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Birth of the Chess Queen: A History [Hardcover]

Marilyn Yalom

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Hardcover, May 2004 --  
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers; First Edition edition (May 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060090642
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060090647
  • Product Dimensions: 21.7 x 14.8 x 2.8 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,631,313 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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The queen, now the most potent piece on the board, surprisingly did not exist in the early days of chess in India, Persia and the Near East. She was born around 1000 AD in Europe, but by 1497, when Isabella of Castile ruled over Spain and much of the New World, she had come to rule the game. Yalom traces her history. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Though historians still debate the exact origins of chess, most agree that it emerged in India no later than the sixth century. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  27 reviews
39 of 45 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not Too Bad; Not Too Good 16 Jun 2004
By Centerra - Published on
Yalom advances an interesting thesis: the development of the power of the chess Queen was directly influenced by powerful women (queens and nobles) in Western Europe. However, she fails to support her thesis.

Essentially this book is historical example after example of women in Medieval Europe who held and exercised well the reins of power. Yalom then shows a few pictures; cites a few poems and manuscripts; and eventually says that because these women were powerful that chess playing society decided to make the queen more powerful.

Yalom ignores the most compelling reason for the development of the chess queen's power: the rise of the middle class. There was no queen when the Arabs played chess; instead there was a vizier--a weak piece at best. Chess was also an extremely slow game, often taking days to play. It was played by the upper classes. It is quite natural that Western players would eventually replace the vizier with the Queen. Moreover, it is worth noting that as we see a rise in the middle class--many wanting to mirror the nobility in manners and tastes--that they, too, would play chess. But they needed a faster game, and during this time we see rapid changes in chess rules, and a steady increase in the Queen's power (bishop, too). The development was mainly for speed.

It is also of interest that Yalom so strongly claims that it was the rise of powerful women that caused the chess Queen to develop as it did, but then she ignores that line of thinking with other pieces. For example, the Bishop also gained in power during this time, but in society at large we see during this time the erosion of church power in secular affairs. If Yalom's thesis hold's true for the chess Queen, then applied to the Bishop we should see that piece losing power.

In short, although well written, the book fails to convince unless you already buy into Yalom's interpretation.

On the plus side:

1. Book is a joy to hold; well produced; well constructed; well designed; easy font to read.

2. Excellent photographs of chess pieces; some not previously published (not that I've seen).

3. Some very interesting historical vignettes of female rulers.

4. Some insights into chess and polite society during the Middle Ages and beyond.


1. Unsupported thesis.

2. Assumption of being correct. Yalom is not trying to argue; rather, she is preaching to the choir.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very informative history of chess 9 Aug 2005
By Bruce Bain - Published on
The birth of the chess queen is synonymous with the birth of "modern" chess rules, when the Court of Queen Isabella of Spain expanded the power of the Queen. Had we all known about the date and place of this sudden change, the book would be little more than a "travel guide" down the corridors of chess heritage; but the new light that Marilyn Yalom sheds upon chess history makes "Birth of the Chess Queen" a landmark work.

It was interesting to read chess history for the specific nations of Europe, England, Scandanavia, Spain, Italy, Russia, and the lands bordering upon the Mediterraniean Sea. Marilyn Yalom presents the archaelogical record related to the chess sets or pieces recoverd from the many nations, and adds to it, historical accounts of the chess play from around the world known at that time, through poetry and other literature and representation of chess in art work. It is an account of chess used for romance and courtship, in addition to other social discourse. It is refreshing for the ability of its author to elaborate the defining moment when chess expanded from it's slow-moving and primitive structure, to the dynamic game we know today.

There is a chess history which costs well over $70.00, besides which, chess history can lend itself to mere repetition. I appreciate this affordable and scholarly work for its distinct approach. Marilyn Yalom draws a clear distinction between chess play of the Medieval period, the players of the chess "Golden Age" (1800's ), and the highly competitive and organized event we play now. Marilyn Yalom introduces some fascinating questions regarding certain historical anomalies. For example: Why was Queen Isabella of Spain the only female monarch to pass through the ritual of coronation or "crowning" with a SWORD? Why indeed! Crowning with a sword was, until Isabella, a right reserved for male monarchs only. The reader will want to know more.

Yalom brings a distinct insight into the history of our beloved game. To it's credit, "Birth of the Chess Queen" is devoid of "feminist" stereotyping. Yalom's research is thorough and well presented in an objective way, unbiased. The relationship between chess playing and the religious authorities is of distinct interest. In different times, Muslim Imams, Christian Popes, Cardinals, and Bishops and Priests, and Jewish Rabbi's and Talmudic Scholars all vied with each other for offensive prohibitions against play of the "Royal Game". At other times, chess had approval.

