The Immortal Game

The Immortal Game by David Shenk Read Free Book Online

Book: The Immortal Game by David Shenk Read Free Book Online
Authors: David Shenk
all. I hoped that one day it would just come to me.

    (Black King’s Pawn captures White Pawn on f4)

    Sacrifice accepted. Kieseritzky (Black), in his response, elected to play the King’s Gambit Accepted by capturing the White Pawn. (When a player ignores this particular gambit and moves another piece instead, the opening is known as the King’s Gambit Declined.)
    Already, Kieseritzky was up by one Pawn. A lost Pawn may not seem like much to the chess outsider, but later on in the game it can easily become the difference between night and day, crushing defeat and glorious victory—partly due to the Pawn’s ability to defend other pieces, and partly because of the Pawn’s potential to be promoted to Queen if it reaches the last rank. No serious player ever gives up a Pawn lightly.
    On the other hand, because Black accepted the gambit and took the Pawn, White now had uncontested control of the center of the board. Such control is critical (I eventually learned) because it establishes which army will have the freest movement from one side of the board to the other. Kieseritzky undoubtedly knew he would have to fight back for the control he’d just willingly given up. At the moment, though, he thought the extra Pawn was worth the risk.

D ESPITE APPEARANCES TO THE CONTRARY, the rolling, uneven dunes on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, about fifty miles west of the Scottish mainland, are not ancient burial mounds. They’re natural formations, configured over thousands of years by the shifting water table and the terrific sea winds howling off the Atlantic.
    But the dunes do have their powerful secrets, as an unsuspecting island peasant learned one day in the spring of 1831. At the base of a fifteen-foot sandbank near the south shore of the Bay of Uig, the interior was somehow exposed, and with it a nearly seven-hundred-year-old crypt. Our unwitting archaeologist stumbled into an ancient and cramped drystone room, six feet or so long and shaped like a beehive, with ashes strewn on the floor. The tiny room was filled, impossibly, with dozens of shrunken
: tiny lifelike statuettes, three to four and a half inches high, some stained beet-red and the rest left a natural off-white. The long hair, contoured faces, and proportionate bodies were eerily vivid, even animated, with wide-eyed, expectant expressions, battle-ready stances, and a full complement of medieval combat equipment and apparel. Hand-carved from walrus tusk and whale teeth, they wore tiny crowns, mitres, and helmets; held miniature swords, shields, spears, and bishop’s crosiers; some rode warhorses.
    They were chess pieces, a total of seventy-eight figurines comprising four not-quite-complete sets:
    eight Kings (complete)
    eight Queens (complete)
    sixteen Bishops (complete)
    fifteen Knights (one missing)
    twelve Warders (as Rooks, four missing)
    nineteen Pawns (forty-five missing)
    No one living at the time had ever seen anything like them. The ornamentation had a medieval gothic quality that lent the pieces an ancient and even mythic aura. Experts pronounced them Scandinavian, probably mid-twelfth century, probably carved near the Norwegian capital Trondheim some seven hundred miles away by sea, where a drawing of a strikingly similar chess Queen was later discovered. Norway was a long way off, but the link did make historical sense. The Isle of Lewis had been politically subject to the Kingdom of Norway up to 1266, and the local bishop held allegiance to the powerful Archbishop of Trondheim.
    These weren’t nearly the oldest chessmen discovered—1150 put them somewhere in the middle of the chess chronology. But their abundance, origins, artistry, and superb condition made them among the most important cache of ancient pieces yet found. The modestly endowed Society of Antiquaries of Scotland tried immediately to buy them for display in Edinburgh, but before they could raise the funds, bigger fish

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