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Something in the way she moves

Author on women's issues takes a look at chess and the position of the queen


It was one of the oddest coups d'etat in history, and nobody knows exactly how, or when, or why it happened. For centuries, the king was dominant. Then the queen surpassed him and has ruled the field ever since.

It's a flat and bloodless field: 64 squares on a small board, two contestants with 16 pieces each. The battle is chess, and cultural historian Marilyn Yalom set out with her new book, "Birth of the Chess Queen," to solve a mystery: How was it that sometime between the years 990 and 1497 the feminine monarch replaced the king as the center of power?

Yalom is a senior scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender at Stanford University. Her previous books include "A History of the Wife," "Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness," and, most recently, "A History of the Breast." While preparing a lecture about that last book at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1998, she was asked by a museum curator if she had seen the Gardner's "chess queen." She had not, and the curator took her to see it, in a glass case on the third floor. The 3 1/4-inch ivory piece, carved in Scandinavia in the 14th century, depicts a nursing madonna. Yalom was fascinated. Could it be a chess piece? If so, what would the other pieces look like?

Her quest began. "I've always been interested in the Middle Ages," she said, "and this was a point of entry to that world. A chess piece is an artifact, with aesthetic properties, and the queen is unique. She exists within an all-male context. How did she develop her role? It's not obvious that a queen would arise in the first place, nor that she would become the most powerful piece on the board."

Changing direction In chess, the object is to trap the opponent's king, who can only move one square at a time in any direction. When capture becomes inevitable, the king is "checkmated" and his side loses. The other pieces move in restricted ways, except for the omnipotent queen, who can move in any direction, any number of open squares.

Yalom, 72, is a polite, impeccably dressed grandmother and Wellesley College alumna who found her focus on women's lives fairly late in life. Over lunch at the cafe in the Gardner museum, where she was giving a talk about her new book, she recounted the creative swerve that took her from the tiny madonna to a larger detective story.

A child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, she went to public schools in Washington, D.C., where she met Irvin Yalom, now a prominent psychiatrist and novelist. They were married soon after she graduated from Wellesley in 1954 with a degree in French, and she earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard. In 1962, Irvin Yalom got a teaching job in psychiatry at Stanford University. By then they had children (eventually they had four, now all grown).

"I was perfectly content to be a person who follows her husband," she said, "and takes whatever job is available." She says her husband was always supportive of her intellectual pursuits -- "We have had a shared intellectual life" -- as her parents had been. The rest of the world was less so. "The head of the French department said to me, `We don't hire faculty wives.' That has been imbedded in my mind ever since." In 1963, she found a position teaching French at California State University, Hayward. "I would commute 30 miles to Hayward," she said, "and if there was a family emergency, I would be called in Hayward, even though my husband was in the hospital in Stanford."

The push toward women's history came in the mid-1970s from her daughter, an undergraduate at Stanford. "She pointed out to me that there were these inequalities at Stanford. She was in a class with mostly men, and she said, `If I put my hand up and a man puts his hand up, he will be called on.' She wanted to do a project on dreams and the menstrual cycle, but they said, `Well, there's no research on that.' She had to fight to do that project. When the Institute on Gender was founded at Stanford, the position of senior research associate was created to run it. My daughter said, `Mom, I think you should do it. They need you.' "

In 1976, Yalom gave up a tenured position at Hayward to direct the Stanford program, which gave her a whole new career in women's studies, with teaching, administration, publishing papers, and editing books. After a decade, she stepped back from administration to devote more time to writing. Her first book appeared in 1987, and she's been at it nonstop since then. Though they are scholarly in content, her books are written for the nonspecialist reader. "I wasn't a huge success as a writer for the academic market," she said. "I always wrote in a way that was a little too clear."

Chess origins A version of chess was invented in the fifth century in India, then spread to Persia and the Muslim world. The Indian and Persian games had recognizable figures as pieces -- a king, a vizier (or chief minister), elephants -- but the Muslim world forbade graven images of any living thing, so the pieces became abstract shapes. When the game reached Europe in the early Middle Ages through Muslim-ruled southern Spain, human figures reappeared, including the king. Around the year 990, in a poem titled "Verses on Chess" by a monk in the Swiss monastery of Einsiedeln, came the earliest known reference to a chess queen. She was a mild consort, empowered only to move to a diagonal adjacent square.

