The Immortal Game

A History of Chess
Narrated by: John H. Mayer
Length: 8 hrs and 5 mins
Categories: History, World
4.3 out of 5 stars (156 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A surprising, charming, and ever-fascinating history of the seemingly simple game that has had a profound effect on societies the world over. 

Why has one game, alone among the thousands of games invented and played throughout human history, not only survived but thrived within every culture it has touched? What is it about its 32 figurative pieces, moving about its 64 black and white squares according to very simple rules, that has captivated people for nearly 1,500 years? Why has it driven some of its greatest players into paranoia and madness, and yet is hailed as a remarkably powerful educational tool? 

Nearly everyone has played chess at some point in their lives. Its rules and pieces have served as a metaphor for society including military strategy, mathematics, artificial intelligence, literature, and the arts. It has been condemned as the devil’s game by popes, rabbis, and imams, and lauded as a guide to proper living by different popes, rabbis, and imams. 

In his wide-ranging and ever fascinating examination of chess, David Shenk gleefully unearths the hidden history of a game that seems so simple yet contains infinity. From its invention somewhere in India around 500 A.D., to its enthusiastic adoption by the Persians and its spread by Islamic warriors, to its remarkable use as a moral guide in the Middle Ages and its political utility in the Enlightenment, to its crucial importance in the birth of cognitive science and its key role in the new aesthetic of modernism in 20th century art, to its 21st century importance to the development of artificial intelligence and use as a teaching tool in inner-city America, chess has been a remarkably omnipresent factor in the development of civilization. 

Indeed as Shenk shows, some neuroscientists believe that playing chess may actually alter the structure of the brain, that it may for individuals be what it has been for civilization: a virus that makes us smarter. 

©2006 David Shenk (P)2006 Books on Tape

Critic Reviews

"Those curious about chess and wishing to learn more about the game (but not too much more) will welcome this accessible, nontechnical introduction." (Publishers Weekly)

"I loved this book. Full of burning enthusiasm for the greatest intellectual game in the world, it shows just what can happen when an accomplished author, full of fire and passion, tackles a most wonderful and intricate story. Like a great chess game, this is an achievement that will be talked about for many years to come." (Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman)

“Even dedicated players will find much to learn here.” (Chicago Sun-Times

What listeners say about The Immortal Game

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Buy in print

A key element of this book is the chess boards that start each section and are scattered about. If you play, but a version where you can see the board. The Kindle version is great.

4 people found this helpful

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Patzer's Review

Where does The Immortal Game rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Near the top.

Who was your favorite character and why?

The grandmasters who went nuts. Does chess make them nuts or do they have a predisposition?

Which character – as performed by John H. Mayer – was your favorite?

The Persian King who ignored his immanent doom to enjoy one last chess game with his favorite eunuch.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No, but I liked it a lot.

3 people found this helpful

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a must-read for all chess lovers

if you love chess, you will love this book. the book's layout weaves together chapters addressing the moves in the casual (e.g., non-tournament) 1851 match between adolf anderssen and lionel kieseritzky (later dubbed "the immortal game") with chapters about the history of chess.

the immortal game's annotations are all over the internet, but to hear the match described in audiobook form brought it to life in a way that dry annotations cannot.

how can you not enjoy a match where someone gives up a bishop *both* rooks AND the queen to earn checkmate against an opponent who has only lost three measly pawns??

ok, ok...you will probably want to have a passing interest in chess before trying this book, but if you do have such an interest, listen in to one of the greatest chess stories out there.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Jt
  • 02-26-07

Delightful surprise

This book was indeed a delightful surprise. Not the dry recitation of moves or tactics, but rather a fun overview of the history and impact of the game on the world. There are some specific recitations of a specific historic game or two, but after evey few moves, the narrative continues. Ben Franklin, Freud, Queen Isabella, and many more are all connected by this tale.

2 people found this helpful

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just excellent,well written, very entertaining

just loved it, great style, great story, great gems of information, if you love chess you will love this book

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Most enjoyable

1400 years of chess highlights, and I'm not talking about old games and this move and that move, although there is some of that as well. Narrator was very pleasant to listen to. Definitely worth time spent with it.

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Great stories, meh chess

The Immortal Game is less a comprehensive history of chess, and more a hodgepodge of chess stories throughout the ages. It is nonetheless interesting and entertaining, if occasionally scattered. The book is structured around one of the most famous chess matches ever played, along with accompanying analysis. Audible listeners will find it difficult to follow the game without referencing the diagrams in the book, rendering the already shallow analysis skipable. This is not to detract from the rest of the book however. The pages not spent painfully explaining chess are used to tell engaging stories about it's history. Chess lovers will find a lot to like in this book if they are willing to look past the actual chess.

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Long and detailed

If your a fan of chess I think you'll get a kick out of this book. However if you are not than I believe a shorter summary would suffice. The book was a little long and a little too detailed, but had some very interesting information. The language was flowery and the information was thoroughly detailed to a point of exhaustion. I think if I were to suggest it to anyone I'd probably pick out a few chapters for them to read and not the entire book.

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Life changing and interesting look at Chess.

This book begins in the 6th century when chess "originated" and accounts for its tricky historic past in great detail. I loved this book and it made me love chess.

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Great history

Great history of chess. The story about chess in the schools was also very interesting.

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  • papapownall
  • 05-14-19

Excellent story of the power of chess

You would imagine that an audio book about chess is not easy to either devise or listen to. I thought that too until I downloaded The Immortal Game. I have returned to chess recently after playing the game in my youth. I have never been that good but have always loved playing. I wanted to find more about the history of the game and my interest was piqued when I saw this. I was amazed to hear how far back it actually goes (over 1,000 years) and that most of the great world leaders and thinkers have played to varying degrees of success. It is astonishing to think that today we can study games that happened hundreds of years ago and analyse the moves and the thought processes of the great players. The story is told against the backdrop of what is known as the "Immortal Game" which occurred in London played by Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky on 21 June 1851. It was not even part of a major tournament but it has been studied over the ages and shows that victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat by strategic thinking and outwitting your opponent by placing them in a false sense of security about their position on the board. The book also tells of the destructive power of chess and how it has enveloped the minds of several high profile players such as Bobby Fischer and serves as a cautionary tale to those who become too absorbed in the game. The power of chess, it seems, has a dark side.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 03-31-09

An enjoyable trip through chess history

Be warned, this is a book for anyone interested in chess history and not a book for anyone looking to improve their game play. As an amateur chess player, I really enjoyed it thoroughly and appreciated the authors gradual explanation of chess history and anecdotes, which are clearly aimed at the novice or uninitiated. I also enjoyed the way the book unfolds through the playing of an 'immortal' game of chess. A well written and well produced audio book for anyone interested in the story behind the game.