Chess has a glorious history. The particular part of the game’s history that we are interested is the development of the queen piece. It’s an incredible story of powerful women impacting an everyday game, from a period where women were more oppressed than they are today.
The origin of chess can be traced back to our own sub-continent. British historian H.J.R. Murray in his book- “A History of Chess”, puts the time for chess invention at around 6th century A.D. At that time, the game was called ‘Chaturanga’ or four divisions as it was played with four types of pieces- infantry, elephantry, cavalry and chariotry. In Chaturanga, the Queen piece was called ‘Mantri’ or minister. In many cases, we still call it the same in our native languages.
According to Murray, the game spread from India to Persia- present day Iran. Following the Arab conquest of Persia, it spread through the Arab world quickly. In Persia and in the Arab world, it was called ‘Shatranj,’ a distortion of the word ‘Chaturanga’. At this point, the queen piece was still being called ‘Ferz’ or counselor, and was a weaker piece as it could only move one square diagonally, each way.
The middle-eastern countries were stuck to their ways and still call the piece the same way. The game spread to Europe via the Muslim world. The Arab conquest of Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain, brought the game to this continent. Byzantines are also credited for spreading this game in Europe through their repeated contact with Persians and Arabs.
After the introduction in Europe, the one-step-diagonally moving ‘ferz’ or the vizier piece quickly transformed into the all-powerful queen on the board that we know today. It all changed around 1000 AD and after evolving for almost 500 years, the queen has now the power to move in every direction- vertically, horizontally and diagonally through any unoccupied squares.
Historian Marilyn Yalom, who was a scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, believes that the rise of women in the political landscape of Europe in the late Middle Ages has a direct connection with this renaming and increase of power for this certain piece in chess.
Yalom in her book ‘Birth of Chess Queen: A history’ describes the first mention of the queen piece by a Swiss monk at around 990 AD. At that time, most of the Europe was ruled by Ottonian emperors and Otto II was on the throne. His wife empress Theophano was a revered woman in the empire. Theophano, who was of Byzantine ancestry, was one of the characters in European history credited for introducing chess to the continent through her marriage. After her husband’s death, she ruled over the empire as queen regent for her son Otto III. She is thought to be one of earliest inspiration for the queen piece.
Queen regent Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ruled over a portion of France and England in the 11th century and perhaps more commonly known as the mother of Richard the Lionheart, was perhaps the next inspiration.
Later on, some very powerful women ruled over Europe, such as- Queen Isabella of Aragon and Castille, (in)famous for Reconquista and funding Columbus’s voyage; Mery I, first woman monarch of England. This particular lineage of women in monarchy ended around the 17th century with Catherine the Great of Russia and queen Elizabeth of England, when the monarchies themselves started to decline. But the queen piece in chess remained in its power and glory.
This whole story of the queen piece in chess, is an incredible insight into women empowerment throughout the ages. It shows how powerful women at their prime were able to influence an everyday sport like chess. It is a testament to how women played a big role in shaping society and its elements, throughout history.
At that time, the ruling class women, such as Catherine De Medici of Italy took an interest in playing chess. But the pre-modern and the modern era saw a fall in the numbers of women chess players. The book by Yalom provides statistics that- only five per cent of the total chess players worldwide were female in 2000.
As for Bangladesh, the name of legendary Rani Hamid needs to be mentioned with respect. She became the first woman international master or WIM for the country in 1985. She also won the British Women’s Chess Championship 3 times. She won the national title for women 20 times, which is at the same time a great and a sad record. It's sad because it shows the lack of competition in women’s chess on national level. Since the time of Rani Hamid, the country has produced only two WIMs, whereas India which has produced 42 WIMs. Arranging regional competition to pick the talents and grooming them could provide a huge opportunity for Bangladesh to gain some more ground in women’s chess on international level.
Sheikh Tausif Ahmed is a third year student of economics at Dhaka University.