The Immortal Game

During the summer of 1972, I worked as a cook in a small resort in New York’s Hudson Valley. It was a small, family-run place patronized entirely by elderly Jews from New York city that hired me, a goyem from southern California, sight unseen. I passed as Jewish well enough — my hair was curly, I talked fast, and my guests’ powers of observation were generally past their prime .

At the end of that summer, right after Labor Day, a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September attacked the summer Olympic games in Munich. They took Israeli athletes hostage and murdered eleven of them in the worst assault ever on the modern Olympics. The event was celebrated (and I wish I could say commemorated) by the recent Steven Spielberg film Munich.

The massacre terrified guests at the resort — many of whom wore faded numbers tattooed on their arms as souvenirs of Nazi death camps. Televisions stayed on all night; prayers were spontaneous and frequent and the news that Israeli athletes had been massacred brought sobs of rage. No experience before or since has brought home to me with such force the absolute necessity for Israel and the horror of anti-Semitism.

Prior to the attack, the summer had passed wonderfully. We had largely ignored the Olympics because America — and especially New York — was consumed by a sudden passion for chess. Everyone was learning to play, everyone talked about it, chess books were sold on street corners and chess matches were televised and endlessly analyzed (a young comic named David Letterman noted sardonically at the time: “You really can’t have too much televised chess”). For a brief period, chess was huge; in New York you could mention the King’s Gambit declined in casual conversation and everybody acted like they understood you.

The reason for the craze was the chess “Game of the Century” between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky. The match for the world championship took place all summer in Reykjavik, Iceland. Fisher was our chess prodigy and enfant terrible. Spassky stood for everything uncool about the Soviet Union: he was middle aged, domineering, thuggish, and self-entitled. We couldn’t wait to see David kick Goliath in the nuts.

I played a lot of chess that summer and came to know an elderly player named Al Horowitz who visited the resort for two or three weeks. We played nearly every day at least once; he beat me effortlessly but seemed like a guy who loved chess and could tolerate a young “patzer”. He was plainly thrilled that his beloved game was suddenly popular. He freely dispensed generous, specific, and friendly advice: “ya don’t wanna do that, kid — develop your bishops and knights before playing a rook”. I soon learned that Horowitz was a chess professional — that he had retired as the the chess columnist for the New York Times. That was all I ever really knew about him. I thought of him in September at the time of the massacre and when I heard that he had died some months later.

Years later, I figured out that A.I. Horowitz was one of America’s top chess player in the 1930s and 40s. Many believe that he would be a grandmaster by present day standards, although he he never got the title. He had quit Wall Street many years earlier to become the chess columnist for the Times, where he wrote three columns a week for twenty years. He founded, owned, and edited Chess Review magazine. He wrote popular books about chess and taught a generation of players in the 40s to the 60s. His books are still in print. I consult mine occasionally, although Mr. Horowitz would still beat me at chess with no trouble at all.

All of this came back as I picked up David Shenk’s wonderful new book, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess or, as Shenk puts it “how 32 carved pieces on a board illuminated our understanding of war, art, science, and the human brain.” It is a surprising book because although Shenk is no Horowitz on the chess table, he is a grand master of a writer. He brings a series of well-told stories together to form a marvelous book, a bit like pieces in a well-played game of chess. The stories include:

Chess history. Millions of people take this game a bit too seriously — their lives are or were powerfully influenced by the game. Chess began in the Persian Courts of sixth century Baghdad, probably adapted from an Indian game with four players. Shenk traces the refinements in the game during the Middle Ages in Europe and notes how modifications to chess frequently mirrored social changes (thus the queen first changes from a limited to a powerful piece in Spain under the reign of Isabella and the strong queen becomes a new game standard during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scotts and Elizabeth I).

He tells the story of Benjamin Franklin, the strongest player in the American colonies, who had trouble finding a player who could stay on the board with him. In France, Franklin had plenty of contestants, men and women alike, including the chess pioneer François-André Danican Philidor, who first recognized the strategic power of pawns. Leaders and artists who were serious about their chess include Napoleon, Jefferson, Adams, Marx, Churchill, Lincoln, Schwarzenegger, Becket, Schwartzkopf, Woody Allen, and Willie Nelson.

Shenk tracks the evolution of chess from the primitives who played without theory, to Romantics, who developed impressive and sometimes dazzling combinations, to the Scientific players who emphasized the careful development of superior positions — especially pawn positions, to Hypermodernists who avoided crowding pawns in the center of the board and took a more relaxed view of positioning, to the New Dynamists who favor more organic “go with the flow” styles of play. Perhaps future styles will come from computers — or perhaps this sort of stylistic evolution is silly. I cannot look at most chess games and tell you which school I seeing — beyond a few fairly obvious thematics. I’m not sure that more serious students of chess can really do so either.

Shenk weaves throughout the book the story of a famous game played in a London pub in 1851 between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. Both men were in town for the world’s first international chess tournament, organized by the brilliant Englishman, Howard Staunton. They got together for a warm-up game in a tavern and played what has come to be known as “the Immortal Game”.

If you know any chess at all, this game will astonish you — and it may astonish you even if you don’t. Anderssen, playing white, sacrifices a bishop and two rooks to gain positional advantage before deliberately offering up his queen to set up an unforgettable checkmate. This is like a matador letting the bull rip off both arms before administering a deft coupe de grace with his teeth. The game has been analyzed for more than a century and can still take your breath away. Shenk does a wonderful job setting the stage and calling the play by play.

