Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 5 Sep 06 11:21
Our guest author is David Shenk. David is author of "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)". The book has been lauded by The Chicago Sun-Times as "Fresh and fascinating...a world-spanning story [Shenk] relates with skill and verve." Author Jonathan Cott calls it "one of the most remarkable books I've read over the past many years -- its 'brilliancy' illuminates so much of life in all its aspects." David's previous books include "The Forgetting" and "Data Smog", and he has contributed to National Geographic, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR and PBS. The Forgetting was hailed by John Bayley as "the definitive work on Alzheimer's, and subsequently inspired an Emmy Award winning PBS film of the same name. Shenk frequently lectures on issues of health, aging, and technology, and has advised the President's Council of bioethics. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. More on The Immortal Game, including links to play chess online and a chance to win a chess set, at: theimmortalgame.com Interviewing David is Patrick McCollum. Pat McCollum paints abstract oils as a vocation, supported by programming the IBM iSeries. He began tournament chess in high school, 38 years ago, tutored grade school kids in Brookline 20 years ago, and continues to analyze pet variations with college teammates. Although certified as a Chess Master and Black Belt, outgrowths of a military childhood, recent years have been devoted to art and livelihood. He remains interested in all aspects of the royal game, and its applications in other fields. Welcome to the Inkwell, David and Pat!
David Shenk (davidshenk) Tue 5 Sep 06 12:01
Great to be here, and thanks to Hal and Pat and the behind-the-scenes inkwell people for having me back. Let's talk chess! I'm not a terrific player, but I'm happy to take on any questions about the game's history and influence, both of which are considerable. Chess turns out to be not only the most infectious and enduring game in history, but also an extraordinary thought tool.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Tue 5 Sep 06 16:57
Hi David. _The Immortal Game_ has plenty of interesting tid bits I haven't encountered before, enjoyable for any chess afficianado. But what I liked best about it is how well it explains *why* we love this game, millions of us over the centuries, who have devoted ourselves to it. More books have been written about chess than all other games combined, but 99% of these are instructional, of no interest unless you're studying to improve your play. This is one I can recommend to folks who learned the moves in childhood, but never seriously pursued it, or not long enough to really get good. The game is so much more than a contest, with its thrill of victory and agony of defeat, for us famously nerdy types. It's an art form for personal expression, capable of breathtaking beauty for those who know the language. And it's a exploratory tool for science, as you've described so well in chapter after chapter. Many times I've wished I could express to the uninitiated why we find it so compelling, so rewarding, that we can happily invest thousands of hours of effort into learning it, replaying the profoundly beautiful games of its great masters. Now somebody did. I think a lot of people could relate to your playing history. Feel like saying more about that?
Vince Houmes (unclevinny) Wed 6 Sep 06 18:20
Hi David. I found the book an easy and enjoyable read, too. As someone who's played an awful lot of (mostly awful) chess over the years and has read a lot about chess and chessplayers, I was really pleased to see so many hilarious and/or informative chess anecdotes and vignettes that I'd never heard before. A warm and human side of chess is revealed in this book, and I'm curious to know if non-chessplayers will find it as engaging as I did. One of the vignettes that I wanted to mention is where Alice (the one from Wonderland) is talking to her cat following a game, and says "...really I might have won if it hadn't been for that nasty Knight, that came wriggling down among my pieces." I have always had a particular fear of Knights in my territory; the deeper they go, the more I get overwhelmed by calculations required, so I was especially drawn to this phrase. Have you been collecting chess anecdotes for years, or did you do a blitz of research while writing this book? In the book you don't try to pass judgment on the Freudian interpretation of checkmate-as-castration, but I wonder if I could get you to talk a bit more about this. I've never spent a lot of time studying Freud, but I have certainly experienced the frenzy of chess competition and the mad desire to crush the King and avoid one's King being crushed. But what's puzzling to me is how this actually connects to my feelings for my Mother and Father. If my opponent's King is my Dad, doesn't that make his Queen my Mom? And if that's the case, what figure is represented by my Queen? Couldn't it just as likely be said that an "unresolved neurotic" is seeking to defend Mom 'n' Pop against the some dreadful figures from outside the family? Thanks for the fun read. I'm looking forward to the discussion!
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Wed 6 Sep 06 19:25
Oh yeah, curse those knight forks! It takes a while to accept that Bishops are usually stronger, after losing so many early games to those sneaky steeds jumping about. Alice's friend the White Knight kept falling off his horse, thanks to its crooked leaps.
