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by Marilyn Yalom

Pub Date: May 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-009064-2
Publisher: HarperCollins

Some tenuous speculations about the co-emergence of powerful political women and the most puissant piece on the chessboard.

Feminist historian Yalom (A History of the Wife, 2001, etc.) first became intrigued by this subject in 1998, when she saw a 14th-century chess queen carved in the shape of a nursing Madonna. (Later, she discovers it’s only a “minuscule possibility” that the carving was a game piece.) How did the queen come to be the most powerful of all? Her question sent her to archives, libraries, and chess authorities all over the world. The result mingles a brief history of chess from its birth in fifth-century India to its 20th-century adult ubiquity with a quick study of gender relations through the ages and slim biographies of powerful women in Asia and Europe whose eminence may have been so profound as to effect the evolution of the chess queen from stay-at-home spouse to aggressive warrior. Yalom provides fine photographs of the oldest queens in captivity, showing how the piece has acquired both stature and individuality (few extant pieces from before 1200 have faces). The author also notes how various religious authorities have attempted—and generally failed—to control chess, especially in its early years when lost games sometimes resulted in lost lives as angry players segued smoothly from vicarious to actual combat. (Betting also annoyed religious leaders, who wanted any loose cash to flow their way.) Yalom makes an appealing case, especially in her association of the game with the courtly love tradition and the cult of the Virgin Mary. But in the end she is stuck with what remote history often leaves us: attractive correlations but no smoking causative guns.

Often enlightening, but approaches daffiness when the epilogue invites us to place the chess queen alongside the Amazon, the Earth Mother, and the Virgin Mary, or to consider Hilary Rodham Clinton as a chess-queen incarnate. (b&w photos throughout; 13 color plates not seen)