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Checkmate II

A lot of my friends play chess, some of them very well. I’ve never taken to it. (I’m not even a very good backgammon player, Levitt’s claims notwithstanding.)

But I was totally smitten by a new book about chess called The Immortal Game. It was written by David Shenk, a guy I know via e-mail and maybe a party or two but someone whom I don’t know well enough to call a friend. (I have been thinking a lot lately about the taxonomy of friendship since reading John Freeman’s very entertaining review of Joseph Epstein’s new book, Friendship: An Expose.

Shenk’s book is best described by its two subtitles: “A History of Chess … or, How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain.” I liked the book enough to blurb it, writing this: “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.”

Most of my chess-playing friends claim they love chess above all other games because, unlike backgammon or poker or even soccer, there is no luck involved. But Shenk writes about a period in the game’s history, as it was migrating from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and still under construction, when one version of the game actually included the use of dice:

To speed up the game, alternative versions had emerged wherein one die would be thrown before each move to determine which piece would be played:

If it landed on “1,” the player would move a Pawn.

If on “2,” a Knight.

If on “3,” a Bishop.

If on “4,” a Rook.

If on “5,” the Queen.

If on “6,” the King.

From the standpoint of the moralists who saw chess and dice as opposite, this was a perplexing development: fate had been invited into humanity’s great symbolic arena of skill and free will. Essentially, it pitted chess in a cultural battle against itself.

But the dice didn’t last long, and once again chess became a game of pure skill — unless, that is, you happened to be playing for the Soviets, in which case you got a little extra help.