David Shenk (davidshenk) Tue 12 Sep 06 08:46
On Islam: Ceder, If you get a chance to read the book, ceder, I think you will be fascinated by the connection between Islam and chess. There's no direct connection to its origin, as you suggest, but I also think its clearly no accident that they were both born around the same time and place. The values of chess -- intellectual openness, discipline, community, and combat -- nicely mirror those of chess. Muhammad implored his followers to "acquire knowledge" as one of the foundations of a successful life. So it's no surprise to discover that the early Muslims were drawn to the game, and helped spread it all over the world. On mental illness: I hear what you're saying, dotman, and I think that chapter pretty strongly implies that I don't claim to have the final answers about what's going on. I don't subscribe to Zweig's explanation -- and I'm not sure Zweig does either. It feels to me like he's feeling his way around the subject imperfectly, as we all are. My sense is that it's a combination of all these things, but a key part of it detachment from the 3D world. I think, as Krauthaumer describes, you really climb into that 2D space in such a way that it comes alive. The near-infinite possibility sustains a manic energy of constantly looking around every corner, and yes, I think there is an element of paranoia in there. Your write-off of that point doesn't seem fair to me. You know it's only a tiny fraction of chess players spread over a two centuries, AND we know that chess has some qualities which neatly separate it from other pursuits, so you can't casually say, "well, if it's paranoia, why not that other group too?"
David Shenk (davidshenk) Tue 12 Sep 06 08:52
Temperamentally, I'm pretty much with you, davadam. I never really got into chess as a kid, and though a part of me now loves it, it doesn't occupy much of my creative energy. I prefer pursuits that have intangibles. I also fundamentally don't like being apart of a constantly competitive environment. I like things like writing and music, where I can be me and no one else will be able to duplicate what I do. Having said that, I am fascinated by chess personalities -- how, in this game of perfect information, people can truly express themselves on the board. Duchamp certainly believed that chess playing was a true art form.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Tue 12 Sep 06 11:55
Yes, it came across clearly you weren't endorsing any of those views about chess and psychosis, David, just laying out what others had offered. Krauthammer's point about the sense of vertigo arising from the sheer magnitude of the possibilities was interesting. My intuitive guess, which is all it is, has it that certain personal psychological traits, which help some achieve the highest levels of accomplishment in the game, bring with them also a susceptibility to the problems you listed. I don't see the game itself as the cause. That relates to the subject of prodigies, which seem to be sprouting like mushrooms all over the place these days. http://www.chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=3333 Laslo Polgar is renowned for rearing three remarkable daughters, all with international titles, and he authored a rather large book full of training problems he used to coach them from a very young age. You can't argue with his results, which you wrote that he predicted before they were even born! Most of us assume the issue is nature, not nurture, that champions like Capablanca were just wired differently than the rest of us. You're very persuasive making the case that the opposite is true.
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Tue 12 Sep 06 13:20
I have been enjoying this book, I am still in it but will reread the parts about Islam more closely after finishing. My start in computers was with both a Univac and a <hal> not in the same room though.
Patrick McCo (dotman) Tue 12 Sep 06 15:41
<scribbled by dotman Tue 12 Sep 06 15:43>
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Tue 12 Sep 06 15:43
Clare, <ceder>, I'm very curious about the impressions of readers who aren't regular chess players, as it seems to me that is the main contribution of _The Immortal Game_. I think it's an old Islamic aphorism, something like, chess is a pool in which a gnat can drink and an elephant bathe. Appealing to both chess players and chess laity is a nifty accomplishment in a similar vein. We haven't reached the heart warming tribute to one of the author's ancestors, an illustrious French champion from the Romantic era of the game, over a century ago. Likewise the particular game from back then that shares the title of his book, and runs through it. (bad typo corrected)
Vince Houmes (unclevinny) Wed 13 Sep 06 08:40
The backstory on the Polgar sisters was very interesting to me. I never realized that their father predicted their success before they were ever born, and that he had no special chess ability himself. Trying to understand the balance required between practice and innate ability is always difficult, but it sounds like I've overestimated ability by quite a lot. The trick is finding something that you enjoy practicing...
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Wed 13 Sep 06 12:53
Maybe David would like to say more about that. It struck me as good news. How about you, Vince?
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Wed 13 Sep 06 16:39
I love the interplay of "The Immortal Game" between chapters of the book. Will there be a movie made?
