The New York Times
Birth of the Chess Queen: A Historyby Marilyn Yalom
Everyone knows that the queen is the most powerful piece in chess, but few people know that the game existed for five hundred years without her. In India, Persia, and the Arab lands, where the game was first played, a general, or vizier (chief counselor to the king), occupied the square where the queen now stands. Not until the year 1000, two hundred years after Arab conquerors brought chess to southern Europe, did a chess queen appear on the board. Initially she was the weakest piece, moving only one square at a time on the diagonal, yet by 1497, during the reign of Isabella of Castile, the chess queen had become the formidable force she is today.
How and why did this transformation take place? Birth of the Chess Queen examines the five-hundred-year period between the chess queen's timid emergence and her elevation into the game's mightiest piece. Marilyn Yalom, inspired by a handful of surviving medieval chess queens, traces their origin and spread from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and England to Scandinavia and Russia. In a lively and engaging narrative, Yalom draws parallels between the birth of the chess queen and the ascent of female sovereigns in Europe, presenting a layered, fascinating history of medieval courts, with their intrigues and internal struggles for power. Further, she shows the connection between the chess queen, the cult of the Virgin Mary, and the cult of Romantic Love, all of which influenced European society for centuries to come. Illustrated with beautiful art throughout, this book takes a fresh look at the politics and culture of medieval Europe, the institution of queenship, and the reflections of royal power in the figure of the chess queen.
The New York Times
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Read an Excerpt
Birth of the Chess QueenA History
By Marilyn Yalom
Chapter OneChess before the Chess Queen
Though historians still debate the exact origins of chess, most agree that it emerged in India no later than the sixth century. In Sanskrit, the game was called chaturanga, meaning "four members," which referred to the four parts of the Indian army: chariots, elephants, cavalry, and infantry. This fourfold division, plus the king and his general, provided the basic pieces of the game, first in India and then throughout the world.
Chess in Persian Literature
The first definite literary reference to chess comes not from India but from Persia. In an ancient romance called Karnamak, written around 600 in Pahlavi (the writing system of Persia before the advent of Islam), chess already commanded the great esteem it would hold for centuries to come. The Persians took from the Indians the essentials of the game - the six different figures, the board with sixty-four squares - and rebaptized the pieces with Persian names. This new nomenclature was to have enduring significance far beyond the East, for shah, the Persian word for "king," ultimately served as the name of the game in several European languages by way of the Latin scacchus: scacchi in Italian, Schach in German, échecs in French, and chess in English, among others.
The Persian epic Book of Kings (Shah-nameh), written by the great poet Firdausi (c. 935-1020), gives an amusing account of how chess made its way from India to Persia. As the story goes, in the sixth century the raja of India sent the shah a chess set made of ivory and teak, telling him only that the game was "an emblem of the art of war," and challenging the shah's wise men to figure out the moves of the individual pieces. Of course, to the credit of the Persians (this being a Persian story), one of them was able to complete this seemingly impossible assignment. The shah then bettered the raja by rapidly inventing the game of "nard" (a predecessor of backgammon), which he sent back to India with the same challenge. Despite its simplicity relative to chess, the intricacies of nard stumped the raja's men. This intellectual gambling proved to be extremely costly for the raja, who was obliged to pay a heavy toll: two thousand camels carrying "Gold, camphor, ambergris, and aloe-wood,/As well as raiment, silver, pearls, and gems,/With one year's tribute, and dispatched it all/From his court to the portal of the Shah."
Another story in the Shah-nameh tells how chess was originally invented. In this tale, an Indian queen was distraught over the enmity between her two sons, Talhand and Gav, half brothers with respective claims to the throne. When she heard that Talhand had died in warfare, she had every reason to think Gav had killed him. The sages of the kingdom, the tale has it, developed the chessboard to recreate the battle, and show the queen clearly that Talhand had died of battle fatigue, rather than at his brother's hands. The Persian term shah mat, used in this episode, eventually came down to us as "check mate," which literally means "the king was dumbfounded," though it is often translated as "the king died."
