In a wide-ranging examination of chess, David Shenk uncovers the hidden history of a game that was invented in India around 500 A.D. and seems more popular than ever today.
From its enthusiastic adoption by the Persians and its spread by Islamic warriors, 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 omnipresent factor in the development of civilization.
Research shows that brain is much like the body -- it needs continual activity to remain strong and supple and fight off the predations of old age.
And researchers have determined that chess is uniquely well-suited to "exercising" the brain. It is simple to play, but offers nearly limitless variation.
It requires memory, problem-solving skills, abstract thought, and creativity. And it turns out that the people who play it regularly in their older years -- along with related activities like crossword puzzles -- are less likely to develop Alzheimer's and related conditions.
Here is an excerpt from Shenk's "The Immortal Game":
Large rocks, severed heads, and flaming pots of oil rained down on Baghdad, capital of the vast Islamic Empire, as its weary defenders scrambled to reinforce gates, ditches, and the massive stone walls surrounding the fortress city's many brick and teak palaces. Giant wooden manjaniq catapults bombarded distant structures while the smaller, more precise arradah catapult guns pelted individuals with grapefruit-sized rocks. Arrows flew thickly and elite horsemen assaulted footmen with swords and spears. "The horses ... trample the livers of courageous young men," lamented the poet al-Khuraymi, "and their hooves split their skulls." Outside the circular city's main wall--100 feet high, 145 feet thick, and six miles in circumference--soldiers pressed forward with battering rams while other squads choked off supply lines of food and reinforcements. Amid sinking boats and burning rafts, bodies drifted down the Tigris River.
The impenetrable "City of Peace" was crumbling. In the fifty years since its creation in A.D. 762, young Baghdad had rivaled Constantinople and Rome in its prestige and influence. It was a wildly fertile axis of art, science, and religion, and a bustling commercial hub for trade routes reaching deep into Central Asia, Africa, and Europe. But by the late summer of A.D. 813, after nearly two years of civil war (between brothers, no less), the enlightened Islamic capital was a smoldering, starving, bloody heap.
In the face of disorder, any human being desperately needs order--some way to manage, if not the material world, at least one's understanding of the world. In that light, perhaps it's no real surprise that, as the stones and arrows and horses' hooves thundered down on Baghdad, the protected core of the city hosted a different sort of battle. Within the round city's imperial inner sanctum, secure behind three thick, circular walls and many layers of gate and guard, under the luminescent green dome of the Golden Gate Palace, Muhammad al-Amin, the sixth caliph of the Abbasid Empire, spiritual descendant of (and distant blood relation to) the Prophet Muhammad, sovereign of one of the largest dominions in the history of the world, was playing chess against his favorite eunuch Kauthar.