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Wed 6 Sep 06 22:57
Hi David! The most poignant story I encountered in the first chapter of your book fortold a warning to me Exuse me for paraphrasing it badly: The attacking army was approaching. The assistant kept interrupting his sires chess game to announce the approaching danger. The sire lost his head before the game could tell him how to overcome his enemies. My warning comes at the beginning of a semester with much reading--I cann't resist your book. Oh my goodness. My request to my father to teach me chess was an irritation to him. A blue collar worker he pulled out checkers. ;-) I learned but I sabbotage myself--maybe it would be a good diagnostic tool!
David Shenk (davidshenk) Thu 7 Sep 06 08:00
Thanks for so many kind and thoughtful comments. There's lot to respond to already. I should probably first acknowledge that, though this was a difficult book to organize and write, the material was there for the picking. From where I stand, it was a book waiting to be written because there is so much extraordinary stuff -- poignant, funny, thought-provoking, and on and on. I spent three years working to get it right and hunting down certain facts and stories, but I never had a problem in finding enough to fill the book. If anything, the problem was having to decide what to leave out. And yes, Pat, it was very important to me to try to articulate to outsiders the beauty and artistry of chess. This was especially tricky since I am not an advanced player. But I could tell from the outset that there was something very special going on, and I think I got enough of an insight into it to lay it out for a general audience. On the Freud nonsense . . . I basically think it's nonsense. Not that we don't all operate according to all sorts of unrecognised impulses and drives -- I'm sure that's true and I think someone could write a fascinating essay or book that really explores the hidden psychology behind a chess game. But the King standing for the Father and the Queen being the mother and the player wanting to kill the Father (and then masturbate?) -- none of that registers with me, and I think it's an absurdly unnuanced attempt to get at what's really going on - David
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 7 Sep 06 08:53
Chess is such a strategic game. I'm wondering if any of the great strategic thinkers in history and the present in the realms of politics, the military and business were/are also great chess players? Napoleon, I believe, was a student of the game and played well.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Thu 7 Sep 06 10:22
David mentions Reuben Fine, a towering figure in both chess and psychology, dyed in the wool Freudian. He quit the game around 1950, when he was probably the third best in the world, to focus instead on psychology. On page 148, David quotes from Fine's _The Psychology of the Chessplayer_ : (The game, he said) "certainly touches upon the conflicts surrounding aggression, homosexuality, masturbation, and narcissism.... [The King] stands for the boy's penis in the phallic stage, and hence rearouses the castration anxiety characteristic of that period." Fine also wrote there: "The profuse phallic symbolism of chess provides some fantasy gratification of the homosexual wish, particularly the desire for mutual masturbation." The Oedipal stuff might have relevance to my family history, so I could never reject it completely, but this stuff never resonated with me either. Following it with that scene from Seinfeld was a stroke. (whoops!) I'm laughing again right now, rereading it.
David Shenk (davidshenk) Thu 7 Sep 06 10:53
The story of Napoleon and chess is long and very interesting. He did play a ton of chess and was convinced it helped him with strategy. He was not, however, very good. The only way that Napoleon could win games, apparently, was to become Napoleon. Before he was supreme commander, he lost a lot. After he rose to top-dog, he suddenly found himself winning lots and lots of games....
harry henderson (hrh) Thu 7 Sep 06 10:58
As someone with a long time interest in chess (and occasional bouts of study, but a mediocre level of play) I found your book to be quite fascinating. Weaving it with the actual Immortal Game of 1851 was a great structural choice. I don't know whether you have overdrawn the actual historical significance of chess. Did chess help change the way people thought about themselves, society, war, statecraft, etc. or did the interest in chess simply reflect those trends? Or, of course, a feedback with some of both.
David Shenk (davidshenk) Thu 7 Sep 06 11:16
Thanks, Harry. There's a fine line to be drawn there, and I tried to be careful not to go over it. At one point in the book I say that all of this stuff would surely have happened anyway in the absence of chess -- but I do think that they would *likely* have needed something like chess to help crystalize some of these concepts. I do think it's much more than just reflecting trends. We've got some scholarship to show that chess was a useful tool in helping change the way people thought about certain things -- social roles in medieval Europe, the mind and computers in the 20th Century. We shouldn't underestimate the power and importance of metaphor in the development of thought. I'm not saying that the metaphor HAD to be chess in all these instances, but in many cases it was and that's pretty significant.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Thu 7 Sep 06 16:30
A chess metaphor that's become popular in the last decade or two is the "endgame". We hear it used by politicians and news commentators, and they use it well. Is its chess origin obvious to non-players?
