Cover image for Birth of the chess queen : a history
Birth of the chess queen : a history
Yalom, Marilyn.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harper Collins Publishers, [2004]

Physical Description:
xxiii, 272 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GV1451.5.Q43 Y35 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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.

Author Notes

Marilyn Yalom is a senior scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender at Stanford University

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

How did a game that originated in India in the sixth century evolve to feature a game piece that now has iconic stature in modern Western culture? Both chess fans and those unfamiliar with the game will enjoy this absorbing look at the evolution of chess and the rise in power and stature of the chess queen in the last 500 years. Yalom ( A History of the Breast, 1997) explores how chess evolved from a game of war to a romantic pastime and a domestic ritual, eventually becoming thoroughly masculinized when it moved from the private home into the public domains. Chess figured prominently in culture and literature in India, Persia, Arab lands, and eventually throughout Europe, as the pieces evolved from abstract figures to viziers and elephants and eventually to queens and bishops. Yalom highlights the influences of historical women, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Isabella, Catherine de' Medici, and Elizabeth I, on the growing power and stature of the chess queen as she evolved into the most powerful piece on the board. --Vanessa Bush Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

After A History of the Wife and other books on women, Yalom takes on an inanimate but very powerful female figure. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from Birth of the Chess Queen: A History by Marilyn Yalom All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Introductionp. xvii
Selected Rulers of the Periodp. xxv
Part 1 The Mystery of the Chess Queen's Birth
1 Chess Before the Chess Queenp. 3
2 Enter the Queen!p. 15
3 The Chess Queen Shows Her Facep. 31
Part 2 Spain, Italy, and Germany
4 Chess and Queenship in Christian Spainp. 43
5 Chess Moralities in Italy and Germanyp. 67
Part 3 France and England
6 Chess Goes to France and Englandp. 83
7 Chess and the Cult of the Virgin Maryp. 107
8 Chess and the Cult of Lovep. 123
Part 4 Scandinavia and Russia
9 Nordic Queens, On and Off the Boardp. 151
10 Chess and Women in Old Russiap. 173
Part 5 Power to the Queen
11 New Chess and Isabella of Castilep. 191
12 The Rise of "Queen's Chess"p. 213
13 The Decline of Women Playersp. 227
Epiloguep. 237
Notesp. 243
Indexp. 257