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Wed 13 Sep 06 21:03
Heh. There oughta be, like Roesch - Schlage, Hamburg (1910?), far better known as the scintilating Queen sacrifice checkmate that HAL9000 delivered against his astronaut opponent. Kubrick was a big chess fan. 'The Immortal Game', Anderssen - Kieseritzky, London, 1851 and a few others like 'The Evergreen', Anderssen - Dufresne, 1852, represent the apotheosis of the Romantic Era in chess, when everybody played in the beginner style, and some did it unbelievably well. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evergreen_game That group included David's grandmother's grandfather, Samuel Rosenthal, who held his own against Anderssen, 3.5-3.5, in the seven games I found. Presenting 'The Immortal Game' in a way such that anybody can appreciate its brilliance is a delightful contribution. David made it much more generally accessible than that wiki entry.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Wed 13 Sep 06 21:10
Another word about that accessibility. You don't need to know chess notation, as there is a diagram and explanation after each move.
David Shenk (davidshenk) Thu 14 Sep 06 08:56
Somebody asked me about an "Immortal Game" movie last night at a boookstore event. My brother and sister-in-law are wonderful documentary filmmakers (actualfilms.net), and we have been talking for a couple years about how to turn this book into a film. All we need is a million dollars. As people will see in the book, I am of the strong opinion, based on observation and research, that the public generally far overestimates the importance of innate ability. Obviously, people are born with important differences from one another. But studies demonstrate that excellence follows from determination and practice. How much are you willing to sacrifice to be truly superb at something. How many hours a day are you willing to dedicate? At the upper margins, one probably can say that inborn physical differences play an important role. What made Michael Jordan superior to Scotty Pippin, or Lance Armstrong consistently a few seconds faster than ______? Obviously all those guys have 1000% determination and deducation, and there are probably organic distinctions that are at play there. But I really think that greatness as we understand it is a function largely of determination. Thanks for the continuing kind words about the book. Anyone who knows any of my previous stuff knows that accessibility is a core value for me. If you are able to read English, I want you to be able to understand and appreciate whatever subject it is that I'm exploring. I hope very much not to lose the respect of the insiders/experts, but I'm writing very much for the outsiders. My life-long inspiration is John McPhee and the other great literary non fiction writers who can make any subject under the sun extraordinaryily compelling.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Thu 14 Sep 06 10:41
I emphatically agree with the determination point, one of my own hobby horses through the years. An old joke says you don't need brains to play chess, you need buttocks. But more to the point, do you find it enjoyable? For some people, the exploration that reveals its vast beauty is fun enough that the hours go by like they do when reading a great book, with no sense of great effort. If chess (schach) makes you go 'Ah!', and you've got a thousand hours to devote, then you've got all it takes to become expert at it, good enough to play a blindfold game. What part of writing this book gave you the most 'Ah!', David?
David Shenk (davidshenk) Thu 14 Sep 06 13:37
There were quite a number of spine-tingling moments in my research: When I learned about the distinct number of possible chess games -- 10 to the 120th power. When I learned that my ancestor had indeed been a dazzling player in Paris for many decades -- and had beaten the likes of Anderssen and Steinitz. When I learned that this ancestor had been part of a study by the legendary Alfred Binet which used chess to learn startling new truths about how memory works. When I discovered the extent of Benjamin Franklin's obsession wih the game. When I learned about the deep connection between chess and the early Islamic Empire. Those are a few. I really was pretty steadily stunned for several years as I did my writing and research.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Thu 14 Sep 06 19:26
OK, now I have to bite. How obsessed *was* Mr. Franklin? I think Pat's question "do you find it enjoyable" is right on. At the risk of this sounding like a dumb question... so what is it that people love so much about chess? I don't really mean that in a trolling, "you're so stupid" fashion, but more of a anthropological question -- I can imagine a lot of reasons but I wonder if there are trends in what usually attracts people to chess.
