The queen is known as the most powerful piece on the chessboard, so the prospect of sacrificing her causes unprecedented excitement among chess enthusiasts. It’s inherently satisfying to give up the strongest piece on the board to checkmate your opponent’s king. I hope this week’s puzzles were a worthy reminder that we all – beginners and grandmasters alike – can unite to appreciate the unique, almost otherworldly beauty of the royal game.
Imagine for a moment a scenario where the queen is the weakest piece on the board. The queen hobbles square by square from one corner of the board to the other. In this scenario, the chessboard is controlled by the rooks, and the best players sacrifice their queens for strategic or tactical gain without a second thought. I for one would be devastated. Gone would be the most beautiful sacrifices! The strongest attacks would be reduced! If the movement of the queen were even slightly restricted, the game of chess would change beyond recognition.
The scenario I just outlined was the reality for a whole millennium. At the beginning of the seventh century, the game we now call chess appeared in Persian and Indian literature. In India, the game was called chaturanga (“four members”), which, as historian Marilyn Yalom wrote in her 2004 book Birth of the Chess Queen, referred to the “four branches of the Indian army”: chariots, elephants, cavalry, and Infantry”.
Meanwhile, “The Persians took from the Indians the essence of the game – the six different pieces, the 64-square board – and renamed the pieces Persian names.” A large number of non-English words for chess, such as Russian shakhmaty, derive from shah, the Persian word for king.
Instead of the queen, the Persians had Farzin, a male figure whose name roughly translates to counselor. As HJR Murray pointed out in his 1913 book A History of Chess, the physical proximity of the Farzin to the Shah ultimately led to the establishment of equivalence between the Farzin and the Wazir (or Vizier), a powerful figure who served as the Shah’s most trusted adviser. The advisor had been promoted, but his movement remained terribly restricted: one square diagonally in each direction.
For Europeans, the vizier was a culturally alien figure. According to Ms. Yalom, the first European to rechristen the vizier a queen (Regina) was a German-speaking monk who wrote a Latin poem entitled “Verses on Chess” in the 990s. The monk described the layout of the board and the movement of the pieces, but the newly minted queen retained the vizier’s limited movement.
This remained the status quo, with minimal variation, throughout Europe for several centuries thereafter. Each culture adopted the rules in its own way, but the movement of the queen remained commonplace throughout the game’s iterations and spinoffs. The metamorphosis took place sometime between 1470 and 1480. The first evidence of the queen’s newfound power, argued Ms Yalom, could be found in a Catalan poem containing a game between two Spaniards named Castellvi and Vinyoles. It was a fitting example of the queen’s miraculous transformation, as Castellvi used his queen to destroy his opponent’s entire army and deliver checkmate on move 21.
Chess historians, including Yalom, agree that the most likely explanation for this metamorphosis is “the high regard of Queen Isabella”, whose reign began in 1474. The transformation may have been partially catalyzed by previous influential European figures, but Isabella undoubtedly drove it. Even the word Spanish chess writers used to refer to the queen changed from an Arabic-derived term to dama, which, as Ms. Yalom wrote, “had at least three connotations in late 15th-century Spain: ‘queen’. as an indication of superior social status, “lady” in the religious sense as in “Our Lady” and “lady” as a reference to the Spanish Queen Isabella of Castile.” Though Isabella’s reign was temporary, there would be no turning back.
More than five centuries have passed since Isabella’s reign, and it seems that humanity has finally settled on the version of chess we wish to play. To me, the idea that a single pawn can decide the outcome of the game, and the idea that each pawn carries within itself the seed of metamorphosis, adds a lot to the beauty of the game. In today’s game, the queen may be the strongest piece, but she is only one piece of the puzzle that makes up a chess game. Sacrificing your queen means placing great trust in the rest of your army. As we’ve seen this week, the remaining pieces are more than ready to step up.