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Saturday, October 22, 2011

the birth of the queen of chess

Birth of the Chess Queen: A History - by Marilyn Yalom - HarperCollins, 2004
Reviewed by Rick Kennedy

I can summarize Yalom’s Birth of the Chess Queen: 
a) the game of chess we play today has evolved from an earlier game with different rules and pieces; 
b) over time, the eleventh through fifteenth centuries, the Vizier, or advisor to the King, was replaced in Europe by the Queen, which then further morphed from the weakest piece on the board to the strongest one; and c) the transformation of the chess Queen paralleled the rise of various powerful real-life queens.
For many readers, the first part of the tale will be familiar.
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.
As people and armies moved in conquest across lands, the game of chess followed.  As people adapted and adopted the ways of new cultures, so did chess.
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, via Latin.
As the Muslims expanded their empire, in the seventh through eleventh centuries, again, chess traveled with them.
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, fri or ferz for the general or vizier) while others retained their Persian labels (shah for king, rukh for rook, asp for horse).
The stage is set for the entrance of Her Majesty:
We have seen how the chess queen appeared around the year 1000 as a European replacement for the Arabic vizier, taking over his slow, one-step-at-a-time diagonal gait.  Despite slight regional differences, this is the pace she maintained throughout the Middle Ages.
Almost as dramatic as the modern-day pawn being promoted, upon reaching the 8th rank, and changing into a modern-day queen, (although not as instantaneously), over the years the old style queen grew in power and mobility.  Why?  Here we have the crux of Yalom’s thesis:
Yet, from the twelfth century onward, she seems to have acquired special value, far beyond her limited mobility on the board…The heightened authority invested in queenship during the course of the Middle Ages spilled over to the little queen on the board and paved the way for her to become the game’s mightiest piece...It should not surprise us that the queen’s official transformation into the strongest piece on the board coincided with the reign of Isabella of Castile (1451-1504).
From the quotes I have presented, you can see that Birth of the Chess Queen is an accessible work, not the stereotyped dusty and impenetrable “academic” tome.  This style stands Yalom in good stead, and can make her book enjoyable reading for those interested in her slice of early chess days.  At times, though, especially when telling the tales of royalty, the author takes on almost a breathless quality in her writing (one unsympathetic reviewer compared it to People magazine).  One example, of many:
In 1137, the young, elegant princess married Louis VII, when they were fifteen and sixteen years old, respectively.  She left the sunny court of Aquitaine for the murky skies of Paris.  There her lively mind, nourished on lyrical poetry, came in contact with the more earnest theological debates favored by her monkish husband.  There is no doubt that Louis, deeply in love with his stunning young wife, was initially more influenced by her than she by him.  She did her best to recreate in Paris the brilliant court life that had flourished in Aquitaine, replete with troubadours, storytellers, jugglers, and entertainment of every sort, including games of chance and chess…
Also, because history does not record much – and, much less so, of the lives of women – Yalom is left presenting some of the stories she finds, however shaky, as if to get them on the record, lest they be lost again.
Mathilda’s marriage to Ezzo, the count of Palatine, is associated with a chess anecdote that is too good to be left in silence, even if its veracity is questionable.  As the story goes, Mathilda was married to Ezzo, the count Palatine, after her youthful brother, Otto III, acting as her guardian, lost her to the elderly count over a chess match.  It is impossible to determine whether this tale is true, but Otto III is known to have been a quixotic personality, so the decision to marry off his sister in this fashion is not entirely out of keeping with his character.  We do not know the date of the event or even the age of the bride…

second review at The Guardian (2004):

Chequered past of the first lady

Steven Poole surveys the emergence of a new game

Yalom enjoys telling the stories of her favourite queens: Matilda of Tuscany, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Blanche of Castile, Margaret of Denmark and particularly Isabella of Castile, who ruled Spain along with her husband Ferdinand at the time of the chess piece's ascension to superpower status.
These queens, on Yalom's admiring accounts, could do little wrong: they are celebrated for courage and fortitude, and even occasionally fighting in battle themselves. Yalom acknowledges hastily that yes, Isabella drove Jews and Moors from her shores and instituted the Spanish Inquisition, but this just makes Isabella's a "mixed legacy". Well, some legacies are more mixed than others. In a curious little historical irony, chess, among the pursuits banned by the Taliban, was one of the enduring gifts to Europe of the Arabs, whose expulsion by Isabella still rankles among Islamist terrorists today.
Doubtless there is some truth to the idea that examples such as Isabella made the appearance of a kick-ass female monarch on the chessboard more credible. Yalom points out that in Russia, the old vizier did not become the queen or "tsaritsa" until much later, when the historical example of Catherine the Great was available. On the other hand, Yalom's thesis cannot be generalised too much. It is not as though the world had never known powerful female rulers before the early-modern period. And bishops and kings are still as powerful in today's chess as they were five centuries ago, despite their waning influence in the western world.
Meanwhile, Yalom's coyly touted "discovery" of a "hidden relationship" between chess development and the cult of the Virgin Mary is much less persuasive. Where there does not exist a documented link between one of her spunky heroines and chess, moreover, Yalom feels happily inclined to invent it. Thus the pages are littered with phrases of wishful thinking: "On their actual journey to Byzantium, Eleanor and her caravan of noble ladies most probably brought chess sets with them..."; "In all probability, [Adelaide] promoted the game of chess."
Exuberantly, Yalom strays beyond her thesis as narrowly defined, with a chapter on courtly love and the imagery of chess as a metaphor for sex in numerous engravings showing young couples playing, and also examines the rich material for instruction and warning that chess provided to moralists - who, for example, were deeply worried about the implied polygamy of the fact that one side could eventually attain several queens. She writes in a style that combines briskness with a somewhat cloying smell of baking cookies: Eleanor, for example, wore her various royal titles "as easily as the rich textures that adorned her body". And when Yalom laments the fact that a tome entitled The Edifying Book of Erotic Chess "was tragically destroyed" in the firebombing of Dresden, one might reasonably propose that its loss was not among the most tragic results of that catastrophe.

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