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Birth of the Chess Queen: A History

3.63  ·  Rating details ·  468 ratings  ·  74 reviews
Everyone knows that the queen is the most dominant piece in chess, but few people know that the game existed for five hundred years without her. It wasn't until chess became a popular pastime for European royals during the Middle Ages that the queen was born and was gradually empowered to become the king's fierce warrior and protector.

Birth of the Chess Queen examines the
Paperback, 328 pages
Published April 26th 2005 by Harper Perennial (first published April 27th 2004)
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Average rating 3.63  · 
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Sep 15, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: queens, library, history
I’m Hungarian. This means that aside from great food and the Rubik’s Cube, we also love chess. Personally, I am also a fan of queens, royalty, and history; making “Birth of the Chess Queen” by Marilyn Yalom ideal reading.

Birth of the Chess Queen has two main themes: (1) the history of the game of chess/queen game-piece (2) the queens who MAY have influenced the creation of the queen game-piece’s rise within the chess world. Both, together and separately, are topics of interest, however; Yalom do
Lewis Weinstein
I bought this book years ago when I was doing research for my first novel The Heretic, perhaps looking for a way to relate it to Queen Isabel of Spain, a character in my novel. I didn't use it, didn't even read it then. Pruning my shelves, I found the book and read much of it. It's actually an interesting history of the evolution of chess. In the beginning, there was no Queen. There was a Vizier, who stood next to the King but had none of the substantial powers later taken on by the Queen who re ...more
Jul 11, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: chess
Would have made a great 20-page article.
This book was so interesting and engaging. It shows how the growing prestige and political power of queens during medieval Europe shaped the game of chess and gave the game it's Queen. ...more
Jul 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
A well-written and educational read! There are a number of historical threads running through this book - the history of chess itself, the rise of courtly love, the rise of Mariolatry, brief biographies of a number of influential figures in history (specifically queens) - so while the book doesn't get too in-depth about any one thing, it gives a satisfying overview of the topic and its influences.

Prior to this, I knew how to play chess, but knew next to nothing about its history or origins. I h
Koen Crolla
Nov 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Yalom traces the development of the chess queen from the earlier and weaker vizier through a series of moderately sloppy sketches of the social context of chess in medieval Europe and biographies of various queens of varying relevance. Mostly just really didn't need to be as long as it was. ...more
Nov 08, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Exceptionally well researched history of chess, how the rise of politically strong women changed the gender of the piece we now know of as the Queen, and how it's power to move around the board evolved to be ever more powerful.

Nov 30, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The chess queen's superb history and the real women who influenced the piece. Quick to read, and endlessly enthralling. ...more
David Dinaburg
May 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is a question unasked everywhere except within Birth of the Chess Queen; given the historical level of vitriol directed toward women in authority and the vast—almost non-existent—minority of women in traditional armed fighting, how did the queen become the most potent tactical piece of an ancient wargame? The kerfuffle over FIFA2016’s inclusion of female players is an example par excellence for the unique position of the chess queen; where else but Mad Max: Fury Road are women portrayed a ...more
This book alternately irked and entertained me. There were interesting stories about the evolution of some regional "dialects" of the game, and I enjoyed the recounting of some folk lore in the game was a vehicle for romance and seduction.

The times in which the author droned on about role of the actual living, breathing queen, though, bored me almost to tears. In fact, it seems at times that there is more information about queens and powerful ladies in this book than there is about the game.

Lindsay Marie
Jan 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is the best history lesson, it helped my chess game by allowing me to further understand the story and role of the most important piece on the chess board, the chess queen. Any Chess enthusiast should read. This book also manages to shed light on the general role of women and, more importantly, the women who went against that role in times around the time of Christ. I'd recommend this book! ...more
Nov 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Interesting premise and very well researched. However, the book did not flow cohesively. It was mainly just a book about female royalty in the medieval period and renaissance with some chess facts mixed in. Every thing was well sourced but there seemed to be no actual evidence of her overall thesis (the rise of the chess queen was caused/heavily influenced by real life female royalty).

Super interesting regardless.
Vicki Kondelik
Nov 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In Birth of the Chess Queen, historian Marilyn Yalom tells the fascinating story of the evolution of the chess queen, and how she was not always the most powerful piece on the chessboard. In fact, she was not always part of the game. Yalom writes about the origins of chess in India and Persia, and its rapid spread throughout the Muslim world. In the earliest version of the game, the piece that eventually became the queen was the vizier. This piece could only move one square diagonally, making it ...more
Jun 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: chess players, feminists, historians
Marilyn Yalom's history, which traces the transformation of the queen in chess and parallels its transformation from a relatively weak piece called the "vizer" to the most powerful piece on the chess board with the rise of several powerful female monarchs in Europe, is a well researched, very readible work that shows Yalom's scholarship and interest in feminist issues. Yalow is a senior scholar for Women and Gender at Stanford University and is the author of several works examining the roles wom ...more
Starting with the basic history of game of chess from pre-600's in Persia with the pieces being the king, general, chariots, cavalry, elephants and infantry, the author provides not only how the general became the advisor/vizier and eventually the queen but how the game has been modified over the centuries and as it moved through various countries.

Even the movement of the pieces have changed - originally the vizier/queen was able to move only one square in a diagonal direction only - as well as
Jennifer (JC-S)
Sep 27, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: owned
It took me quite a while to read this book: I own it and I needed to fit the reading around books that I had borrowed.