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 7 Sep 06 18:56
David, do you touch on the origins of the queen becoming a powerful piece? I read that an Italian noblewoman of the 15th century, Caterina Sforza, may have been the inspiration. (Amazingly, I even have a source: "Chess, Oedipus and Mater Dolorosa," Norman Reider, Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 47, Summer 1960). But haven't read any other reference to her so I suspect it's dubious speculation.
David Shenk (davidshenk) Fri 8 Sep 06 07:59
Murffy, I do get into the Queen history somewhat -- though not nearly as deeply as Marilyn Yalom did in her book "Birth of the Chess Queen." Yalom's conclusion is that the queen's massive increase in power came about chiefly as a direct tribute to Isabella I of Castille, who was essentially a co-soverign with King Ferdinand. That Norman Reider essay is extraordinary -- one of the best catalogs and explorations of the chess-origin myths and their psychological import. He packs a lot in there. *** Pat -- My sense is that almost everyone using the term "endgame" does know that it comes from chess. I don't quite know why, but it seems that almost every living soul above age five or so has some level of chess awareness -- they know about the game, they know it has Kings and Queens and Knights and "castles" and they know that games can get very involved. An extraordinary number of people understand that the game has three distinct phases and are able to effortlessly appropriate that as a metaphor for something else. All of this has also been true throughout the 1400 years of chess history. One sees endless examples of people using chess as a casual metaphor, which carries the assumption that anyone within earshot will instantly understand its meaning. This certainly doesn't mean that chess was being played in every parlor in the world, but enough people played that people knew the fundamental outlines of the game.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Fri 8 Sep 06 11:31
My dad never played it, but he told me of a super-checkers he saw on a baseball trip, when I was six, and I decided I'd learn it one day. In dozens of conversations over the years, I've heard people tell of a semi-Oedipal rite of passage; that red letter day they beat their father at chess for the first time. This happens when they are too small to win a physical contest with the old man, so the achievement thrills them with their newly demonstrated capacity for performing on an adult level. Such a widely shared experience would have to have some effect across the culture, more than baseball I think, although it's hard to pinpoint. That look of happiness on their faces when they recalled the event decades later is enviable. I liked very much your account of the 8 year old kid who said about chess that you could take a whole day to move just one piece(!)
David Shenk (davidshenk) Fri 8 Sep 06 12:44
Yes, there is something very powerful about a child beating a parent at chess for the first time, and I too have heard people talk about it a lot. So much of parenting after age two or three is based on a parent's intellectual and (hopefully) emotional maturity. When a child demonstrates that they can consider complex problems with equal or even greater depth, that is a pretty extraordinary moment. If the relationship is frought with power issues, then it can also have some pretty serious implications. An insecure parent can react badly, retreat or even take out some collateral revenge. But if the relationship is a relatively healthy one, with reasonably healthy egos on both sides, then I think it can be a useful signpost in the journey of a developing relationship.
Vince Houmes (unclevinny) Fri 8 Sep 06 16:19
Hey, I hadn't considered the Oedipal ramifications of beating your Dad at chess...that's a genuine humdinger right there. I don't actually recall that event, but I know that it happened at some point early on. Dad and I also had a crazy game called "Chess II", where the checkerboard was all psychedelically squished and stretched -- this was the early 70s, after all. It was pretty difficult to play on such a board, because you couldn't visuallize knight move, bishop moves...well, much of anything. This sort of reminds me of a question that came up for me while reading the book....what will the next wave of chessplay look like? You describe the history of chess as the Romantic, Scientific, hypermodern and postmodern periods (OK, I have the names wrong...), each of which I'd had developed something of a sense for in my reading and playing. In particular, it had seemed to me that the most recent "wave" of play in the past 20-30 years has been heavily informed by computer calculation. Do grandmasters have a discernible style of play, now, or is the game getting burned down to a cold, logical inevitability? And the real question I'm wondering about is, "What is the future of chess?" Will computers push further and further out in their opening book, effectively shutting down certain lines of play? I would be sad to hear that the King's Gambit had been thoroughly refuted, for example. If this were the case, it would probably have little impact on patzers like me, who just love giving up a pawn in the first two moves for more exciting play, even if it was proven to be a bad idea. The other "future of chess" possibility I've seen online is the profusion of alternate chess games. Online chess sites offer a ton of these variety games where the rules are bent or broken, perhaps because people are actually getting a little bored, especially at the traditionally slow pace of tournament rules. Online 1-minute games are like crack, frankly, and produce a completely different buzz in the head than ponderous epics. (Time pressure is something that doesn't get covered much in your book, and could have made a fascinating chapter by itself!)
