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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 (Anglais) CD – Version coupée, Livre audio

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Chess and Our Origins

When Sissa had invented chess and produced it to King Shihram, the latter was filled with amazement and joy. He ordered that it should be preserved in the temples, and held it the best thing that he knew as a training in the art of war, a glory to religion and the world, and the foundation of all justice.
ibn Khallikan, thirteenth century

Stories do not exist to tell the facts, but to convey the truth. It is said that in ancient India, a queen had designated her only son as heir to the throne. When the son was assassinated, the queen's council searched for the proper way to convey the tragic news to her. They approached a philosopher with their predicament. He sat for three days in silent thought, and then said: "Summon a carpenter with wood of two colors, white and black."

The carpenter came. The philosopher instructed him to carve thirty-two small figurines from the wood. After this was done, the philosopher said to the carpenter, "Bring me tanned leather," and directed him to cut it into the shape of a square and to etch it with sixty-four smaller squares.

He then arranged the pieces on the board and studied them silently. Finally, he turned to his disciple and announced, "This is war without bloodshed." He explained the game's rules and the two began to play. Word quickly spread about the mysterious new invention, and the queen herself summoned the philosopher for a demonstration. She sat quietly, watching the philosopher and his student play a game. When it was over, one side having checkmated the other, the queen understood the intended message. She turned to the philosopher and said, "My son is dead."

"You have said it," he replied.

The queen turned to the doorkeeper and said, "Let the people enter to comfort me."

The annals of ancient poetry and weathered prose are filled with many such evocative chess stories, stretched over 1,400 years. Over and over, chess was said to have been invented to explain the unexplainable, to make visible the purely abstract, to see simple truths in complex worlds. Pythagoras, the ancient mathematician heralded as the father of numbers, was supposed to have created the game to convey the abstract realities of mathematics. The Greek warrior Palamedes, commander of troops at the siege of Troy, purportedly invented chess as a demonstration of the art of battle positions. Moses, in his posture as Jewish sage, was said to have invented it as a part of an all-purpose educational package, along with astronomy, astrology, and the alphabet.

Chess was also considered a window into other people's unique thoughts. There is the legend of the great medieval rebbe, also a cunning chess player, whose son had been taken away as a young boy and never found. Many decades later, the rebbe was granted an audience with the pope. The two spoke for a while, and then decided to play a game of chess. In their game the pope played a very unusual combination of moves which, to any other opponent, would have been astonishing and overpowering. But the strange combination was not new to the rebbe; he had invented it, in fact, and had shared it only with his young son. The pope, they both instantly realized, was the rebbe's long lost child.

And there are hundreds—maybe thousands—more. Hearing these stories, we care less about whether they are completely true and more about what they say. Myths, said Joseph Campbell, "represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums." Chess myths, in particular, tell us first that chess goes way, way back, and that it has always been regarded not just as a way to pass the time, but also as a powerful tool for explanation and understanding. While chess is ostensibly about war, it has for 1,400 years been deployed as a metaphor to explore everything from romantic love to economics. Historians routinely stumble across chess stories from nearly every culture and era—stories dealing with class consciousness, free will, political struggle, the frontiers of the mind, the mystery of the divine, the nature of competition, and, perhaps most fundamentally, the emergence of a world where brains often overcome brawn. One need not have any passion for the game itself to be utterly captivated by its centuries of compelling tales, and to appreciate its importance as a thought tool for an emerging civilization. Chess is a teaching and learning instrument older than chalkboards, printed books, the compass, and the telescope.

As a miniature reflection of society, it was also considered a moral guidepost. Yet another myth has chess invented to cure the cruelty of Evil-Merodach, a vile Babylonian king from the sixth century b.c. who murdered his father King Nebuchadnezzar and then disposed of his body by chopping it into three hundred pieces and feeding the pieces to three hundred vultures. Desperate to curb the brutality of his new leader, the wise man Xerxes created chess in order to instill virtues and transform him into a just and moral ruler: Here is how a king behaves toward his subjects, and here is how his grateful subjects defend their just king . . .

