Culture and Civilisations

Queen's Gambit

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Queen's Gambit

The Queens Gambit (Netflix)

In last week’s column, I mentioned the runaway global triumph of The Queen’s Gambit,  the outstandingly brilliant and widely captivating new Netflix drama mini-series, which may prove to have done more to popularise chess than any other single event since the Boris Spassky vs. Bobby Fischer World Championship match at Reykjavik, 1972. Audience records have been smashed, interest in chess by schoolgirls has skyrocketed and, in general, the concatenation of brains and beauty, welded together in the fictional persona of the female Bobby Fischer, Beth Harmon, has proven to be irresistible.

As a professional chess player of several decades, I have one or two quibbles, which might be addressed for future series. One is an annoying tendency to refer to single games as matches.A match, in chess as in tennis, consists of a sequence of individual games. Another is the heroine’s reliance on stimulants. Although this is an integral component of the fictional narrative, in real life, the old trope of the chess genius as a bohemian drenched in alcohol is now old hat. There was a time when, as I recounted here, great chess masters were conspicuous consumers of alcohol and tobacco. One young Grandmaster of my acquaintance, in what I like to describe as the Cretaceous Period of chess, seemed in perpetual danger of exploding in a shower of drink and drugs. 

Nowadays, though, the chess elite treat chess as a sport — a mind sport. For this it is essential to keep the little grey cells completely free from the befuddlement of nicotine, alcohol and, indeed, any kind of ultimately harmful artificial stimulant. There was even a brief period when the food police tried to penalise chess masters for drinking dangerous, nerve-jangling coffee during games. Fortunately, sanity prevailed and this inane piece of uberwoke political correctness has been consigned to the dustbin of torn up score sheets.

Finally, there is the curious fact that all the genuine games of chess, cited as examples of the heroine’s play in The Queen’s Gambit, were originally played by men, not women. This seems odd, given that there is plenty of extant and eminently suitable material from such female chess board Titans as Judit Polgár and Vera Menchik, which might easily have been enlisted as more authentic and reasonable.

Beth Harmon is not the only queen to have captivated chess enthusiasts. Indeed, it was with the momentous increase in the powers of the old “Fers” from the proto-chess version Shatranj, that the modern game came into existence, and along the way a number of flesh and blood queens became seriously involved. From its origins in India in the 6th century CE, through its adoption in Arabic cultures and then its transmission to western Europe in the late 10th century, chess had shown itself to be a malleable cultural form, which could adapt to fit the political, military, social and cultural milieux in which it was played.

In reaching the West, from the likely origins of chess in India and Persia, the Shah became the King, the Fers, or Firz (the vizier) was upgraded to the Queen (and hence symbolic of western, medieval queenship), the elephant metamorphosed – in English at least – into the Bishop, the horse was ennobled to a Knight, and the chariot developed into the Rook or castle. Finally, the humble infantry, the lowly pawns, remained as foot soldiers.

In the centuries between 1100 and 1500 CE, chess acquired complex layers of literary and cultural meanings in the West. In a variety of combinations, it stood not only as a metaphor for warfare, but also for the social hierarchy and, in paradoxical contrast to the imagery of battle, was identified as an occasion for lovers’ meetings. It was also adopted into heraldry as a signifier of nobility and honour.

During this time the game was subject to a series of rule changes, granting both the Queen and the Bishop dramatically increased powers. The new chess became known as ‘de la dama’ – the Queen’s or Lady’s chess, or even the chess of the enraged or mad Queen, la dame enragé, or rabiosa. This epithet referred to the fact that the newly empowered Queen could range and wreak havoc across the entire board. Writers at the time of the change were particularly impressed by the ability of the new Queen to give checkmate in just two moves. Admittedly, this catastrophe depended on hugely cooperative ineptitude from White (1. g4 e5; 2. f3 Qh4 checkmate). However, in the old form of the game, meaningful contact between the two armies was hardly even possible by move ten, let alone move two.

