The Magazine

The Age of Chess

And the sport of kings, queens, bishops, etc.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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In medieval Europe, though, it wasn't taken as seriously as it was in Islamic territory. Nobody studied the game or developed sophisticated strategies. It was played under different rules in different places, including the heresy of throwing dice to determine moves. But by the Renaissance, the wayward European games began to coalesce into chess in its modern, dynamic form. Middle Eastern chess had been a slow, incremental game. The piece known there as the minister and in Europe as the queen, once limited to one-square moves, became the most powerful piece on the board in (not coincidentally) Spain at the time of Queen Isabella.

The Enlightenment, with its flair for combining logic and pleasure, brought together chess and coffee at the Café de la Régence in Paris and other urbane chess cafés. The war-simulating game seemed, despite increasingly fierce and methodical competition in the 18th and 19th centuries, to promote cosmopolitan tolerance and civility. The 20th century--offering, as usual, a depressing contrast--let politics into it, as Nazis and Communists competed for supremacy in grotesque chess propaganda.

Shenk's book is unpretentious, free of technical jargon, and accessible, even to nonplayers, though some serious experience playing helps when you come to his account of successive strategic styles (romantic, scientific, hypermodern) and the interspersed chapters that reproduce the breathtaking gambits and sacrifices of the "Immortal Game" played in London in 1851 by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky.

In the last chapters, Shenk resembles a time-pressed player racing through an end game. He has too little to say about the history of world championship matches and the innovations and styles of some of the champions. He's attentive to the cultural echoes of the game, spending some time on Marcel Duchamp's balancing act of droll art and serious chess, and Lewis Carroll's chess-themed Through the Looking-Glass. But he skips, among much else, the knight's match with Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Paolo Maurensig's remarkable novel The Luneburg Variation (1993).

Still, his history has an improvisational dexterity that suits its subject, and by putting a number of stunning, historic games on display, it checkmates any lingering ambition you might have in about three moves.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.