Separately, each chess myth conveys a thousand truths about a particular moment in time where a society longed to understand something difficult about its own past—the source of some idea or tool or tradition. Taken together, they document our quest to understand—and explain—abstraction and complexity in the world around us. The paradox of illuminating complexity is that it is inherently difficult to do so without erasing all of the nuance. As our developing civilization faced more intricate facts and ideas in the early Middle Ages, this was a fundamental challenge: to find a way to represent dense truths without washing out their essence. (This ancient challenge is, of course, also very contemporary, and, as we will see, makes chess fundamentally relevant in the Age of Information.)


When and how and why was chess invented? The very oldest chess myths point toward its actual origins. One story portrays two successive Indian kings, Hashran and Balhait. The first asked his sage to invent a game symbolizing man's dependence on destiny and fate; he invented nard, the dice-based predecessor to backgammon. The subsequent monarch needed a game which would embrace his belief in free will and intelligence. "At this time chess was invented," reads an ancient text, "which the King preferred to nard, because in this game skill always succeeds against ignorance. He made mathematical calculations on chess, and wrote a book on it. . . . He often played chess with the wise men of his court, and it was he who represented the pieces by the figures of men and animals, and assigned them grades and ranks. . . ."

"He also made of this game a kind of allegory of the heavenly bodies (the seven planets and the twelve zodiacal signs), and dedicated each piece to a star. The game of chess became a school of government and defense; it was consulted in time of war, when military tactics were about to be employed, to study the more or less rapid movements of troops."

King Balhait's wide-ranging list of the game's uses has a connecting thread: chess as a demonstration device, a touchstone for abstract ideas. The reference to "mathematical calculations" is particularly noteworthy, as math comes up over and over again in many of the oldest chess legends. One tale, known as "The Doubling of the Squares," tells of a king presented with an intriguing new sixty-four-square board game by his court philosopher. The king is so delighted by chess that he invites the inventor to name his own reward.

Oh, I don't want much, replies the philosopher, pointing to the chessboard. Just give me one grain of wheat for the first square of the board, two grains for the second square, four grains for the third square, and so on, doubling the number of grains for each successive square, up to the sixty-fourth square.

The king is shocked, and even insulted, by what seems like such a modest request. He doesn't realize that through the hidden power of geometric progression, his court philosopher has just requested 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 (eighteen quintillion) grains of wheat--more than exists on the entire planet. The king has not only just been given a fascinating new game; he's also been treated to a powerful numbers lesson.

This widely repeated story is obviously apocryphal, but the facts of geometric progression are real. Such mathematical concepts were crucial to the advancement of technology and civilization--but were useless unless they could be understood. The advancement of big ideas required not just clever inventors, but also great teachers and vivid presentation vehicles.

That's apparently where chess came in: it used the highly accessible idea of war to convey far less concrete ideas. Chess was, in a sense, medieval presentation software—the PowerPoint of the Middle Ages. It was a customizable platform for poets, philosophers, and other intellectuals to explore and present a wide array of complex ideas in a visual and compelling way.

The game, in reality, was not invented all at once, in a fit of inspiration by a single king, general, philosopher, or court wizard. Rather, it was almost certainly (like the Bible and the Internet) the result of years of tinkering by a large, decentralized group, a slow achievement of collective intelligence. After what might have been centuries of tinkering, chatrang, the first true version of what we now call chess, finally emerged in Persia sometime during the fifth or sixth century. It was a two-player war game with thirty-two pieces on a sixty-four-square board: sixteen emerald men on one end and sixteen ruby-red men on the other. Each army was equipped with one King, one Minister (where the Qu...

