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How a royal changed the game

Birth of the Chess Queen: A History; Marilyn Yalom; HarperCollins: 276 pp., $24.95

April 25, 2004|Jennifer Shahade | Jennifer Shahade, a chess master and 2002 U.S. Women's champion, is the author of a forthcoming book on women in the male-dominated world of chess.

When dopey spy comedian Austin Powers sits down to play chess with a buxom, barely clad opponent in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," the competition quickly turns to foreplay, with chess pieces used as props. This is meant to be funny -- what could be more removed from sex than chess, with its reputation as an activity dominated by stodgy males? In medieval Europe such an erotic scene would not have seemed so farfetched. It was commonplace for women and men to play chess in equal numbers, and the game was often a legitimate courtship activity for young lovers. Chess illustrations in old troubadour texts were code for intimacy -- chess pornography.

"The queen sent out vibrations that sexualized the playing field," writes Marilyn Yalom in "Birth of the Chess Queen: A History," in which she unravels the history of the game's most powerful piece. The queen did not even exist in the game's earliest ancestor, India's chatarunga. The queen replaced the vizier, a male messenger to the king, when Persian traders brought chess to Europe.

Yalom, author of cultural histories of the breast and the wife, writes passionately and accessibly about this esoteric topic. She follows the chess queen's appearance and development, twining together royal history and chess history. She argues that the real queens of European history paved the way for their board game equivalents and tracks actual and chess queens on a whirlwind tour of Europe, from Iceland to Russia. Along the way, she writes capsule biographies of Toda of Navarre, Isabella of Castile and Elizabeth I of England.

Like the vizier, the original queen could only move diagonally, one square at a time. Her short, crooked movements were seen as a symbolic sin, morally inferior to the straight movements of rooks and kings. As one medieval commentator wrote: "[Her] move is aslant only, because women are so greedy that they will take nothing except by rapine and injustice." Toward the end of the 15th century, during the reign of Queen Isabella, the chess queen's mobility multiplied, making her the most powerful piece on the board. There are three major ways of understanding the drastic change. Chess players might argue that the rules were adopted to make the game itself more perfect, a better blend of tactics and strategy. In this view, the queen, the weakest piece on the medieval board, may have been singled out because she was the quickest route to radically changing the game's pace. Another interpretation is that modern chess, the rules of which have not substantially changed since 1500, was just one of several viable forms. According to this theory, the game could easily have solidified in a different way, perhaps with super-knights or power-rooks.

Yalom prefers a third interpretation: that chess' evolution reflected the society in which it was played and that the queen's development mirrored the awesome status of a handful of female monarchs. Entranced by the poetic synchronicity between the rise of the chess queen and Queen Isabella, she writes, "A militant queen more powerful than her husband had arisen in Castile; why not on the chessboard as well?" Later, she wonders whether medieval chess players "unconsciously redesigned the queen on the model of the all-powerful Isabella."

Since there is no direct evidence for why and how the chess queen's powers changed, it may be too much to assert that she was destined to follow that exact trajectory. Yalom is content to set the context for the change, describing the popularity of chess in medieval Spain and the public persona of Isabella, and showing how the movements of today's powerful chess queen were first described in a Catalan poem called "Love Chess." Still, how the queen was empowered remains a mystery, and whether it happened by chance, was meant to model social realities or was intended to improve the game is as much a philosophical debate as a historical one.

When the chess queen was endowed with the ability to swoop across the board and grab pieces, the revised game was called not chess of the super-queen or the power-queen but the "mad-woman's chess game," in both Italy and Spain. The queen was seen as hysterically aggressive. "[F]emale power," writes Yalom, was "a bitter pill for many to swallow."

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