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Birth of the Chess Queen: A History

Birth of the Chess Queen: A History

3.4 5
by Marilyn Yalom

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Everyone knows that the queen is the most dominant piece in chess, but few people know that the game existed for five hundred years without her. It wasn't until chess became a popular pastime for European royals during the Middle Ages that the queen was born and was gradually empowered to become the king's fierce warrior and protector.

Birth of the Chess


Everyone knows that the queen is the most dominant piece in chess, but few people know that the game existed for five hundred years without her. It wasn't until chess became a popular pastime for European royals during the Middle Ages that the queen was born and was gradually empowered to become the king's fierce warrior and protector.

Birth of the Chess Queen examines the five centuries between the chess queen's timid emergence in the early days of the Holy Roman Empire to her elevation during the reign of Isabel of Castile. Marilyn Yalom, inspired by a handful of surviving medieval chess queens, traces their origin and spread from Spain, Italy, and Germany to France, England, Scandinavia, and Russia. In a lively and engaging historical investigation, Yalom draws parallels between the rise of the chess queen and the ascent of female sovereigns in Europe, presenting a layered, fascinating history of medieval courts and internal struggles for power.

Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times Book Review
“An enticing portal into the past…. Yalom writes passionately and accessibly about this esoteric topic.”
The Economist
“A well-researched and enjoyable book.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Marilyn Yalom has written the rare book that illuminates something that always has been dimly perceived but never articulated.”
Liesl Schillinger
Yalom's entertaining (and credible) contention is that the booting of the vizier and the coronation of the queen are linked to the rising status of women in medieval Europe: ''The miraculous Virgin, the chess queen and the beloved lady grew up together and reinforced one another,'' she explains, referring to the cult of the Virgin Mary and the tradition of courtly love. Also crucial, Yalom believes, was the example of medieval warrior queens, who made a chessboard without a queen seem as incomplete as a Ferrari without an engine.
The New York Times
The New Yorker
Chess was invented in India in the fifth century and was spread by Islamic conquests to Europe, where the piece known as the vizier became the queen—the only female in the all-male club of chess pieces. Yalom makes a credible, though circumstantial, case that this rise reflects the power intermittently accorded to, or seized by, female European monarchs. It was in the late tenth century, during the regency of Empress Adelaide, that the vizier underwent his sex change. Five hundred years later, in Queen Isabella’s Spain, the queen was transformed from a timid lady mincing one diagonal step at a time into what one shocked Italian bishop called a “bellicose virago.” But there’s a sting at the end of this feminist historical fable: the queen’s supremacy made the game so much faster and more competitive that it was considered unsuitable for upper-class women.
Publishers Weekly
A senior scholar at Stanford's Institute for Women and Gender who has written extensively on women's history, Yalom (A History of the Wife; etc.) sees the rise of female power throughout the centuries reflected in the history of the chess queen: "She has entered the academy of gendered icons, alongside the Earth Mother, the Amazon, and the Virgin Mary." For 500 years, chess was played in India, Persia and the Arab world minus a queen; she finally made her entrance in southern Europe around A.D. 1000. Drawing parallels between "symbolic queens on the chessboard and living queens at numerous royal courts," Yalom introduces readers to significant queens, empresses and countesses as she traces the spread of chess across Europe. With anecdotes, art, legends and literature, she shows how the chess queen became "the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world." Yalom offers an outstanding glimpse at chess as a courting ritual: "The chess queen and the cult of love grew up together and formed a symbiotic relationship, each feeding on the other." She also addresses the current status of female chess players-only 5% of the world's chess players are women-and wonders if "the best female players [will] ever be able to beat the best male players." Combining exhaustive research with a deep knowledge of women's history, Yalom presents an entertaining and enlightening survey that offers a new perspective on an ancient game. B&w illus. Agent, Sandra Dijkstra. (On sale Apr. 28) Forecast: Chess enthusiasts and women's studies scholars will flock to this title. Booksellers might display it next to The Queen's Gambit (1983), Walter Tevis's recently reissued novel about a female chess champ. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
After A History of the Wife and other books on women, Yalom takes on an inanimate but very powerful female figure. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Some tenuous speculations about the co-emergence of powerful political women and the most puissant piece on the chessboard. Feminist historian Yalom (A History of the Wife, 2001, etc.) first became intrigued by this subject in 1998, when she saw a 14th-century chess queen carved in the shape of a nursing Madonna. (Later, she discovers it's only a "minuscule possibility" that the carving was a game piece.) How did the queen come to be the most powerful of all? Her question sent her to archives, libraries, and chess authorities all over the world. The result mingles a brief history of chess from its birth in fifth-century India to its 20th-century adult ubiquity with a quick study of gender relations through the ages and slim biographies of powerful women in Asia and Europe whose eminence may have been so profound as to effect the evolution of the chess queen from stay-at-home spouse to aggressive warrior. Yalom provides fine photographs of the oldest queens in captivity, showing how the piece has acquired both stature and individuality (few extant pieces from before 1200 have faces). The author also notes how various religious authorities have attempted-and generally failed-to control chess, especially in its early years when lost games sometimes resulted in lost lives as angry players segued smoothly from vicarious to actual combat. (Betting also annoyed religious leaders, who wanted any loose cash to flow their way.) Yalom makes an appealing case, especially in her association of the game with the courtly love tradition and the cult of the Virgin Mary. But in the end she is stuck with what remote history often leaves us: attractive correlations but no smoking causative guns. Oftenenlightening, but approaches daffiness when the epilogue invites us to place the chess queen alongside the Amazon, the Earth Mother, and the Virgin Mary, or to consider Hilary Rodham Clinton as a chess-queen incarnate. (b&w photos throughout; 13 color plates not seen)Agent: Sandra Dijkstra/Sandra Dijkstra Agency
“Both chess fans and those unfamiliar with the game will enjoy this absorbing look at the evolution of chess.”

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Birth of the Chess Queen
A History

Chapter One

Chess 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 anenvoy 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 ...

Birth of the Chess Queen
A History
. Copyright © by Marilyn Yalom. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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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Birth of the Chess Queen: A History 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fudge suckle junior! This is great, please continue!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!