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Revisiting the Paradox of the Chess Queen


My brother gave my son a civil war chess set this past weekend for his birthday, which sparked a discussion about a post I wrote at Duck of Minerva a year ago on the history of the chess queen. The European Chess Championships having just passed, I thought it appropriate to revisit the issue.

The original post was inspired by my inability to answer one of my son’s random questions: “Why is the queen more powerful than the king?”

In chess, the queen has mobility (the crucial barometer of power in the game) but less value, as the game can continue without her; the hobbled king is relatively powerless, but is the most valuable piece without whom the game ceases. In actual politics, the situation is reversed: women’s relative lack of access to political and military power and even social, economic and physical mobility is sometimes justified and at any rate partly explained through their greater perceived value compared to men for reproductive and symbolic purposes.

As I learned after reading Marilyn Yalom’s The Birth of the Chess Queen turns out it has a lot to do with civilizational identity formation between Europe and empires farther east.

First, the chess board once lacked a queen altogether: in India, Persia and the Arab crescent, early chess included only male figures, the closest thing to the queen being the “vizier.” Yalom argues the appearance of the queen on the board coincided with the Arab invasion of Europe and the Christianization of the game as it took root in lands dominated by the idea of a woman as help-meet to a Christian king.

But second, the early queen was far from the icon of power she is today. Indeed, according to tenth century chess rules, the queen is second only to pawns in her abject powerlessness on the board – able to move only one step diagonally in any direction (less power than today’s king). While my son and I have had much fun attempting to play by tenth century rules (which include the knight’s final step moving on the diagonal), the question remains: how did the queen become so powerful? Yalom relates this to the importance of a series of strong European queens during the ensuring centuries.

Commenters at the Duck have proposed other explanations:

why look to geographical cultural movements (Arab v. Europe, etc)… the most obvious explanation that jumps out at me is moving from the military sphere to the civilian sphere. Chess was originally a war game, attempting to model military events. It was taught to military officers, and a facility with chess was valued. I know very little about the military life in 10th century India, Persia, and Arabia — but my imagination suggests an absence of women. So IF I believed this kind of narrative, the one I would propose would be “as chess moved from military culture that didn’t value women to civilian culture that did, the power of the Queen increased.”

Denis De Rougement who wrote, “Love in the Western World.” He suggests that the heightened place given the queen parallels the heightened role given to the Divine Feminine via such Gnostic movements as the Cathar movement and its more subtle variant, the Troubadour movement.

An interesting point with which the authors of this website seem to concur.

None of this, I argued, really answered the question of why the king is so vulnerable – so feminized – relative to the queen in chess.

Perhaps the chess king’s vulnerability reflects the perception of many men surrounded by strong females that women actually hold the power, even if it’s not wielded through the sword. Or maybe chess has simply not caught up (yet) with historical shifts in gender relations in the family and political life.

I concluded the original post by proposing an alternative set of rules in which the king and queen share power and vulnerability:

Imagine a set of chess rules where the king and queen function as partners – equally powerful and equally valued – each dependent on the other for protection. The goal of each army would be to defeat both; either king or queen could fight and be “taken,” but once one partner is lost the other would revert to the vulnerability of the contemporary king, as it is the strength of the union from which their power is derived.

Liam and I have been beta-testing this new set of rules for much of the past year and think it works well. However there has been some push-back at the Duck:

The problem with the “team” concept is that it gives a huge advantage to the player who moves first in a trade, and so dramatically increases white’s currently small advantage. One could sacrifice nearly any combination of pieces to take either the king or the queen, because it would essentially be removing two queens from your opponent by destroying the power of the remaining piece. It would be worth playing to see if I’m right, but I’m guessing that the complexity of the game would decline, as would the interest.

I have spoken with serious chess players from 5 countries and none of them strongly identified the Q as female or K, rooks, knights or bishops as male. They think of the Q as 9, the rook as 5, knights as 3, and want to argue whether the bishop is 3 or 3.25. What gender does your narrative think pawns (soul of chess) possess? (The pronoun for pawns is usually ‘it.’)… There are lots of known chess variants already out there; many are played daily and seriously over interenet chess sites. One I wanted to draw your attention to was a variant (from Fischer?) which introduces 2 new pieces…. at the historical moment where the Queen was “empowered,” it is still interesting WHICH powers it was given: bishop + rook. Examining this historical moment thoughtfully immediately leads to inventing 2 new Queens, that combine (bishop + knight) and (rook + knight). Fun to try a different kind of Queen! or all 3!

Interestingly enough, in Liam’s new chess set there is no queen at all, only two male characters on each side. Go figure.

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