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Fri 8 Sep 06 17:01
I can sorta relate to the parental side, after watching computer chess grow up. My ChessMaster 3000 was a good sparing partner in the early 90s. I could pretty much always beat it if I paid attention and didn't drop material, demonstrating the superiority of human judgement over brute force calculations, and that was gratifying. Now CM9000 kicks my booty mercilessly all over the board. I know one line, a Franco-Wing Gambit, where I can trap its Q after offering a poisoned rook*, exploiting its limited horizon, as harvesting the Dame takes many more moves. Otherwise, I rarely even manage to draw the beast. My college teammates and I used to laugh at HAL9000, the ridiculous notion a computer could outplay a human as soon as 2001. His win against astronaut Frank Poole, which you cite in your chapter on computer chess, was after all a replay of a famous human encounter long ago. I suspect it was the silicon opponents that drove World Champ Kasparov to retire from serious competition. They've dampened my enthusiasm for the game, drove me to quit my favorite form, postal chess. He's right about the Deep Thought exhibitions being stacked against him unfairly, in my opinion, but that didn't matter to anybody but himself. His later match with Deep Junior was a fair one, and you devoted several pages to it, even providing a diagram of the game two Bishop sacrifice that left the chess world thunderstruck. I've viewed that move as the moment the torch passed from human hands, but right below it, you mention that K himself had played it in an earlier exhibition game. If computers can beat Kasparov at chess, they can beat our generals at war. Perhaps irrationally, I find that really frightening. *(if you have CM9000, try this as White: 1.e4 e6 2.f4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.b4!? Nc6?! 5.bxc5 Nxe5? 6.fxe5 Qh4+ 7.g3 Qe4+ 8.Qe2 Qxh1 9.Nf3 & mind the tactics for several moves until you win that trapped Q.) (Vince slipped in before I finished that.)
Vince Houmes (unclevinny) Sat 9 Sep 06 09:30
Wait, are you serious? I've never been afraid of computers outwitting us at war, and I'm trying to decide if I should start. To me it seems like this could happen in one of two (uber-unlikely) ways. (a) Computers become sentient, and take over military equipment, etc., to get their way. This seems like a comfortably remote scenario, given the plodding, heavily-scrutinized progress of even Chess AI, let alone evil mastermind AI. (b) An evil mastermind uses computers to help him defeat human generals, a la a James Bond scenario. The thing about Chess AI is that it relies on getting perfect information about the location of all pieces on the board, and has similarly perfect info about the capabilities of each piece. Making good decisions in war is difficult because of the crazy degree of doubt and uncertainty about position, capability, funding, diplomacy, domestic politics, etc. Now, having said that, the US army is completely dependent on computers in the field, but that's more for keeping the bureaucracy flowing, targeting, moving objects around, etc. In any case, I'm much more worried about losing my identity and life savings online than having mechanized robotic overlords wielding automatic weapons knocking on my door. OK, I clearly overreacted to that comment...maybe I'm afraid after all!
David Shenk (davidshenk) Sat 9 Sep 06 10:31
This is all good stuff. Let's try and sort it out. Vince is right, of course, that sentient computers taking over the world -- ala the Terminator movies -- is a very long way off. But may someday be a plausible danger. What we're learning in AI, partly through our recent success with chess computers, is that humans may not always have a monopoly on intelligence. There are other types of possible intelligence, and we seem to be developing truly intelligent machines. It's a far different type of intelligence than ours, but it solves complex problems and that's pretty amazing. So I think we should be very aware of extreme dangers now and we safeguarding ourselves. Another more mundane but no less life-threatening danger is that we will become too dependent on machines to fight our wars, make our food, keep our environment safe, and that some of these machines could one day breakdown or be sabotaged. The internet is already an example of something that society has become truly dependent on and which could conceivably be brought down. To address another point of Vince's -- about how much more complicated real-war (or real life) is than a perfect information game of chess: Yes, that's very true. It's a huge leap to get to machines that can be "smart" in an ultra-complex world of imperfect information. But the half-thrilling, half-creepy feeling I get from my time studying this stuff is that we are really coming closer and closer to computers that will recognize patterns way beyond human detection, and be able to act on that. I don't think we can rule out any scenario at this point.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Sat 9 Sep 06 11:23
Well, I did overstated it, Vince, the influence of Harlan Elison stories, no doubt, and yet it does give me this sense of foreboding. Neither of those dramatic scenarios you listed worries me. It's the idea that decisions about whom to kill, and how many, could be passing to machines with no investment in sparing humanity I find disturbing. Economic decisions are already made this way, and I think that's bad enough if no human ethics are in a position to overrule them. The urgency of lightning life and death tactical decisions will bring pressure to leave us pokey humans out of the equation, won't it? Maybe we can program human concerns into the decision making. I've seen too many bugs over the years to place much faith in that being reliable. I like your point about chess being a game of perfect information, while war is not. To my mind, chess is a war game only because we've culturally interpreted it as such through the centuries, as David wrote about in rich detail. We talk about 'set piece battles' as a form of warfare rarely seen these days. Chess is what we would prefer war to be, idealized to where we can completely control it. As a dice game, backgammon bears more resemblance to real war, and poker, with its hidden information, even more so in my opinion. But neither gives us that romantic sense of individual combat on the battlefield. They wouldn't work at all in a Harry Potter movie. The lack of randomness makes it a good tool for research, as David described in a fascinating part I can't find now. Experiments using variants of the game to study the relative weight of the elements of battle influenced the march to Bagdad, if I recall it right. David, could you tell us about that?