Revue de presse


"I loved this book. Full of burning enthusiasm for the greatest intellectual game in the world, it shows just what can happen when an accomplished author, full of fire and passion, tackles a most wonderful and intricate story. Like a great chess game, this is an achievement that will be talked about for many years to come."
—Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman

“Even dedicated players will find much to learn here.” —Chicago Sun-Times

“A valuable review of the modern intersection of chess and artificial intelligence. . . . Rich in information and clearly written. . . . This is a welcome addition to any chess library, written by a smart and competent outsider.” — The Hamilton Spectator

“Before reading David Shenk’s wonderful new book, I had at best a casual interest in chess. It seemed too ancient to untangle, too complex to decipher with any real appreciation. But Shenk, in a book filled with daring moves and cunning patience, has made a believer out of me.”
– Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics

“David Shenk takes us millennia back and light-years ahead. The Immortal Game is an insightful look at chess, the icons of culture it has inspired, and the surprising part the game plays in the narrative of the modern world.” – Bruce Pandolfini, legendary chess instructor, author of Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess

“It’s audacious enough to write a book about the world’s most written-about game. To say something fresh and smart seems almost unfair. But that’s just what David Shenk has done. With the depth and insight of a grandmaster, The Immortal Game explores and explains not only the addictive power of chess but its shockingly important, Zelig-like role in the history of humankind.” – Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players

"A bravura demonstration of the art of storytelling."
The Globe and Mail

"Elegant . . . a true page-turner, and a superb introduction to the game of chess."
Wall Street Journal

"Shenk, a spry writer . . . [offers] a strong case for the game's bewitching power."
The New York Times

"Fresh and fascinating . . . a world-spanning story [Shenk] relates with skill and verve."
Chicago Sun-Times

"[A] fine book . . . enjoy the author's engaging prose, honest self-deprecation, and the charm of his personal connection with the game."
Washington Post

"Fascinating . . . [Shenk] writes about chess history with contagious zest."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"An enriching and inviting prism through which to view and better understand history in general."
Albuquerque Journal

"Everyone, from expert to patzer, will find something to admire about Shenk's investigation into our most-beloved board game."
Wichita Eagle

From the Hardcover edition.

Détails sur le produit

  • CD
  • Editeur : Random House Audio; Édition : abridged edition (5 septembre 2006)
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ISBN-10: 0739340042
  • ISBN-13: 978-0739340042
  • Dimensions du produit: 14 x 2,8 x 16 cm
  • Moyenne des commentaires client : 5.0 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (1 commentaire client)
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Par Laurent Carpentier le 13 mai 2015
Format: Broché
Pour qui maîtrise suffisamment l'anglais pour aborder cette lecture, c'est un livre incontournable sur l'histoire des échecs. Peut-être LE livre sur le sujet. David Shenk montre brillamment l'extraordinaire puissance de ce jeu sur l'imaginaire des hommes qui l'ont inventé, des origines à nos jours, en intercalant chaque anecdote avec une description d'un ou plusieurs mouvements d'une véritable partie d'échecs qui a eu lieu au 19e siècle et qui est entrée dans l'histoire pour son brio sous le nom de The Immortal Game. On apprend donc sur l'histoire mais aussi si sur la finesse de certains déplacements. L'idée est brillante et le résultat complètement envoutant, car on est bien plus près du roman que d'un livre d'histoire. Je relirai sans doute ce livre plusieurs fois! A acheter les yeux fermés!
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 77 commentaires
441 internautes sur 453 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Interesting and Well Written History of Chess 1 octobre 2006
Par Robert M. Snyder - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
"The Immortal Game" gives a different and intriguing insight not only into the history of chess, but points out how chess has had an impact in the lives of even non-chess players today (i.e. terminology and analogies taken from chess). It is obvious that the author (David Shenk - an established author outside of the filed of chess) has done his homework, and shows great appreciation for the 1400 year old game. His sources are documented in his sources and notes segment as well as the use of footnotes throughout the text.

Is this a dry and boring history of chess? Absolutely not! You will find numerous interesting stories about some of the top chess players in the world, but also there is a heavy focus on famous people who play chess (who didn't gain their fame from chess). The author is quick to point out when something is a "story" or "legend" and that often a certain amount may contact some fact.

Do you need to know how to play chess to enjoy and learn from this book? No! In fact as you go through the book, basic rules are pointed out. Though not intended to be a book that teaches chess, for an absolute beginner, you will be gently introduced to the basics. There are a nice number of diagrams, pictures, maps and complete games (with light analysis to make the book of interest to the casual chess player). Great detail with diagrams for every move of the "immortal game" is given in segments throughout the book - an interesting way of going through the game - you can skip over the in between pages if you want to follow the game from start to finish with a diagram for each move (the pages with the game stand out and are easy to find). Interesting is also a look into the impact of artificial intelligence on chess and how chess is being used as a tool to teach children in school (improving match and reading ability).

