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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)

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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.

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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 (beta) (Peut contenir des commentaires issus du programme Early Reviewer Rewards) 4.5 étoiles sur 5 96 commentaires
4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Not what I expected 20 novembre 2016
Par Walt Ginsberg - Publié sur
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
This book was not what I expected. It should be entitled "Chess as Metaphor", for that is the book's primary focus. There is a smattering of history thrown in, but not nearly enough. For example, there is less than a page discussing the Polgar Sisters, and that only discussing the way their chess was developed as children. Nothing about their glass ceiling shattering careers. The Soviet "chess machine" is, predictably, criticized. Hardly a word about why there have been/are so many Russian greats. Overall, a patzer of a book.
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Very engaging and entertaining book! 31 décembre 2013
Par Jimmy A - Publié sur
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
I've played chess off and on in my life but never really felt confident about my chess ability. I bought this book to learn more about the history of the game and to try to gain a better understanding of the importance of chess. It surprised me that the book was so well-written and entertaining as I read it.

The book gives the history of the game as far as possible and outlines the evolution of the pieces and rules until the end of the 15th century when chess became what we know it as today. The author does a great job of telling the history of chess factually and with stories about the game in antiquity. After the solidification of chess David Shenk goes on to describe the progression of chess theory in broad strokes and outlines the different chess schools; Romantic, Scientific, and Hypermodern. As a novice, I found the descriptions of this progression to be fascinating. He did a magnificent job conveying the ideas of tactics and strategy as applied to chess games.

The book also does a good job describing not only the development of chess in history, but also the development of chess games in terms of opening, middle game, and end game. The entire book contains a thread based on the Immortal Game and gives the moves and structure of that match throughout. It was amazing as a novice to catch the excitement of that game to the point where I couldn't just read the book linearly, I had to jump ahead to see how the game ended!

If you have an interest in the history and importance of chess in the world, I highly recommend this book. It was fascinating throughout and makes me want to study chess a bit more seriously in the future.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Readable and Entertaining 4 mars 2016
Par Kindle Customer - Publié sur
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
Does a good job of wrapping entertaining trivia about chess around a well annotated move by move play out of the well known immortal game of Andersen. The majority of early chess - history is from Murray's History of chess. This is not a book about the history of chess play or technique, or about famous chess players per say. There are some interesting background stories about computer chess, chess and psychology and Soviet chess. It was fun to read but I learned less than expected.
10 internautes sur 10 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 We're living through a mini golden age for chess literature 22 mars 2007
Par The Man in the Hathaway Shirt - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
There have been a number of chess books published recently, most of them in expensive hardback format: Bobby Fischer vs. Russians, Kasparov's My Illustrious Predecessors, even Shahade's uneven Chess Bitch. Now add to those titles The Immortal Game, a great overview of chess by David Shenk. The author became interested in chess rather late, and he'll never be a great player, and he knows it. But that doesn't mean the game can't be fascinating. One of the things to take away from this book is you don't have to be a Grandmaster to get a lot of out chess.

The book follows the history of the game as it also tracks one famous encounter between two chess players in 1851. Dubbed "The Immortal Game," it sums up what is so magical about chess--its unpredictability, its sudden reversals, and the feeling that no matter how much you play it, you will never fathom its depths. That's also the point Shenk drives home in the part of the book not devoted to the game, as he looks at how chess has shaped thinking on everything from math to science to social class to warfare to art to computers to psychology. He talks about great achievements brought about by chess, and the game's darker side, which has led to more than one case of madness, more than one suicide, and a reclusive American genius' raving anti-semite comments. No other game, he argues, has impacted the world as much, and few have lasted as long.

This is a well-written book, and very engaging. It does not have to be read by a person deeply-immersed in, and it's not overly-technical. I have to quibble a little about his insistence that chess geniuses are made and not born. While I don't doubt that thousands of hours puts the Garry Kasparovs and Susan Polgars of the world ahead of the rest of us, he ignores the fact that many other a would-be champ devoted equal effort to the game and failed miserably. He also doesn't seem to get that much of the "research" that has "proven" effort over aptitude is effected and infused by social and PC bias of the time, just as research on the subject half a century ago was similarly biased in the other direction. We seem to hesitate to say there may be a "chess gene" because the game is predominantly male and almost completely excludes certain racial groups. Be honest and ask yourself if we'd approach the sport of basketball with the same convictions.

Overall this is a very good book, however, and I recommend it for both the devoted fan and the casual, as well as curious, person, as a fine entertainment. Hopefully we are seeing a chess-publishing revival in the book world, and renewed interest in the game in the U.S.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Buy this as a gift for wise friends 6 juin 2014
Par Robert Bailey - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
What a pleasant surprise this book is. I read it through 2x and plan to
read it annually.

It covers history of the game. It covers a key (fascinating) game and
is loaded with chess wisdom. If you like the game, this book may make
you a raving nut for the game. If you don't play you'' wonder why it
took you so long to discover the game!

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