Long live the queen

Friday 29th April 2016

I've always been amazed that the most powerful piece on the chess board is the only female piece, it's a surprising bit of historical feminism. But where does it come from? I thought I'd try to find out.



Chess began life as an Indian game called Chaturanga around 600CE. The board, shown here, looks pretty similar with the exception of elephants in place of the bishops - not a lot of bishops in India at that time, especially ones that only move diagonally. Click the board to see more details on the game and play it online.

In this game the piece next to the king was called mantri (counsellor) and was a male piece. It could move one square diagonally in any direction, and its role was to protect the king.

So when did mantri have a sex change and gain superpowers?


Gender re-assignment

From India the game moved to Persia, was renamed to Shatranj and became popular with nobility. The counsellor piece became farzin, which is a still male piece which translates as counsellor.

The Persian word shah (king) became the English words Chess and check. The Persian phrase shah mat (the King was exhausted), gave us check mate. We also still use the Persian word rukh (chariot) for a piece although the meaning has changed.

It's thought the Sunni Persians, who interpreted the Quran as requiring a ban on all representations of humans and animals, were the first to make chess pieces into their abstract shapes, shown here.

As the game evolved into chess and entered Europe via Muslim-dominated Spain the queen piece became known as vizier, still meaning counsellor and still a male piece.

Historian Marilyn Yalom suggests that it was one of two European queens of the late tenth century, Adelaide or Theophano, who were the inspiration for the change of the vizier to the queen. Either way, a Swiss Latin manuscript from 990AD has the first mention of the piece as regina (queen), which could still only move one square diagonally.
For a long time in the Christian chess rules, a pawn could only become a queen after the original queen had been taken, since real kings could only have one queen at a time.


Madwoman's chess

The change of the queen from being a weak piece, moving only one square diagonally, to being the strongest piece on the board, came around the same time as Isabella of Castile (1451 - 1504, shown here) ruled Spain.

Marilyn Yalom suggests that it was Isabella's power and influence that prompted the rule change. It may also have been a desire to make a slow game, that could take a whole day to play, a lot faster.

By 1497 chess rules in Spain stated that the queen could move straight or diagonally any number of squares, in a new faster version of the game called Lady's Chess or Queen's Chess.

Some nicknamed the new rules Madwoman's Chess. There was a degree of misogyny, with men decrying her new power in the game and stating that a queen had no place in the battle of chess, let alone as the most powerful piece.



A lot of the articles read in researching this post were theory and conjecture, but I was still surprised by how much is known, how long ago chess started, but how little the game has changed in that time. I played a few games of Chaturanga online and it's virtually the same, but much slower.



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