How a royal changed the game

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.”

Yalom argues that this change, ironically, may have contributed to dwindling numbers of female participants after the Renaissance. When the queen obtained great range of motion, a slow game that used to stretch on for days was now fast enough so that games were often completed within a few dozen moves. This meant that chess games began to be recorded, books were written to encourage mastery and games could be contested within a few hours at public arenas. The new queen changed chess from a leisurely domestic pursuit to a tactical struggle where male egos were embroiled in what became a measure of intellectual prowess. “Chess became thoroughly masculinized,” the author writes. “New chess was fast and fierce.... Chess would no longer tolerate dalliance of any sort.”

The book weakens near the end. When Yalom tries to extend her copious research into modern chess, where women comprise fewer than 10% of the world’s competitive players, her astute observations give way to glib attempts to wrap up her subject. “Despite their relatively poor performance as players,” she writes, “ women can at least take pride in the superiority of the chess queen.”


Women, in fact, have performed very well in recent years. Examples include: Hungary’s Judit Polgar, the No. 1-ranked woman in the world, who in 2002 beat Garry Kasparov, the No. 1-ranked man in the world; World Women’s Champion Zhu Chen of China, who declared after her 2001 victory, “I combine the feminine and the masculine to play the best chess possible”; and Bronx middle school student Medina Parilla, who is the first African American female to win a U.S national title.

Today, a woman who achieves chess mastery is often called a “Queen of the game.” Behind such a compliment is the reality that on and off the board, queens have been exceptions in a male order. Their potency, while inspirational, tells little about the opportunities for more ordinary women. Yalom’s micro-history, an enticing portal into the past, is largely successful in describing both sides of the queen: “an ultimate female status, but one that is played out in chess as in life on a predominantly masculine playing field.”


From Birth of the Chess Queen

It is notable that the chess queen -- tsaritsa, boyarina, or baba (old woman or even “broad”) -- did not definitively edge out the vizier until the period of Catherine II the Great, who reigned from 1762 to 1796. At this time chess was probably the most popular game played throughout Russia, as one English visitor noted in 1772: “Chess is so common in Russia, that ... I very frequently observed in my passage throughout the streets, the tradesmen and common people playing it before the doors of their shops or houses. The Russians are esteemed great proficients in Chess.”