The Shah-nameh version of the birth of chess vied with another popular legend in which a man named Sissa ibn Dahir invented the game for an Indian king, who admired it so much that he had chessboards placed in all the Hindu temples. Wishing to reward Sissa, the king told him to ask for anything he desired. Sissa replied, "Then I wish that one grain of wheat shall be put on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second, and that the number of grains shall be doubled until the last square is reached: whatever the quantity this might be, I desire to receive it." When the king realized that all the wheat in the world would not suffice (263 pieces of grain), he commended Sissa for formulating such a wish and pronounced it even more clever than his invention of chess.
While no Indian or Persian chess pieces have survived from this early period, later pictures of Indian and Persian men playing chess give us an idea of what a match must have looked like. Usually, the chessboard is a white cloth divided by vertical and horizontal lines. The illustration included here, found in a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Shah-nameh, depicts a Persian noble playing with an envoy of the Indian raja.
Chess in Muslim Theology
In 638, six years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, Arab conquerors under the leadership of Caliph Omari overran Persia to spread the gospel of Islam. (A caliph is the supreme ruler of the Muslim community in both religious and secular matters.) As they moved on, they brought chess with them, spreading the game to such far-flung destinations as Spain (conquered in 711) and Northern India (1026). Arabic became the dominant language in many of these conquered lands, and some of the chess pieces took on Arabic names (al-fil for elephant, baidak for pawn, and firzan, firz, or ferz for the general or vizier), while others retained their Persian labels (shah for king, rukh for rook, asp for horse).
While the Muslims were clearly enthralled with the game, chess sets with pieces resembling humans and animals appeared suspect to them, probably because of a passage in the Koran that reads: "Believers, wine and games of chance, idols and divining arrows, are abominations devised by Satan. Avoid them, so that you may prosper." Sunni Muslim theologians took this ban on "idols" to include all representations of humans and animals, in forms as diverse as painting, sculpture, and chess pieces. In contrast, Shi'ite Muslims gave this a narrower interpretation, limiting the meaning to religious idols ...
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Meet the Author
Marilyn Yalom is a former professor of French and a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She is the author of widely acclaimed books such as A History of the Breast, A History of the Wife, Birth of the Chess Queen, and, most recently, How the French Invented Love. She lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband, psychiatrist and author Irvin D. Yalom.
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Fudge suckle junior! This is great, please continue!
Scattered throughout with intriguing tales of chess¿ early days, this book, as implied by its title, follows the enigmatic chess queen from her humble beginnings as the weakest piece on the board to her present-day domination. As the queen was initially absent from the game, the author describes some of the powerful queens that may have inspired her entrance to the game. Powerful and majestic, these queens make for good reading. The author also takes great pains to describe the ancient chess pieces that were the inspiration for the book, and includes many wonderful pictures. This book was an eye-opener chess has not always been the tame pastime that it is now, but a hazardous diversion in years past. Matches were often heated, and occasionally resulted in murder. Condemned by various churches several times, it nevertheless flourished. It was seen as a courting ritual, a metaphor for love. ¿Imagine putting [a chess scene] on a Valentine today instead of hearts or cupids!¿ Chess queens were also compared to the Virgin Mary. Meant to honor the Holy Mother, this comparison opened wider the door for our chess queen and her real-life counterparts. ¿If the Holy Virgin could rein over the heavens, why shouldn¿t queens rein on earth? It was an analogy female sovereigns used to shore up their authority.¿ I found this book fascinating. It was a good book to branch out with. It was a little slow at some parts, but for the most part the author did a wonderful job combining interesting tales with historical facts. I would recommend this book to anyone that enjoys history even a little, and definitely anyone interested in chess.
This book is rather interesting from the prospective of a woman who feels that Woman's liberation and chess have something in common! From a historical perspective every woman should own a copy of this book. From a chess prospective (I am a woman who likes chess) the author is not much a player but a historian with an attitude! A bit fun! Woman rule is the tone!