being popular. They would instead do well to use it as a guide to the type of socially and culturally engaged history that might win chess a more prominent place both in the academy and in the wider market.

If some reject Shenk's book, it may be because it is not in the style of chess writing that we know well, even though it is a style we should know better. We might divide chess historians into four types: the "lorists," the theorists, the archivists, and the social or cultural historians of the game. Shenk is one of these last and he therefore is in the small company of those who have made chess understandable outside its own narrow paradigms. The other three make up the bulk of what we think of as chess history.

  • Lorists include Fred Reinfeld (The Treasury of Chess Lore and The Human Side of Chess) and Edward Lasker (The Adventure of Chess) among others. They are our early story-tellers, often spinning yarns about the players of the past drawn from first-hand experience or oral tradition in order to promote them as heroes for the next generation. They work with anecdotes to make historical personalities both humanized and super-human. You might say they are really precursors to modern historians since they generally do not check their facts very carefully or use end notes.
  • Theorists include Imre Konig (Chess from Morphy to Botwinnik), Anthony Saidy (March of Chess Ideas), Max Euwe (The Development of Chess Style), R.N. Coles (Dynamic Chess), and Garry Kasparov (My Great Predecessors). These writers explain historical developments in the way the game was played, tracing the various schools of chess that have grown up over time (from "Romantic" to "Hypermodern" for instance), and thus offering a historical understanding that might actually help improve your game, since the development of the individual player usually retraces the development of chess theory itself (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny).
  • Archivists include Edward Winter (Chess Facts and Fables), John S. Hilbert (Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman T. Whitaker and Young Marshall), and Olimpiu Urcan, among others. These writers are focused on unearthing game scores, photographs, forgotten opening theory, and confirmed factual information about the players of the past, often in direct contradiction of their lorist predecessors. They are doing the very important work of laying a foundation for the theorists and the social historians, but they typically assume a very limited field of observation and are more focused on excavating historical information (especially the ever elusive game scores) than on generating usable knowledge or social context to explain their findings to a non-specialist reader. I would characterize my own attempts at historical opening research (discussed in Chess Restoration and the Usable Past, An Opening Novelty from 1923, and my series on The Panther) as archival work. So I certainly do not mean to disparage my fellow archivists. But I think we would all benefit if more archivists tried to write larger narratives of the social or cultural type.
  • Social or cultural histories of chess, such as Shenk's wonderful book, are a little harder to classify or organize, mostly because there have been so few. The most compelling of these is probably Marilyn Yalom's The Birth of the Chess Queen, which argues that the changes in the Queen's powers in chess coincided with an important moment in European history where real queens ruled and women had increasing power within the culture (especially due to changing rituals of courtship). Her book found a relatively wide audience (with a sales rank comparable to Kasparov's) yet also was accepted as valid academic work. Other social or cultural considerations of the game might include Alexander Cockburn's Idle Passion (which combines Freudian and Marxist explanatory systems), George Steiner's Fields of Force (which does an excellent job of using the Fischer-Spassky match to review the history of the game and of the championship), Jennifer Shahade's Chess Bitch (which chronicles the history of women's chess through the lives of its most important players), and perhaps J.C. Hallman's The Chess Artist (though this last is more a travel-log with some history thrown in). I might include Tom Standage's The Turk or David Edmonds and John Eidinow's Bobby Fischer Goes to War, which at least allude to social or cultural history, but both fell a bit short of exploring the larger social dimensions of their subjects and tended more toward the archivist. One would expect Edmonds and Eidinow, for example, to tell us more about how the Cold War influenced the interpretation of the Fischer-Spassky match in the media. Instead, we get more of a focus on the players themselves and their individual stories, as though they were the ones who made history.

Part of why we do not have many social histories of chess is that chessplayers have always been heavily invested in the individualist ethos. The seemingly sui-generis Bobby Fischer is our modern anti-hero because he seems to have stood alone against his cultural moment and, if anything, bulldozed his way across the historical landscape with no regard for the prior features of its terrain. Readers seem to crave the stories of the "Great Predecessors," following the "great man" theory of history, accepting that it was the singular achievements of a few forefathers (rather than the organized behavior of many players and writers) as giving us the game as we have it. Chessplayers are all, at heart, libertarians and want, most of all, to be left alone so they can study or play, practically in rejection of (or retreat from) the larger society. The stories of our heroes feed into that self-isolating tendency and keep our historical literature from reaching a broader audience who might have only a passing interest in the game (or intense interest long past and waiting some revival by the right book).

