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Birth of the Chess Queen: A History Paperback – April 26, 2005

3.7 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A senior scholar at Stanford's Institute for Women and Gender who has written extensively on women's history, Yalom (A History of the Wife; etc.) sees the rise of female power throughout the centuries reflected in the history of the chess queen: "She has entered the academy of gendered icons, alongside the Earth Mother, the Amazon, and the Virgin Mary." For 500 years, chess was played in India, Persia and the Arab world minus a queen; she finally made her entrance in southern Europe around A.D. 1000. Drawing parallels between "symbolic queens on the chessboard and living queens at numerous royal courts," Yalom introduces readers to significant queens, empresses and countesses as she traces the spread of chess across Europe. With anecdotes, art, legends and literature, she shows how the chess queen became "the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world." Yalom offers an outstanding glimpse at chess as a courting ritual: "The chess queen and the cult of love grew up together and formed a symbiotic relationship, each feeding on the other." She also addresses the current status of female chess players—only 5% of the world's chess players are women—and wonders if "the best female players [will] ever be able to beat the best male players." Combining exhaustive research with a deep knowledge of women's history, Yalom presents an entertaining and enlightening survey that offers a new perspective on an ancient game. B&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Chess was invented in India in the fifth century and was spread by Islamic conquests to Europe, where the piece known as the vizier became the queen—the only female in the all-male club of chess pieces. Yalom makes a credible, though circumstantial, case that this rise reflects the power intermittently accorded to, or seized by, female European monarchs. It was in the late tenth century, during the regency of Empress Adelaide, that the vizier underwent his sex change. Five hundred years later, in Queen Isabella's Spain, the queen was transformed from a timid lady mincing one diagonal step at a time into what one shocked Italian bishop called a "bellicose virago." But there's a sting at the end of this feminist historical fable: the queen's supremacy made the game so much faster and more competitive that it was considered unsuitable for upper-class women.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (April 26, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060090650
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060090654
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #477,104 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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