Marilyn Yalom attempts three objectives in this interesting book. Firstly, and of most interest to me, she outlines a history of the game of chess and its likely spread across the world. Secondly, Dr Yalom explains the development of the piece currently known as the queen in most European chess play both in terms of its replacement of earlier pieces, and its emerging power. Final
James Henry
Feb 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
Did you know that the chess queen wasn't on the board originally and that she
didn't have her "super moves" until much later. Do you even care ?
Well it used to be an all male cast with the Vizor ( military advisor
to the King ) being the original Queen. The book tells her story from
a feminist perspective and equates the rise of the Chess Queen with
the rise of the real queens ( esp. Isabella of Spain ) and the
increasingly powerful cult of the Virgin Mary. It's sort of a sad
history tho in that women
John Carter McKnight
Dec 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: academic
An utterly enjoyable read, a fascinating tour across Medieval Europe in search of queens regnant, Mariolatry (the cult of the Virgin Mary, a new word for me), figurative art and evolving chess rules. Yalom tells a highly entertaining tale while delivering solidly researched history, documenting the evolution of the weak "vizier" piece in Islamic chess sets into the all powerful European "queen."

A fascinating study of the co-construction of games and culture, this really should be on games schol
Mar 12, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Anyone who likes chess will get a lot out of this book. Anyone who has read anything by Marilyn Yalom will be enthralled that she picked this topic. One of the world's most accomplished feminist writer, Yalom has conquered such subjects as "The History of the Wife" and "The History of the Breast" and done an admirable job with both. I was astounded at how much hard history Yalom was able to unearth with this homage to the most powerful piece on the chess board. What surprised me is that the quee ...more
May 25, 2011 rated it it was ok
I was super interested in the subject matter, as I had never known that the queen in chess was something that developed rather than began with the game. But this book bored me out of my skull. The structure was plodding and the writing style too plain for the material. Too bad, because there is some great research here.
Dec 14, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: micro-history
I love how one small facet of history can shine a light on the society as a whole. And thus it is with the birth of the chess queen. Originally, her role was "vizier" in the Arab game, and the story of how the male vizier was replaced by the female queen also explores the role of women in society. ...more
Nov 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I never learned to play chess, and have always been fascinated by the game. This history of the development of the queen as the most powerful piece on the board follows the development of the game and the evolution of the piece. My intent to learn the game is renewed.
Feb 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book explores the evolution of the queen in the game of chess. Pretty interesting, but best interspersed with a nice juicy fiction novel to switch to when the going gets slow.
I liked the way the author approached the subject. She mixed the history of chess with the lives of these queens. Pretty good.
Ruth Laura Edlund
Apr 25, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Fascinating, scholarly, and obscure. The perfect leisuretime book.
Louise Chambers
Feb 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, chess
Very good. Fascinating history of the Chess Queen and the real life women who inspired Her.
Aug 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
I actually read this book a while ago but found it well worth the read.
Neil Pierson
Oct 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
How did the queen become the most powerful piece on the chess board while the king makes his gouty way around the board one space at a time? The more you know about the history of chess, the more improbable it seems.

Chess was probably born in India. (The bishop was originally an elephant!) It spread to Persia, and from there through the Arabian states. The Moors brought it to Europe during the seven hundred years (770-1492) that they occupied Spain.

The game, of course, is a simulation of warfare
Sep 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: wargaming
Senior Scholar at and former head of the Institute for Women and Gender at Stanford University , Marilyn Yalom has published a number of works on the status and role of women in human society. In this work she is following the intertwined stories of the evolving role of and attitudes towards women in power in medieval and renaissance Europe, as well as the somewhat parallel evolution of the game of chess with particular emphasis on gender and power of the modern Queen on the chessboard and how s ...more
Mark Isaak
Dec 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
In a world dominated by male figures, the lone female has the most power of any piece on the chessboard, and Yalom's book tells her history. Originally, the figure next to the king was the vizier, who could only move one space diagonally at a time. He was gradually supplanted in Middle-Ages Europe by a queen. Much later, in 16th-century Spain, the "queen's chess", with pieces moving according to familiar rules, came into being and quickly came to dominate, as it made the game faster. Yalom's boo ...more
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Marilyn Yalom grew up in Washington D.C. and was educated at Wellesley College, the Sorbonne, Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She has been a professor of French and comparative literature, director of an institute for research on women, a popular speaker on the lecture circuit, and the author of numerous books and articles on literature and women's history. ...more

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“As Petrus Alfonsi, the converted physician authored a book called the Disciplina Clericalis, which was essentially a collection of Arabic tales translated into Latin. These tales introduced a mode of Oriental storytelling and wisdom literature into Christendom that would become extremely popular. In the section called “The Mule and the Fox,” concerning the true nature of nobility, Alfonsi listed seven accomplishments expected of a knight. “The skills that one must be acquainted with are as follows: Riding, swimming, archery, boxing, hawking, chess, and verse writing.”6 So, by the beginning of the twelfth century, chess had become a mandatory skill for Spain’s elite warriors.” 1 likes
“The prohibition on promoting a pawn to a queen while the original queen was still on the board was an attempt to preserve the uniqueness of the king’s wife, his only permissible conjugal mate according to Christian doctrine. The Arabic game did not have to face that problem because a Muslim ruler could theoretically have as many viziers as he wanted. The idea of multiple queens on the chessboard proved so anxiety-making for Europeans that it remained a subject of contention for centuries to come.” 1 likes
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