Shenk tells of the hunt for Samuel Rosenthal. Rosenthal was the author’s great-great-grandfather, a Polish refugee who turned up in Paris and became the chess champion of France. He managed what sounds from here to be a fairly enviable life of playing chess in Parisian salons all day and evening at a time when enormous prestige befell accomplished chess players. He makes periodic appearances throughout the story, including the author discovering a photo of him that still hangs on the wall of the pub where the immortal game was played.

Shenk makes the usual and predictable analogy of chess to warfare. These always strike me as a bit simple-minded, especially since brilliant generals from Napoleon to Schwartzkopf may enjoy chess, but hardly seem to excel at it. The better analogies are to art and psychology.

Cognitive psychologists have studied blindfolded chess players (many of whom can routinely win a dozen or more games simultaneously). Seems like something worth studying — how does anyone do that? It turns out that Russians are especially good at this and it appears to have nothing to do with a “photographic memory”. Russian players are taught to visualize the pieces as generating fields of force around the board, not as individual pieces doing battle.

Sounds a little goofy, but not only is the research fairly clear, but it was something that Horowitz frequently said to me. (Cue Obe Wan Kenobi and Luke: “Close your eyes young Jedi. Feel the power of the force”). Actually, what Horowitz said was that beginners often see chess as a fight between pieces and that as you develop your game, it becomes more like a dynamic force field with each piece projecting differently and the board constantly evolving. It’s a useful insight and may help explains why artists frequently adore chess.

Psychologists have used chess to demonstrate something about innate genius: it does not seem to exist. Chess, like anything else, is something you get better at if you study it, love it, are passionate about it, and stick to it as a discipline. Practice really does make perfect. Teachers matter, an early start helps, and encouragement and success matter as well.

Shenk tells of a Hungarian psychologist named Laszlo Polgar who announced in the 1960s that he would “prove that any healthy baby can be nurtured into a genius”. In fact, he publicly declared that he would turn his own children into chess geniuses — even though his children were not yet born. He and his wife then proceeded to have three daughters.

“He and his wife forged a plan to school their children at home and focus them intensely on a few favorite disciplines — among them chess. From a very early age, the three Polgar daughters, Zsusza, Zsofia, and Judit, studied chess for an average of eight to ten hours every day — perhaps a total of some 20,000 hours from age eight to eighteen.

Lo and behold, they all became chess ‘geniuses’. In 1991, at age twenty-one, Zsuzsa . . . became the first woman in history to earn a grandmaster title through qualifying tournaments. The second child, Zsofia, also became a world-class player. Judit, the youngest, became at age fifteen the youngest grandmaster in history (a record previously held by Bobby Fischer), and was considered a strong candidate to eventually become world chess champion.”

Incidentally, if you are teaching kids to play chess, I discovered two helpful modifications to the first few games you play. First, allow them to take back moves. More important, let them remove at the start as many of your pieces as they like (eventually they won’t do this, but in the beginning they get to crush you a few times). Finally, they can turn the board around any time they want. This can get perverse of course, but my message to my kids is that I will always play them as hard as I can — I care less about winning than about being able to play hard. Soon enough, kids don’t want these advantages — and soon enough they will beat you and laugh as they do it. Kids quickly figure out that chess is a very cruel sport — no cards, no dice, no ball, no referee. Just you and your lousy moves.

In 1972, we all loved Bobby Fisher. Today, he is a reclusive, vicious, nut-job who praised the September 11 attackers and periodically publishes anti-Semitic tracts worthy of Black September. He plays no chess.

Nor is he unusual in chess history. Marcel Duchamp (“Nude Descending a Staircase”) went from being one of the great artists of the early twentieth century to giving up all art by the early 20s in order to devote the rest of his life to chess (irritating his wife with his “chess abstinence” to the point that she glued his chess pieces to the board and divorced him). Duchamp explained: “I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.”

In the late 1850s, Paul Morphy went from being a 20 year old law school graduate from New Orleans to the finest chess player in the world. He came from nowhere and beat everybody (except Staunton, who avoided him). Bobby Fisher declared him the greatest chess player who ever lived — but like Fisher he suddenly abandoned the game and became a mentally ill, paranoid recluse. For two decades, he could be found stumbling and mumbling around the French Quarter until he died at age 47.

These sound like tales from Edgar Allan Poe, but they do not appear to be freak occurrences. The connections between chess and schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness are not well-understood — but neither do they appear to be random or accidental. For reason has chess been called “a 64 square madhouse”. (Yoda was a player: “The dark side of the Force — strong it is”). Albert Einstein glimpsed this when he noted that “chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer”

If, like mystery writer Raymond Chandler, you believe that “chess is the most elaborate waste of human intelligence outside of an advertising agency”, you can safely pass on this book. If you are looking for page after page of black and white boards with bishops and knights in odd positions or an explanation of how to play the Sicilian Defense, you may safely look elsewhere (Horowitz is a good place to start and Bobby Fisher actually wrote some pretty good chess books).

But if you like chess — or just want to know more about it — read this book — and check the remarkable website that Doubleday has built to go with it (it includes many historic games and a very good community chess site).