Checkmate on move two hardly ever happens, but in general, these changes made it easier for one side to achieve checkmate, or victory more rapidly. The first surviving printed chess manual, Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez con 101 Juegos de Partido (“Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess”) by Luis Ramírez de Lucena, was published in Salamanca in 1497. Roughly half of the chess problems in the book were based on the old rules and the other half from the chess “de la dama” – of the queen, the game we know today. Lucena dedicated his work to the Infante Juan, princely brother of Catalina and the son of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Catalina later became Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England, where she owned several ivory chess sets. On her death in 1536, they were sent to Henry VIII.

The dedication of Lucena’s book has led to repeated speculation that Isabella inspired the dramatic new moves of the Queen. Attractive though this theory might be, there is no evidential basis for it. A number of other rule changes also crystallised in the 16th century, including rules concerning pawn promotion, castling and the single or double initial move of the pawns. Some innovations were tried and discarded, thus the new Queen’s move was linked to the search for the best form of the game.

It is significant to this debate that Lucena made no mention whatsoever of Isabella (despite erroneous assertions that he dedicated his chess book to her). He claimed simply that he was describing the “best games” played in Rome, Italy in general, France and Spain, leaving open the question of both where and why the new rules had originated. While we cannot say with any certainty that Isabella inspired this change, we can say that the literature surrounding chess adapted quite strikingly to accommodate the “enraged” queen.

Despite this change, books clinging to the old rules continued to be produced. One of the most popular was a moralising sermon by the Italian Dominican friar, Jacobus De Cessolis, written around 1300 and discussed here. His “Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum” (‘Book of the Customs of Men and the Duties of Nobles about the Game of Chess”) used the chess pieces as symbols for the ranks in society and attributed virtues and vices to each of them, as well as giving instructions on how to play. It was widely translated in manuscript and between 1474 and 1551 it was printed in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Latin. It also continued to circulate in manuscript – in Sweden and Scotland, for example. The earliest printed English version of this work was published in Bruges by William Caxton in 1474 and again in London in 1483.

In De Cessolis, who of course focused on the older, slower version of chess, the Queen’s virtues followed the traditional tropes of medieval queens consort. In the friar’s tome, unlike other women who were given to vices (which were described at length), the Queen displayed wisdom, discretion, and chastity. She should also be bashful and modest. Her moves on the board were restricted, because in Caxton’s words, quaint to modern ears, it is “not a fittying nor convenient thynge for a woman to goo to bataylle for the fragilitye and feblenes of her.”

We can contrast this judgement of the weakness of queens with the chess literature of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, when the Queen had been promoted to the most powerful piece in the chess universe.  In 1562, for example, The Pleasaunt and wittie Playe of the Chess renewed advised that the Queen was “the best piece on the chessboard… because that the game is seldome wonne, after that she is once lost.” The new powers of the chess Queen were reflected in the fact that some writers now named her “Amazon white or Amazon black”, because the Amazonians were the first women successfully to wage war, even being mentioned as fighting at the siege of Troy in the person of Queen Penthesilea.

The book’s publisher, James Rowbotham, dedicated it to Robert Dudley and, doubtless currying favour with a potential future leader, twice pointedly emphasised the “kingly” nature of the game, at a time when Dudley was regarded as a likely spouse for Elizabeth. The advice not to lose the Queen was also emphasised in Nicholas Breton’s later poem “The Chesse”, published in the The Pheonix Nest in 1593, along with a vindication of the Earl of Leicester against posthumous libels.

Loose not the Queene, for ten to one, 

If she be lost, the game is gone.”

The term “Amazon” for Queen also appears in an extended poem of 1597 based loosely on a Latin poem by Marco Vida, bishop of Alba, written in the early 16th century. The poem, “Ludus Scacchiae”, (“the Game of Chess”) recounts a game played between the two gods Mercury and Apollo and it was widely disseminated in the original Latin version, in Italian, French, Polish and German translations. Throughout the 16th century and beyond, Vida’s work contributed to the active rather than passive image of the new chess Queen’s powers.

