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Birth of the Chess Queen

by Marilyn Yalom

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Birth of the Chess Queen
It's easy to forget how much our favorite games have evolved over time. Everyone knows that football was revolutionized by the forward pass, but few of us can even imagine what a game without it must have been like. Many of us have grown up with the designated hitter and don't reflexively cringe at its use. In fact I still find the concept of pitchers hitting as rather comical. The 3-point shot in professional basketball is still a relatively new concept, but one that has become second nature to even casual fans. All of these changes were made in a conscious effort to improve the excitement of the game for the fan and the related economic impacts. It's hard to imagine a game changing for political and social reasons. For example, if golf had developed the lowest score wins rule because of the influence of the protestant work ethic against wasting time in leisure endeavors. However, the history of chess is filled with examples of how the game has morphed itself to fit the cultural and political needs of the societies in which it is played. Marilyn Yalom's Birth of the Chess Queen describes how far chess has come from its Indian origins and how much those changes were effected by the growth of feminine power.

Chess was born in India in the 6th century and quickly traveled to the Arab world. With origins in societies where polygamy was common and Christianity rare, the characters on the board were much more true to the war simulation the game represented. Today's bishop was originally an elephant which may not seem that far fetched a transformation in the new age of Republican moral values. The chess queen began life as a male counsel to the king called a "vizier." A transgender metamorphosis likely to displease the elephant and the bishop both.

The earliest manuscripts place the chess queen on the board in the 10th century. She played a much weaker role and was only allowed to move one square at a time and only on the diagonal. Even in this submissive state the chess queen's arrival represented the increasing influence of the queen in European society. Yalom traces the Birth of the Chess Queen to the ruling periods of Empress Adelaide and Empress Theophano of the Holy Roman Empire. A combative mother and daughter-in-law who wielded independent power during the times of their husbands' rule and after their husbands' deaths.

If Adelaide and Theophano were unique as examples of feminine power, then it is unlikely that the chess queen would have been anything but a short-lived derivative of classic chess. In one of the more intriguing aspects of the book, Yalom details how common powerful queens were throughout medieval Europe. While most of our high school history texts make only passing mention of a few well known queens, Yalom provides insight into the lives of queens from Scandinavia, Spain, Italy, Germany, England, France, and kingdoms long forgotten. Women who proved that power can bring equality even in an age when most women lacked basic freedoms. Margaret of Denmark was able to achieve the Nordic dream of a united Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under one ruler. Matilda of Tuscany rode at the head of her troops to come to the aide of Pope Gregory VII.

The modern powerful chess queen is believed to be modeled after Queen Isabella of Spain who ruled along side her husband King Ferdinand. Isabella is known for her achievements in uniting Spain and transforming it into an international power. However, she is also remembered for instituting the Spanish inquisition and the oppression of Jews and Muslims in Spain. This combination of strategic genius and cold hearted destruction led to the dominating power of the chess queen in modern chess which was first known as "Queen's" chess.

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