The Chess Queen

Chess Queen

Chess has its roots in the Indian game of chaturanga, a Sanskrit word meaning "four members", which refers to the four parts of the Indian army that support a king and his vizier: infantry, elephants, cavalry and chariots. Interestingly, from a communications perspective, chaturanga absorbed the Oriental war model, which included the aforementioned viziers and elephants, before migrating to medieval Europe (as a Persian variant called shatranj), whence it became the game of chess and absorbed the feudal-political model of those cultures over the next 300 or so years — most notably by obsolescing the vizier and elephant in favour of the queen and bishop, respectively.

Raymond Keene, in Chess: An Illustrated History, notes an increased mobility in chess in the late fifteenth-century, which he suggests is caused by three factors: 1. castling was introduced; 2. pawns became able to move two squares on the opening move rather than one; 3. and the queen, as mentioned earlier, emerged from the earlier Persian vizier and became the most powerful piece on the board, able to move an unlimited number of squares horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Keene views this last as "mirroring the contemporary introduction of artillery, as a long-range means of molesting the opposition, in the sphere of battlefield technology" (p.24).

Marilyn Yalom, in Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, has a different explanation, however. She suggests that the emergence of the queen piece in chess as the most powerful piece on the board today paralleled the rise of powerful women in myriad royal courts of medieval Europe. In contemporary times, she asserts, the chess queen has become "the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world".

Keene disagrees. According to him, these sudden shifts "must be explicable in terms of the overall Renaissance dynamic — the increasingly urgent perception of distance, space and perspective which distinguished that period of human intellectual development". The queen's new power specifically reflected the introduction of siege artillery at Constantinople in 1453 and "had nothing to do with the example of powerful, warlike females such as Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I" (p.32).

Yalom's argument is perhaps more compelling. Even if siege artillery was an important factor to be absorbed in this war model, why was it the queen that was granted the additional powers? Put another way, why was the most fearsome war technology in history gendered female when introduced into chess?

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  1. sportsBabel » Wolfgang Schirmacher: In Memoriam di Imagum says:

    [...] granted the additional powers? Put another way, why was the most fearsome war technology in history gendered female when introduced into chess? When this intelligence is read through the balance of experience and [...]