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The Power of the Queen: Women Who Helped Shape Chess

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Everyone bows down to the Queen, in chess. Yet, in most sporting events, women had to fight for their place. History is filled with stories similar to how Kathrine Switzer left male runners in her wake at the Boston Marathon, or how Billie Jean King stood over Bobby Riggs in triumph over the tennis match dubbed as The Battle of the Sexes.

Chess, on the other hand, shares a significant part of its centuries-old existence with women, their power, and influence affecting the classical board game. However, it doesn’t mean that the game is perfect in its treatment of the genders. There’s always room for growth and improvement. Even now, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has only awarded the prestigious Grandmaster title to only 38 women out of over 1900 titles awarded throughout its history.

Although the chessboard is now a level playing field for everyone – regardless of age, race, or even gender – let us take the opportunity to share the role of women in shaping chess as we know it today.

Queen chess
The Queen: arguably the strongest piece, coming from centuries of history.

How Real Queens Created the Namesake Chess Piece

In an attempt to piece together the long and extensive history of chess, researchers have stumbled upon the “original forms” of the pieces we now know and love. For example, the ancient Indian board game of chaturanga, the earliest known ancestor of modern chess, used four forms of soldiers: the elephants, chariots, horsemen, and foot soldiers or infantry. These are taken from actual warfare strategies of the time. As time went on, these four chaturanga characters became the bishop, rook, knight, and pawn, respectively. Interestingly enough, the moves of these four pieces, together with the King, haven’t changed much over the centuries.

The Queen, however, has a different case.

Comparison with the ancient chess ancestors shows that the Queen was a replacement for the Adviser (counselor, minister, or vizier, depending on where you played). It was probably inspired by their wizened and physically frail counterparts, being only capable of moving one square diagonally.

Aside from the mistranslation of gender-based nouns in different languages, one of the main theories that explain this evolution comes from historian Marilyn Yalom.  The Stanford University researcher believes that the rise of female monarchs in the Middle Ages might have something to do with the one-square Adviser becoming the most powerful Queen. France saw the rise of Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen consort of both France and England; while what is now Spain saw Isabella I of Castille successfully becoming the Queen of Castille, and later Queen of Aragon.

Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, the new piece that combined the Rook and Bishop was featured in a new Chess variant from Spain: formally called “The Queen’s Chess” but informally (and pejoratively) termed the “madwoman’s chess.” It was the 15th century and people were having trouble wrapping their heads around an ultra-powerful chess piece.

women chess judit polgar
Judit Polgar in her TED Talk, titled “Giving checkmte is always fun.”

Women in the Modern Chess World

Countless women of note have been mentioned or recorded in history as having played chess, with their prowess in playing the board game being lauded. In fact, the first women’s chess tournament in modern history happened in 1884 and was sponsored by the Sussex Chess Association. And a mere 13 years later, the world recognizes women and chess and hosts the first women’s international chess tournament, won by the English chess master Mary Rudge.

Throughout its more recent history, we’ve heard stories of women establishing themselves alongside their male chess counterparts, if not above them. One example was in 1976, when Indian chess master Rohini Khadlikar joined the Indian Men’s Championship, causing an uproar that required intervention from the High Court. It also led the FIDE president at the time, Max Euwe, to release a ruling that says women can’t be prevented from joining national and international championships. Interestingly, it was the same year that another chess legend, Hungarian grandmaster Judit Polgar, was born.

Polgar achieved the title of chess Grandmaster at only 15 years and 4 months of age in 1991, making her the youngest player to earn the title at that point, breaking Bobby Fischer’s previous record. Five years later, Polgar would make another record by being the first woman to enter the top ten chess players worldwide. Judit Polgar has become a household name, not just in chess, for breaking and setting new records everywhere – she defeated the reigning top chess player, Garry Kasparov (the first woman to do so), and the first female player to join a small-scale World Chess Championship in 2005.

Over the past decade, other women grandmasters have also emerged and have started vying for dominance. Recently, the world has been watching the stellar performance of Hou Yifan, the current top woman chess player in the world and only the third woman to join the world’s Top 100 players. Widely regarded as a chess prodigy, Yifan also qualified for the title of grandmaster at just 14 years, 6 months, and 2 days; she also stands as the youngest winner of the Women’s World Chess Championship.

women chess QB1
A scene from “The Queen’s Gambit,” the Netflix miniseries that helped spark widespread interest among girls in chess.

Final Word

It is safe to say that chess is strictly a game of intellect, one that is poised to disregard differences in age, ethnicity, location, language, or even gender. However, it still has areas to improve in, since there are still cases of discriminatory remarks against female players – a fact attested to even by the world’s best such as Judit Polgar, American chess grandmaster Shahade, and English chess grandmaster Jovanka Houska.

Additionally, with the smashing success of the recently-concluded The Queen’s Gambit, young girls around the world are starting to pick up their chess pieces and engaging in games with other people, even boys. We hope that the young ones who idolize Beth Harmon would soon find inspiration in her real-life counterparts – and find them just as awesome.

READ NEXT: The Making Of Grandmasters – A Mother’s Influence

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