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.