In the late 17th century, Edmund Bohun listed chess as one of Elizabeth I’s private recreations, along with dancing or singing. The one contemporary description of Elizabeth playing chess comes from a despatch by the French ambassador, Paul de Foix, in 1565, in which he describes entering Elizabeth’s privy chamber while she was playing chess. Chess, he told Elizabeth, was an image of the discourses, thoughts and actions of men. If you lose a pawn, it might seem trivial, but it could mean that the whole game is lost. According to Foix, Elizabeth was agitated by the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots, and she replied sharply that she knew Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley was only a pawn, but he might checkmate her if she didn’t take guard. Drawing Foix aside she complained about the disloyalty of Darnley and his father the Earl of Lennox.

Sir William Reynolds-Stephens’ statue “A Royal Game”

Analysis of Elizabeth’s style of chess play or choice of opening gambits is quite impossible, because none of her games survive. This is par for the course at the time, when chess manuals offered winning strategies to players, but very few actual games were recorded. In 1911, however, Sir William Reynolds-Stephens imagined Elizabeth I playing chess against Philip II in a life-size sculpture, “A Royal Game” {}, with massive pieces representing the invading galleons of the Spanish Armada of 1588. This is now in the Tate Gallery, but we have no evidence that the two warring monarchs ever played chess together.

It is revealing to compare Caxton’s assessment of the mediaeval queen’s “feblenes” and restricted powers with the famous speech, allegedly delivered by Elizabeth herself, when addressing her troops during the threatened Spanish invasion. The words ascribed to the Queen almost seem like a reversal or rebuttal of Caxton’s estimation. The speech was recorded in a letter from Buckingham’s chaplain, Leonel Sharp, to the Duke of Buckingham:

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”

La dame enragée indeed.

Elizabeth’s great rival for the English throne and for Dudley’s affections, Mary, Queen of Scots, was also a devotee of the game. In 1560, the bishop of Limoges, the French ambassador in Madrid, sent a chess book to her, having heard that she took great pleasure in the game. The author was named as “the famous Saffran”, described by the bishop as one of the greatest players ever seen, who had beaten all of Italy and the rest of the world. Professor Jacqueline Eales, former President of the Historical Association (and my erudite sister), has identified “the Saffran” as the famed Spanish expert Ruy Lopez, a native of Zafra in Estremadura (hence Saffran), and it is typical of the hyperbole that surrounded the few well-known players that Lopez is described as a sort of unofficial world champion. The popular opening: 1. e4 e5; 2. Nf3 Nc6; 3. Bb5 is also named in his honour and in the modern era has been known as the Ruy Lopez (or Spanish) opening. A decade later and in less happy times, Lord Scrope and Sir Francis Knollys played chess in Mary’s presence, when she was imprisoned at Bolton Castle.

Elizabeth I was also the recipient of chess themed gifts and on several occasions Elizabeth received new year’s gifts of chess boards made of marzipan and, in one case, of sugar, with her arms engraved on the sugary board. More than was the case with any other board game, chess was imbued by Elizabeth’s contemporaries with many layers of symbolic meanings. It pertained to royalty, warfare, diplomacy, politics, and sex.

This week’s game is a win from an early Hastings Tournament in 1931 where the best female player of the day, Vera Menchik, demolished the World Champion-to-be Dr Max Euwe. Menchik, a British-Czechoslovak-Russian chess master, was the virtually unchallenged inaugural Women’s World Champion, but was killed in 1944 by a Nazi flying bomb aged just 38 during the latter stages of the London Blitz. Her most notable successor as the world’s strongest female player has been Judit Polgár, who has notched the scalps of both Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen. Although Judit has, in the past, qualified to compete in the World Championship Candidates’ Tournament, she has never come within range of the supreme title itself. I imagine that her feelings on watching The Queen’s Gambit must have been decidedly mixed. Fittingly, the opening of this week’s game is a… Queen’s Gambit.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 96%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
58 ratings - view all

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