What stories might our most pre-eminent chess historians tell if they attempted to write the larger social narratives associated with our game? And to what uses could that type of history be put? I can think of many. For now, here are three topics or questions that interest me, and about which I might some day get around to writing:

(1) A historical analysis of how the world chess championship as it has been received and written about within the framework of global politics, from the French-English power struggles of the 18th-19th Centuries (as mirrored in Labourdonnais - McDonnell and Staunton - Saint-Amant) to the emerging U.S. cultural power in opposition to the British empire (reflected in the non-match between Morphy and Staunton) to the Soviet-American Cold War conflict (as reflected in the reception of the Fischer-Spassky match). Such a study might conclude with a reflection of how, in this post-statist moment, many petty dictators of "failed states" (including Kirsan of Kalmykia) use chess to create an image of authority in front of their people and to project a falsely legitimate image on the world stage.

(2) Chess and philanthropy: What lessons does the role of philanthropy in chess, especially in the U.S., have for how chess philanthropy might be cultivated today? I am thinking especially about the New York philanthropists who aided Frank Marshall in founding the Marshall Chess Club or those that supported the Alamac Hotel tournaments (from New York 1924 to Lake Hopatcong 1923 and 1926). We might also examine the group that sponsored the Rosenwald events.

(3) A journalistic consideration of the positive role that chess has played in the lives of academics, many of whom abandoned the game as young people after achieving sigificant success. Does chess train young people to solve complex problems or are the people most capable of solving complex problems most attracted to chess? And in what ways does training in chess affect the sort of projects or areas of specialization that chess-playing academics choose?

As Shenk suggests, the castle gate that surrounds our game presents a high barrier for would-be players and readers. Though the basic rules might be learned in an hour, it can take many years to play even a halfway decent game. At the same time, a large number of people enjoy the game and enjoy reading about it, and it can be a great vehicle for learning more about history in general. As Shenk argues, chess offers a powerful model of society in miniature, so that a focused consideration of its role in history could provide just the tool for encapsulating the past in comprehensible and useful ways. I hope this small essay inspires some to take on that task.


takchess said...

I took this out from my library and found it to be an interesting read. As he points out about some of the folklore of chess, Stories are not meant to tell facts, they are meant to tell the truth.

chessdad64 said...


Another thoughtful, insightful and interesting post.

You are quite correct about chess people being heavily invested in and partial to the individualist ethos --- you mention chess players, but I think that extends to chess politicians, chess organizers, chess adminstrators and chess parents as well.

And unfortunely, I think that leads to so much of the dysfunction we see in our chess communities locally, nationally and on the globally for that matter as well.

As long as the "What's In It For Me" mentality predominates, I don't think we'll see that much more in terms of social histories of chess, chess storytelling, or flowering of chess culture that some of us out there are trying to promote.

But more importantly, I think the game itself will remain a boutique activity, an aquired taste, with no meaningful growth among either youth or adult populations.

In any event, I very much appreciate the great work that you do --- especially when you are on "Hiatus".......


Playerz said...

Very interesting article. Have a good continuation.

Play Correspondence chess

Anonymous said...

Great article, Michael. I appreciate your effort and your good writing skill. You also present interesting ideas.

I believe that we're in a "golden era" of chess journalism, one that tackles social/cultural ideas, and most of this writing comes from contemporary mainstream writers. Many of the social/historical non-ficton books you mention were published just in the last decade. There are even more coming out. Michale Weinreb followed the champion Murrow HS chess team around for a year, and has a book about this experience (THE KINGS OF NEW YORK); I believe Paul Hoffman is coming out with a socio-psychological critique/memoir of the game, titled CHESS CRAZED; there have even been a few business books published recently using chess as a metaphor (Pandolfini's EVERY MOVE HAS A PURPOSE comes to mind as well as Karpov's CHESS AND THE ART OF NEGOTIATION); and Kasparov has a chess/business book coming out next year (ATTACKER'S ADVANTAGE).

Keep up the good work.

Howard Goldowsky
Boston, MA

Scott said...

That was a very thoughtful and interesting essay. I agree that chess has come to be a home for the loner/individualist. I would even argue that chess is a board game expression of what the ancient Greeks called "monomachia," a contest of two great warriors (think Achilles and Hector), as opposed to the mass, nameless warfare of the modern world (as found in RISK). Chess is very much about the personal ego and the personal victory....

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