Plowing through archives and poring over ancient manuscripts, Yalom found tantalizing references to the importance of the queen -- though not her permissible movements -- in the works of later writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer. The earliest explicit presentation of the queen as the powerful piece she is today Yalom found in Luis Ramiriz de Lucena's "Discourse on Love and the Art of Chess," published in Spain in 1496 or '97. Since older forms still existed, the newer game was called "lady chess" or "queen's chess." By whatever name, it became the accepted form throughout Europe, despite some opposition from traditionalists.

Yalom eventually concluded that the Gardner madonna was not a chess piece, but by then she was engaged with a larger mystery. Why, in a world ruled by men, would a game with an all-powerful queen be accepted? Yalom does not offer a single definitive answer but offers three historical/cultural indicators that might point to an answer.

First, there is the veneration of the Virgin Mary as a figure of power in medieval Europe. In the New Testament, the mother of Jesus is the meek and submissive "handmaid of the Lord." But by the Middle Ages, she had been endowed with regal glory and power. "If you look at the portal of the cathedral of Notre Dame [in Paris]," said Yalom, "you see the coronation of the Virgin." There was also the cult of courtly love that arose in the Middle Ages, in which every knight had a devotion to his lady, sometimes an unattainable married noblewoman, who inspired feats of bravery and derring-do.

A more relevant factor may have been the rise of powerful real-life queens, principally Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504), who married Ferdinand, prince of Aragon, and ruled Spain jointly with him. Yalom speculates that Lucena and others in Spain who wrote about "queen's chess" were currying favor with Isabella, perhaps unconsciously.

It was no surprise, if true, that the powerful chess queen arose in Southern Europe. "In southern Europe, aristocratic women had more freedom and power than women in northern Europe," said Clifford R. Backman, a professor of medieval history at Boston University. "In the south, a woman could inherit land and titles, could become the countess and run the county. In the north, it was more likely that the court would find someone for a woman to marry, someone to be in charge."

Whatever the reason for the rise of the queen, chess's metaphorical nature gives the question added interest. Yalom said, "The king is the most important piece, but the queen is the most powerful. Freudians have a great time with this. I read their literature -- it's so ahistorical that it doesn't make a lot of sense, but there may be some unconscious factors in the way the game is played. The world is incomplete without a female presence."

A man's game? Freudian interpretations aside, chess "represents society and the course of life," Yalom said. "One side wins, the other loses. It's a war game but can be adapted to life and death, sin and redemption. Omar Khayyam wrote that life is like a game of chess: In the end, we are all dumped into the sack, the king can fall to the bottom of the pile and the pawns on top."

"Chess has utter simplicity," said David Shenk, a New York-based author currently writing a book about the history of the game, "and at the same time it's infinitely complex. The complexity helps explain why we pretend the game is a reflection of us. There are almost infinite variations of games in that tiny and easy-to-understand set. The total number of distinct 40-move games is 10 to the 115th power, about as close as you can get to infinity in human society."

Toward the end of her book, Yalom turns to recent history, acknowledging that while in the Middle Ages chess was considered appropriate for women -- aristocratic women, that is -- today it is predominantly a man's game, and few women are found in the top competitive ranks. She discusses possible reasons and urges girls to take up the game. Her book's parting words imply that if powerful real-life women, such as Isabella I of Castile, inspired the game of chess, then chess can return the favor to modern women.

"Any woman wishing to follow the chess queen's lead," she writes, "especially in the public realm, needs to be tactically superior to the men around her, relentless in battle, even cruel when necessary. Whether or not she is called upon to protect her husband . . . she will have to learn to negotiate a treacherous terrain, not unlike the chessboard, if she wants to move forward, both at home and in the workplace. She, and those committed to her well-being, could do worse than take up the chess queen as their personal emblem and silently utter those ritual words: Long live the queen!"

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com. 

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