Chess: The Immortal Game, An Interview with David Shenk

David Shenk

David Shenk

We are conducting interviews for our upcoming documentary addressing inequity called I Could Be….
David Shenk is the award-winning and national-bestselling author of six books, including The Genius in All of Us (“deeply interesting and important” – New York Times), The Forgetting (“remarkable” – Los Angeles Times), Data Smog (“indispensable” – New York Times), andThe Immortal Game (“superb” – Wall Street Journal). He is a popular lecturer, a short-film director/producer, and a contributor to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Gourmet, Harper’s, Spy, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The American Scholar, The Huffington Post, NPR, BBC and PBS. Shenk lives in Brooklyn.
What inspired you to write a book on the history of chess?
A couple of small events connected to chess came together to make me especially curious about the game and its history. One was Ricky Jay’s demonstration of the knight tour, which fascinated me. Another was an episode of the TV show The West Wing where the President brings back old chess sets from India, talks about how old the game is, and uses it as a metaphor for a contemporary stand-off with China. Like a lot of people, I had thought chess was a medieval European game, maybe 500 years old. To find out that it was 1500 years old opened my eyes and made me wonder what other games have continously lived so long and impacted so many different cultures. The answer is none. Chess is something unique in the history of humankind and my hunch was that a close look at its history could provide a unique understanding of human culture. So the shorter answer is that I wrote a book about the history of chess in order to learn more about who humans are.

What are the origins of chess?
Ancient Chess Pieces

Seven pieces of a set, ivory, Persia dated 762 CE

It’s pretty fragmented at the beginning, and the far-fetched myths of its origin are just as interesting as the true origins. But the basic story is that chess probably evolved slowly along the famous Silk Road trading routes, which for centuries carried materials, information, and ideas between Delhi, Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, Kandahar, and China’s Xinjiang Province. On the Silk Road, merchants transported cinnamon, pepper, horses, porcelain, gold, silver, silk, and other useful and exotic goods; they also inevitably blended customs picked up from various locales. It was the information highway of the age. No doubt many other games were invented and transported by the same roving merchants. But there was something different about chaturanga, the four-player predecessor to chess. In a critical departure from previous board games from the region, it contained no dice or other instruments of chance. Skill alone determined the outcome. “Understanding [is] the essential weapon” proclaims the ancient Persian poem Chatrang-namak (The book of chatrang), one of the oldest books mentioning the game. “Victory is obtained by the intellect.” The game solidified in India and then further evolved into a game called chatrang in Persia. After what might have been centuries of tinkering, chatrang, the first true version of what we now call chess, finally emerged in Persia sometime during the fifth or sixth century. It was a two-player war game with thirty-two pieces on a sixty-four- square board: sixteen emerald men on one end and sixteen ruby-red men on the other. Each army was equipped with one King, one Minister (where the Queen now sits), two Elephants (where the Bishops now sit), two Horses, two Ruhks (Persian for “chariot”), and eight Foot Soldiers.
Needless to say, there’s a lot more interesting detail involved…
Birth of the Chess Queen

Yalom draws parallels between the rise of the chess queen and the ascent of female sovereigns in Europe

How did the queen become the most powerful piece on the board?
That happened in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and was most likely directly inspired by a cluster of charismatic and powerful queens that had emerged: Catherine of Aragon, Isabella of Castile, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Catherine de Médicis of France, Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre, and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Caliph ar-Rashid

Caliph ar-Rashid receiving a delegation sent by Charlemagne at his court

Can you tell about Caliph ar-Rashid and his son Caliph al-Ma’mun, how they made the acquisition of knowledge a central Islamic mission, and how they recognized a direct connection between chess and intellectual vitality?
Actually, it was Prophet Muhammad himself who commanded: “Acquire knowledge. . . It guideth us to happiness; it sustaineth us in misery; it is an ornament amongst friends, and an armour against enemies.” One of the earliest acts of the Muslim religion was to capture Persia, where chess was prominent. The game got wrapped up into the culture and changed by it. It was also banned periodically. But the upshot is that Muslims were the ones to spread chess throughout the middle east, into north Africa and into Europe.
Avila Let nothing disturb
Saint Teresa of Ávila used chess as a tool to explore the dynamics of prayer and contemplation, what do you make of this?
Chess is, above all, a thought-tool. It is just abstract enough to be turned into a metaphor for almost any complex problem. I call it the Powerpoint of ancient times.
Mosaic at San Savino Basilica

Mosaic at San Savino Basilica

Tell us about the chess scene in San Savino Basilica.
That’s complex and has some great stories in my book. I’m going to pass on trying to summarize here.
Zuckerber & Carlsen

Co-founder, Chairman, and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg playing World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. On January 30, 2014, Facebook stock hit a new high of $61 per share which makes Zuckerberg’s stake worth $31 billion.

Can you talk about how chess relates to the realization that people could help shape their own destiny and how this realization lay the foundation of all modern science, philosophy, economic development, and democratic culture?
Yes, this is one of the big themes of my book. One of the key pivot points in human history is when humans realized that their success would be mostly based on their own thoughts and actions — as opposed to fates and chance. Chess emerged as that shift took place and undoubtedly helped contribute to it.
Big Brain Chess
You wrote “We face in our modern, splintered world not only a crisis in education, but more pointedly a crisis of understanding.” How can chess help?
Chess is a thought-tool. It celebrates thinking. It’s also a way to bring people together. I don’t want to over-estimate its importance, but chess has clearly been a part of the long human odyssey to make our world safer and smarter. I think its utility can continue.