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Sat 9 Sep 06 11:29
David replied before I got that posted. I'm talking too much and typing too long. Well members can participate directly, and others can email comments and questions to <firstname.lastname@example.org>, and we'll copy them here.
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Mon 11 Sep 06 21:09
Given the development of Islam and Chess about the same time period I wondered about...then realized no correlation. Then after thinking about Benjamin Franklin's humorous dialogue I envision Chess without a King to no avail. Maybe the islamic holy war is closer to helter skelter. Much that was wrong to the hippy culture has not overwhelmingly been fixed. Flower children, hippies, yippies, global compassion still does not fix the bubble then pop of market economy. Laissez Faire still sees brokers leaping from windows following their stocks. In this state of helplessness I feel an urge to work it out through a game of chess. Social darwinism does not help.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Mon 11 Sep 06 23:40
Anxieties that resonate all too well with today's date, <ceder>. There is one part in your book, David, where I disagree with the views of your sources, about the roots of mental illness with way too many of the game's greatest minds; the dark side of chess. You quoted Stephan Zweig's short story, _The Royal Game_: "It is an absurdity in logic to play against oneself," he later concludes. "The fundamental attraction of chess lies, after all, in the fact that its strategy develops... in two different brains, that in this mental battle Black, ignorant of White's immediate manuvers, seeks constantly to guess and thwart them, while White, for his part, strives to pentrate Black's secret purposes and to discern and parry them. If one person tries to be be both Black and White you have the preposterous situation that one and the same brain at once knows something and yet does not know it; that, functioning as White's partner, it can instantly obey a command to forget what, a moment earlier as Black's partner, it desired and plotted. Such a cerebral duality really implies a complete cleavage of the consciousness, a lighting up or dimming of the brain function function at pleasure as with a switch." That last sentence may be true, but players don't do that. Most of the time they analyze, they do it alone, playing both sides with no secrets involved. It's just a dialectic, as you described in a following chapter, a method to understand the position at hand. They analyze to asses the underlying truth of a position, assuming best play for both sides. Hiding information from oneself would be absurdly counterproductive. The point is to answer questions like, "Does Black get enough piece activity here to compensate for the long term weakness of that isolated Queen's pawn? Or, is the advantage of two Bishops vs Bishop & Knight in the endgame worth defending this middlegame attack?" It requires being constantly mindful of every tactical resource you can find for both sides, avoiding bias as much as possible. Nothing schizoid about it. Nor can I agree with Tim Redmond's claim that spending hours figuring out how the opponent is trying to get you, a constant exercise of the 'paranoid function', is the culprit. If so, why aren't defensive coordinators in the NFL going mad? Anticipating the next move in your opponent's attack is no more harmful than guessing what that leftie pitcher will throw to the rightie lead off hitter, with a two run edge, a man on second, and a 1-1 count. The frequency of mental illness among some of the greatest players in history like Fischer and Morphy is certainly troubling, even heartbreaking. Unfortunately, I don't think anybody has explained it.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Tue 12 Sep 06 07:21
Speaking as part of the group who learned the rules of chess as a kid but never really got hooked, I wonder if it's because the specific combination of complexity and simplicity that chess presents. Even though the number of possible combinations in, say, even the next five moves is enormous, it's still finite and calculable. In contrast, defensive coordinators in the NFL may think ahead to how the opponent is going to respond, but there are also enough apparently random factors -- the ball or grass are slightly more slippery than expected, the receiver gets a bit of dust in his eye, the wind shifts just a bit so the ball goes a foot further than it would have otherwise -- that they have to accept a certain lack of control. Serious chess players, on the other hand, know that there is only a finite set of possible moves. Maybe that's where the crazy-making comes from?
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