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Birth of the Chess Queen

A History

Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom
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Everyone knows that the queen is the most dominant piece in chess, but few people know that the game existed for five hundred years without her. It wasn't until chess became a popular pastime for European royals during the Middle Ages that the queen was born and was gradually empowered to become the king's fierce warrior and protector.

Birth of the Chess Queen examines the five centuries between the chess queen's timid emergence in the early days of the Holy Roman Empire to her elevation during the reign of Isabel of Castile. Marilyn Yalom, inspired by a handful of surviving medieval chess queens, traces their origin and spread from Spain, Italy, and Germany to France, England, Scandinavia, and Russia. In a lively and engaging historical investigation, Yalom draws parallels between the rise of the chess queen and the ascent of female sovereigns in Europe, presenting a layered, fascinating history of medieval courts and internal struggles for power.

HarperCollins; May 2009
320 pages; ISBN 9780061913426
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Birth of the Chess Queen
Author: Marilyn Yalom

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 sixthcentury. 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 notfrom India but from Persia. In an ancient romance calledKarnamak, 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 ofthe Persians (this being a Persian story), one of them was able tocomplete this seemingly impossible assignment. The shah thenbettered 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 an envoy 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 withthem, 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 appearedsuspect 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 ...

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