David Shenk (davidshenk) Fri 15 Sep 06 10:02
Franklin played chess incessantly, and probably spent so much of his adult years in Europe in part due to the superior level of play there. He used chess in diplomacy, played with his lovers while they bathed, and frequently leaned on chess as a metaphor. He wrote an essay, "The Morals of Chess," about what he saw as its many benefits. I think what draws people so deeply into the game is the chance to escape into an alternate universe. The distraction from real life is total, which I don't think can be undervalued. And rather than mindless distraction, it is a very mindful experience. The mind is engaged, totally, and there's really no telling where a game will lead after the first several moves. There's a feeling that you are heading out on a journey but you're not quite sure where you're going.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Fri 15 Sep 06 11:08
Yes. It's a perfect world of well defined rules that apply equally to everyone. It's so thoroughly engaging, demanding such complete concentration in serious competition, it offers a brief vacation from the sordid reality of life's problems and injustices. I think that's why high school chess clubs are famous nerd magnets. That escape can be neurotically abused, like many other avenues of escape. For people who need to flee reality, chess can be their passport, but I don't think chess is the cause of that need.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Fri 15 Sep 06 11:17
Oh, before I forget, I'll mention that "The Morals of Chess" is included in David's appendix. I mean, his book's appendix.
Schach & Ah! (dotman) Sat 16 Sep 06 11:43
Could we go back to Alfred Binet? Thanks to Fine's book, the Freudian view is well known throughout the chess community, but your book is the first I've heard of Binet's connection to the game. Would you say more about that, and what led your research in that direction?
harry henderson (hrh) Sat 16 Sep 06 14:18
When I was a young kid in a troubled family chess did indeed strongly appeal to me as just that -- an alternative universe that was challenging but consistent. (Pieces could not have tantrums and break the rules.) As a player I was better than average for my age, but not top-notch. I loved to replay the old games from books (using the "Descriptive" notation then in use.) Which reminds me ... there's been a lot written lately about people starting chess programs in schools (particularly in disadvantaged areas). While other activities might work as well, chess does seem to have the ability to inspire self-confidence and discipline in kids whose environment has not been favorable to such formation. Seems to me the immortal game is good for at least a few hundred more years!
Elaine Sweeney (sweeney) Sat 16 Sep 06 16:53
One of the interesting things about 20th century and later chess is the intellectual cachet of the game - Turing chose it as the test of "true" intelligence for a machine if it could play chess as well as a human, I believe. And you also see this after WWII when manufacturing capability, materials technique and buying power brought wonderful chess sets out for the general consumer - like the Peter Ganine chess sets with their elegant medieval allusions, that really say "culture" in a big way. <http://wesclark.com/am/gothic_chess_set.jpg> David, were you interested/did you find other modern metaphors like those researching the book? (Of course now that computers beat people at chess, it seems to have fallen from grace somewhat as a 'true intelligence' test, and we have The Simpsons chess sets...)
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Sun 17 Sep 06 20:44
Chess to me was a grown-up thing to do, something that my father and grandfather played, so of course I wanted to play it too. I loved playing grandpa, but fun as the game was, for me it was secondary to the fact that I played it with him. And when after quite a few years and many games, I finally beat him once (and he swore he wasn't holding back), it was a great thrill. I thought I was pretty hot chess stuff. But after he passed away, I tried a few games with some high school friends, and quickly realized that they were playing at a whole different level, and with a degree of competitiveness that was so unfun that it soured me on the game for decades thereafter. I was surprised to remember how much fun it was when my niece and nephew asked me to play it with them last summer. If they really get into it, it won't take them long to start beating me. But I won't mind--it seems only fair to give back to the next generation the fun that was given to me.