Paul Morphy playing blindfold chess in Paris, 1858. Before developing the precursor to IQ tests, Alfred Binet did experiments to see how well chess players played when blindfolded.

You also wrote “For a century, we’ve been living under the oppressive yoke of innate-IQism.” How was an assessment test created by Binet and Simon turned into something else?
That’s really a question that goes to my latest book, The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and Intelligence. (It’s true that research into my the chess book directly inspired the newer book). IQ was originally conceived to understand intelligence as a set of skills that various human beings have or don’t have. The test was supposed to be used not to brand someone as having innately-high or low intelligence, but to show which people needed particular help on which particular skills. In the early 20th century, a group of innate-obsessed social scientists hijacked IQ and transformed it into what they claimed was a permanent recording of people’s innate, unchangeable intelligence. Person A is smart and ought to pursue these smart jobs. Person B is an idiot and should be relegated to these dumber jobs. Intelligence was thought to be determined by genes.
Now we know that this isn’t true. Genes do have a huge influence on everything we are, but that influence is constantly subject to interaction with our environment. Intelligence *is*, very simply, a set of skills that a person acquires or does not acquire in his or her life. IQ is a snapshot of where that person’s skills are in that particular moment.
People are going to read the above and think, “Ok, he’s arguing the nurture side of nature vs. nurture. He’s arguing that genes don’t matter and that anyone can become anything.” That’s not what I’m saying. The debate has gotten so polarized that we have been taught to either embrace “nature” or “nurture.” My book is one of many that is laying out an entirely new *developmental* paradigm of intelligence and talent.
Sofia, Judit, Klara, and Susan Polgar

Sofia, Judit, Klara (mother), and Susan Polgar. László Polgar believes that geniuses are made not born. Susan was the first female to earn the Grandmaster title through the conventional way of tournament play. Judit, is the strongest female chess player in history.

What do the stories of Wolfgang Mozart and the Polgar sisters tell us about genius?
That it is developmental.
Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan

As a sophomore Michael Jordan failed to make his high school varsity basketball team, what does this tell us about achievement?
Same message as above. I go into great detail about all this in my book.
Carol Dweck
Can you explain the importance of having the I-can-improve mindset rather than the some-people-are-just-gifted-and-others-aren’t mindset?
Again, this is at the core of my newest book. There’s now lots of solid research that supports the developmental model, and that shows that public understanding of that model can, itself, spur improvements in intelligence.
Google plans big

Achieving 60% of the impossible is better than 100% of the ordinary.

In a NPR interview you talk about a “drive to fail,” the idea of pushing ourselves well beyond our limits, and then studying the part that wasn’t quite working and trying to figure out how to improve it. Any advice on how to incorporate this philosophy into our lives?
You’re asking great questions, but there’s no soundbite answer. Read my book (I’m not scrounging for sales — borrow it!), learn about the developmental mindset, learn about what’s actually behind great success. The great lesson is that when I fail at something (which I do all the time), that is an insight into a skill (or set of skills) that I don’t yet have. It’s not a message that I can never hope to succeed because I was born without some mysterious talent. The more we learn about achievements, the more we understand them as the result of knowledge, insight, resources, practice, determination, and a lot of time. Success comes from a process, not from a lucky talent.
Is there anything else that you would like people to know?
I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. I’d love to know what people think of either one of these books if they get a chance to read them.
Some additional chess facts.
Magnus Carlsen and Bill Gates

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen playing second wealthiest person according to Forbes Microsoft Co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates.

According to studies:

  • Chess boosts brain power in kids.
  • Chess improves IQ.
  • Chess enhances arithmetical skills.
  • Chess hones verbal skills.
  • Chess sharpens critical thinking skills.
  • Chess boosts emotional intelligence and psycho-social skills.

Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, Will Smith, Bono, and Madonna were or are avid chess players. Tennis legend and six-time Grand Slam singles champion Boris Becker said:

“I used to prepare for my tennis matches by playing chess, and it would get my mind stimulated and focused before going on court. It was essentially a mental warm-up.”

According to a ChessBase article, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama all played chess. While George Bush (43), George Bush (41), Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon did not play chess.

President Obama and Family Chess

President Obama with Malia, right, with Sasha in the First Lady’s lap.

In an interview with The Harvard Business Review, former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov said:

There is nothing cute or charming about chess; it is a violent sport, and when you confront your opponent you set out to crush his ego. The world chess masters with whom I have competed over the years nearly all share my belief that chess is a battleground on which the enemy has to be vanquished. This is what it means to be a chess player, and I cannot imagine that it is very different from what it takes to be a top-ranked CEO.

Bill Clinton and Gary Kasparov

Bill Clinton played for the Georgetown University chess team in 1968. He met with Garry Kasparov and was a keen supporter of the Chess in Schools program.

At the ages of 13 Demis Hassabis reached the rank of chess master, and was the second-highest-rated player in the world under 14 at the time. Hassabis received his PhD in cognitive neuroscience from University College London in 2009. On January 27, 2014, DeepMind founded by Hassabis was acquired by Google for about $500 million – the company’s largest European acquisition – in order to add technology and talent to Google’s core business of search.

Demis Hassabis

Chess prodigy Demis Hassabis is the co-founder of DeepMind which was acquired by Google for ~$500 million.

In approximately 30 nations across the globe, including Brazil, China, Venezuela, Italy, Israel, Russia and Greece, etc., chess is incorporated into the country’s scholastic curriculum. Just as athletics are a part of the required agenda at schools in the United States, Chess has been that way in the European Nations abroad. On March 13th, 2012 the European Parliament endorsed the ‘Chess in European schools’ program.


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