You betcha I recommend it. Chess players will find their interest in the game renewed and deepened.
---Bruce R. Bain, President, Denver Chess Club
34 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A dominating anomaly 26 May 2004
By Eric J. Lyman - Published on
Every once in a while, I read an appealing book and say to myself, "It's about time somebody wrote something like this!" But the most interesting books I've read are about things I never would have though anyone would write about, which is exactly how I would categorize Birth of the Chess Queen: A History.
To be honest, I've still got some misdoubts about this ... but I guess a book can't be bad if I find myself scribbling notes to myself every few pages.
I've been a chess player for nearly as long as I've known how to read, and I admit I have wondered from time to time why in a game with early Muslim roots that was popularized in Europe during the Middle Ages -- neither culture known for its egalitarian qualities -- would be so dominated by a single powerful female piece, the way the queen dominates chess.
Author and Stanford University gender scholar Marilyn Yalom's thoughts on the same subject were no doubt the starting point for this book, which is filled with information that any chess player or anyone curious about gender roles will find interesting. For example, the queen piece evolved from the vizier (a bearded male piece that was like an anemic bishop, able to move only one diagonal space in any direction), who stood next to the king in one form or another for five centuries before the queen definitively appeared. Even then, the evolution was not universal: several games using the hapless vizier are still played in the Middle East, and the game most folks now know as chess is in some cultures still called "queen's chess," treating it as a derivative of some lost standard version of the game. The first chess queen appears in the 10th or 11th century, and it seems to have taken her around 300 years to accumulate the power she has today.
But more interesting -- even if somewhat unconvincing -- than a mere collection of trivia are Ms. Yalom's theories about why this evolution took place the way it did. I was thrilled by her research to uncover what she calls "missing link" pieces, chess pieces no longer used but that played an intermediate role between the original colored lumps that the Moors played the game with when they arrived in Spain the eighth century (the Koran doesn't allow the depiction of living creatures) to the six distinct pieces used today. She find the mention of the queen piece in a late 10th century Swiss manuscript, what appear to be 11th century ivory queens in Italy, and a distinctly female face on a queen a century later in Spain. She writes that the queen was able to give the vizier the boot thanks to the rising status of women in medieval Europe, the same period when the Virgin Mary started to play more than a bit role in the church's teachings.

Ms. Yalom comes up with other examples to support the idea, some well known and some less well known. She mentions the 10th century Spanish royal Toda de Navarre who went to war to install her grandson on the throne; Urraca de Galicia, who divorced her husband, King Alfonso I, and then defeated him in battle; Spain's Queen Isabella, whose support sent Christopher Colombus to the New World and whose resolve sent the same Moors who brought chess to Europe back to North Africa, where they've remained; Adelaide de Bourgogne, who later became Holy Roman empress; and Matilda di Toscana, who famously led troops into battle on horseback. But while I found this role call of powerful and iconoclastic women interesting, I was ultimately unconvinced by Ms. Yalom's argument: these women spanned too long a period and were too dissimilar to appear to be any more than fascinating historical anomalies, which is just what I think the queen chess piece is likely to be.
By the end, I began to wonder if the book was written for a female audience, or at minimum an audience already interested in gender issues. That is only because many of Ms. Yalom's points seem thinly supported ... probably supported enough for a "me too" crowd, but often insufficient for more skeptical readers like me. The book would also make an interesting read for chess players, which is why I picked it up in the first place. Of course, it might be doubly interesting for female chess players -- but Ms. Yalom points out that there aren't as many people in that category as one would hope: despite the gender of the game's most powerful piece only around 5 percent of chess players are women.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A great thesis... but no proof 17 Nov 2004
By Megan - Published on
Don't get me wrong, I really want to love this book. It is a great thesis: that the chess queen became the most poweful piece on the board during a period in European history when women ruled, in their own right or as regents, throughout Europe. It was such a good thesis, and it makes so much sense, and I think that the proof is somewhere, but I just felt that Ms. Yalom didn't know how to back it up.

She glosses over bits that I thought proved her thesis, but then talks a great deal about things that fly in the face of it! It was quite maddening, because I was really rooting for the thesis. For example, Queen Isabella of Spain was the most powerful woman of this period, and Ms. Yalom discusses how the powerful chess queen was influenced by her... but then she randomly drops the fact that the queen arrived in Spain long after it had achieved its prominence elsewhere!

The book is well written and the research is obviously there... I learned a lot about various very interesting European monarchs that I had never even heard of... which makes Ms. Yalom's lack of proof even more maddening. I think that it's worth a read for the history that it does provide... so long as you keep in mind that you might find that the history does not prove the thesis.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The transformation of chess 23 May 2008
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith - Published on
Many of us, even those of us who don't play either well or often, are familiar with chess. Some of us will be aware that some pieces are differently represented in different parts of the world, but I wonder how many of us are aware of the comparatively recent introduction of the queen?

Marilyn Yalom attempts three objectives in this interesting book. Firstly, and of most interest to me, she outlines a history of the game of chess and its likely spread across the world. Secondly, Dr Yalom explains the development of the piece currently known as the queen in most European chess play both in terms of its replacement of earlier pieces, and its emerging power. Finally, Dr Yalom makes a case for parallels between the emergence of the power of the chess queen and the rise of powerful female sovereigns in Europe.

While I am attracted to the notion of the role of the chess queen as a reflection of the rise of strong queens (such as Isabella of Castile), and a possible association with the cult of the Virgin Mary, this is of peripheral interest to me. What I did find fascinating was the history of the development of the game, especially the differences between cultures and countries. Dr Yalom advises that the chess queen did not appear on the board until about 1000: some 200 years after the game had been introduced to southern Europe. Yet, by 1497, the queen had developed from a weak piece (moving one square at a time on the diagonal) to the more formidable force that she is today.

Dr Yalom presents a wealth of information in this book. Whether you share her conclusions, her enthusiasm for the subject combined with her capacity to present a variety of interesting data in a readable and accessible way will make this an enjoyable read.

Those who are serious chess players may find some of the facts interesting. Those of us interested in the evolution of institutions of power and who choose to explore parallels between games of strategy and political realities should also enjoy this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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