David Shenk (davidshenk) Mon 18 Sep 06 07:12
A short excerpt from chapter 7: In the 1890s, as part of what would ultimately emerge as a career-long dedication to the deﬁnition and measurement of human intelligence, [Alfred] Binet was trying to understand the dynamics of memory. He became fascinated by blindfold chess players and their awesome displays of visual memory. Exactly how did they do it? The conventional wisdom at the time, endorsed by Binet, was that strong visual memory was based in photographic-type recall. It ap-peared that great chess players somehow had a highly advanced ability to form mental pictures of chess pieces and boards and to preserve those pictures in their minds. They had, Binet theorized, an extraordinary inner mirror, which would forever reﬂect back to them, move by move, every successive conﬁguration of the board. This notion was sup-ported by more than two thousand years of memory literature and sci-ence that depicted memory as being visually based. The ancient Greeks, with no printing press and no pen and ink, had developed the art of mnemonicsmental tricks that relied on visualization to remem-ber large amounts of detail. Typically, a mnemonist would deposit difﬁcult-to-remember information into imagined compartments, seats, or rooms. Now Binet wanted to determine how such memory tricks actually worked. Inspired by the work of the British anthropologist Francis Galton, he had developed a passion for exploring the healthy working mind, as opposed to the pathology of mental illness. The blindfold chess study was one of his ﬁrst as assistant director of the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at the Sorbonne. His subjects included the ac-complished chess masters Stanislaus Sittenfeld, Alphonse Goetz, Sieg-bert Tarrasch, and the dean of French chess, Samuel Rosenthal. In Binets laboratory, they were questioned intensively about what they saw when they played chess blindfolded. The results were surprising and instructive. Binet was humbled to ﬁnd that his inner mirror the-ory did not pan out. Astounding chess memories, he learned, did not resemble a collection of photographic snapshots. They were much more abstract than that, more geometric, and more meaningful. The intricate chess positions, it turned out, were not stored in chess masters brains as distinct photolike snapshots, but as a more abstract set of integrated patternslike a musicians chords or a computer programmers code. What looked like a chaotic ﬁeld of data to the nonexpert was to the expert a coherent, meaningful song. I grasp it as a musician grasps harmony in his orchestra, offered French master Alphonse Goetz. I am often carried to sum up the character of a position in a general epithet . . . it strikes you as simple and familiar, or as original, exciting and suggestive. In the mind of Goetz and the other chess masters, each portion of every game triggered impressions, feelings, and observations as mean-ingful to them as pieces of a car engine are to a mechanic, or as cloud formations are to a meteorologist. In these players minds, there were no sterile boards or carved wooden chess ﬁgurinesonly evocative conﬁgurations that were familiar or somehow resonant. Ultimately, it wasnt even the chess positions themselves that they were warehousing so much as the impressions they sparked. This insight was not inconsistent with long-standing visual notions of memory, but it provided a key clariﬁcation: visual memory operated not by recording a multitude of snapshots, but by encoding information in a meaningful context. It turned out that mnemonics was not so much visual as it was meaningful. Great chess players, then, were not simply ﬁnely tuned camera-computers, adept at acquiring and processing visual data with superlative efﬁciency. Rather, Binets study proved their craft to be supremely human a combination of resonant feelings, meaning-ful experiences, and rich memories. Studying chess memory proved that abstract thought and memory were fully entangled with human feeling. A further surprising revelation of the Binet chess study was the de-gree to which photographiclike recall of visuals could actually hamper visual memory. Some part of every chess game is played blindfold, ex-plained leading German player Siegbert Tarrasch in a letter to Binet ex-plaining his thought process. The sight of the chessman frequently upsets ones calculations. This comment echoed the sentiment of other top players. What they remembered was not a tactile reproduction of the pieces on the board, but rather an abstract sense of each pieces prop-erties and movement. In fact, it was the mediocre players striving to recall actual pieces on a board who inevitably fell short. Binets photographic theory had not only been wrong; the truth was quite the opposite.
David Shenk (davidshenk) Mon 18 Sep 06 07:15
Elaine, There's a lot about Turing in this book. It sounds like you already know how fascinated he was by chess. The game was intertwined with a lot of his ideas about what computers could be. Yes, a big part of my research was to show not only the history of the game, but its long active influence on cultures over the centuries. In the 20th century, this story includes the birth of computers, the development of AI, the conception and development of cognitive science, and some other cool stuff.
Vince Houmes (unclevinny) Mon 18 Sep 06 09:18
I don't think I mentioned this before, but one of the things that really drove me deep into the chess world was the way that you could (in theory!) win or lose a chess game entirely on the basis of what happens out in the open. Unlike so many of the "social information" games and activities that normal kids seemed good at, like football, baseball, card games or finagling for social status, there really isn't any hidden information in chess. If you can shut out the distractions coming from your human opponent (who is probably trying to use all the social human weirdo tricks he or she can to confuse you), you have a completely fair chance to win. The amazing potential for a comeback from certain defeat is another draw in chess. Your opponent can have you dead, obliterated, without hope -- but you can find a way, if you try hard enough. Your opponent may be making a mistake in pressing his huge advantage too quickly, and there may be a way to weasel it out...or aim for a draw. Which reminds me of another fun chess fact: chess games are always lost, never won. There are no known forced victories for white or black in the game, and each game should therefore end in a draw. Anyone who makes a "brilliant" move is therefore just responding to a weak move -- maybe an astonishingly godawful move -- by the opponent. The chess world admires those who have the ability to see weakness where others miss it... (Sorry I've been away for a while...I got lazy!)
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