If you are looking for a history book on the mechanics of the development of the game in great detail then "The History of Chess" by Murray is the classic work (from early chess to around the 18th century). If you are looking for a book with the major focus on the history and politics of top level chess players (with moderate number of well annotated games) over the last several centuries, the "The Chess Kings" by Olson, Volume One has been released. If you are non-chess player or a chess player looking for a little bit of everything on "Chess History" in a very well-rounded way that is scholarly yet not boring then "The Immortal Game" should be your first choice.
165 internautes sur 172 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Psychological, historical and culture review by novice chess player 7 octobre 2006
Par Patrick D. Goonan - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
I liked this book because it was an excellent story written in the spirit of great fiction. It was well-organized and wove together many different threads from a variety of areas including psychology, history and culture.

The Immortal Game gives a history of chess and also presents interesting highlights of world history along the way with many insights into man's psychological constitution, proclivities, etc. It is also a cultural commentary and uses the game of chess as a metaphor. I think it's a quite clever concept for a book.

The parallels between chess as war and various military campaigns and personalities is used a lot to bring in a world history perspective. I like the way he used this theme throughout the book and he relates it back to psychological and sociological evolution in interesting ways. He also highlights the influence of the game on various world leaders throughout history.

This book is primarily geared toward novice players. This makes the book an easy read for everyone, but perhaps serious chess players would appreciate more in-depth chess specifics. There are other reviews below that place more emphasis on this dimension of the book's contents.

This thought provoking book also makes reference to some good research material on neuroplasticity, strengthening cognition, etc. The author relates some of this research to chess and speculates that chess improves memory and cognition. This is good speculation in my opinion and quite likely true. He also talks about computers and chess and references a few of the famous matches between humans and computers.

In short, this is good writing. I recommend this book highly. It is great food for thought and engages the mind in many imaginative, entertaining and informative ways. Even if you are not a chess player, you are likely to enjoy it and perhaps develop an interest in learning the game yourself.

Chess popularity didn't endure all these years for no good reason. It captivates the imagination in ways no other game ever has. There are many reasons for this which this book explores thoroughly.

I notice some people haven't been marking this review as helpful, but they haven't been leaving me a comment. If you dont' find this review helpful, maybe you can give me some suggestions on what you feel is missing, so I can update it to be more useful. My intention in writing this review was to be very concise, augment other reviews and convey the spirit of the book to the average reader.
56 internautes sur 61 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
If you are curious about chess,then read this great book!! 18 novembre 2006
Par Timothy G. Forney - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
I really enjoyed reading this book.It is a nice introduction to chess history and the game itself.It goes move by move with diagrams ,through the Immortal Game, played by Adolf Anderssen. It teaches you algebraic chess notation,which is the language of chess.It also teaches you the ideas behind each move.This book takes you on a journey of the game of chess, through time and many cultures .It tells of the dark side of chess ,its obsession and its madness. It also tells of the light side of chess ,its creativity, and its positive influence on human beings. He writes about its influence on children and the elderly.I could not put this book down and read it in 2 days.I found one minor notation error.This would make a great gift for a friend who may want to learn chess.I highly recommend buying this book.
48 internautes sur 52 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Entertaining and enlightening 2 novembre 2006
Par T. M. Leonard - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
As a chess player and traveler (To move or not to move, is the question!) this book gives you a solid historical perspective on the development of the great game. Curiosity drove me quickly through the book discovering new fascinating facts from geography to social and political systems. The metaphors are all there and David did his homework. It's presented in an easy mix of famous games, basic instruction and chess insight. Check it out.
47 internautes sur 51 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Amazing book...quick, brilliant read. 3 octobre 2006
Par Richard Matheson - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
You do not have to be a chess player to enjoy this book. In my case, however, I am a chess player and enjoyed it immensly. I read this book cover to cover in about six hours...I have never read another book so fast in my life. The story was enthralling, the writing was captivating, and the points made about Chess and its impact on our world's culture and history were quite well made.
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