How chess can sharpen your wits

9/28/2006 – Best-selling author David Shenk has written the definitive work on Alzheimer's – The Forgetting. Now he has published a book on chess, "The Immortal Game: How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science and the Human Brain." ABC News invited him for an interview on the subject of chess and Alzheimer's.

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David Shenk: 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

Doubleday, September 5, 2006. List Price: $26.00 (Hardcover, 352 pages).

David Shenk is a national best-selling author of four previous books, including The Forgetting and Data Smog, and a contributor 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 on Bioethics. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The Immortal Game is an accessible, non-technical introduction to the game of chess. It starts out with a survey of the origins of the game in fifth- or sixth-century Persia, and winds its way to the present day, touching on subjects like Shenk's own amateurish pursuit of the game, erratic geniuses like Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer, chess in schools today, computer chess and his great-great-grandfather Samuel Rosenthal, who was an eminent player in late 19th-century Europe. Readers get a strong sense of why chess has remained so popular over the ages and why its study still has much to tell us about the workings of the human mind.

Amazon's Booklist Gilbert Taylor writes: Shenk's attitude is one that many readers will share – he is attracted to the game's infinite possibilities but also intimidated by its difficult body of analytic knowledge. Seeking a reason for the popularity of chess from its Persian and Indian origins 1,500 years ago to the present, Shenk decides it lies in chess' fluidity as metaphor. It was plainly conceived as a war game, but feudal European society found deeper meanings within it, as cognitive psychologists and logicians do today. Rangy, anecdotal, and nontechnical, Shenk's is popular chess history at its most readable.

Long Live the King

There is a review of the book in the New York Times in which by Katie Hafner writes: "David Shenk begins with the obligatory discussion of what is known about the beginnings of the game: Some 1,500 years ago in Persia, by way of India, there emerged a two-player war game called chatrang, played with a counselor where the queen now sits and elephants instead of bishops. Rather than being invented all at once “in a fit of inspiration by a single king, general, philosopher or court wizard,” the game we know today was “the result of years of tinkering by a large, decentralized group, a slow achievement of collective intelligence.”

Although the book’s subtitle promises a history of chess, its more interesting pages offer something closer to meditation, personal revelation and the exploration of what he calls “the deep history of chess’s entanglement with the human mind.” Shenk is convincing: “We face in our modern, splintered world not only a crisis in education, but more pointedly a crisis of understanding – of thought and of willingness to engage in thought.” Thinking tools like chess, Shenk argues, can “help our minds expand, grow comfortable with abstraction and learn to navigate complex systems.”

Interview on ABC News

Chess and Alzheimer's – both subjects on which David Shenk has written books. ABC News invited him into their studio and discussed the connection in the following interview.

Reviews

"Shenk, a spry writer . . . [offers] a strong case for the game's bewitching power."
-- The New York Times

"A thrilling tour . . . an engaging, colorful look at a world that blissfully remains black-and-white."
-- Entertainment Weekly

"Fresh and fascinating...a world-spanning story [Shenk] relates with skill and verve."
-- Chicago Sun-Times

"Fascinating . . . [Shenk] writes about chess history with contagious zest."
-- Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Shenk weaves a masterful tale that all readers can enjoy, no matter how little they know about chess."
-- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Fun, factual, and a good read . . . Not a reference book to be stored on a shelf [but] a book to be read and enjoyed, and even read again . . . buy this book!"
-- Chess Life magazine

"Besides detailing chess's broader social significance, Shenk brings it to life with tales of its personal impact . . . Shenk's passion will leave readers yearning to play."
-- Fast Company

"A globe-spanning, brain-stretching social history . . . Shenk's curiosity equips the reader to look at a board of chess pieces and understand what got them there and the endless places they could go."
-- Paste Magazine


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