Category Archives: History

The Name of the Chess Queen in Different Languages

In accordance with the theme of the Conference, a closer look at the chess queen is essential. Why does the most powerful piece on the chessboard have a female identity? Chess is an abstract strategy game, so the naming of the pieces should be arbitrary – merely a polite fiction. Yet the name of the chess queen, seen in a historical and geographical context, reveals some fascinating aspects of European culture. Arguably, we are given the story of the emancipation of women.

Name of the chess queen in different languages

The “queen” was not always the queen. Asian and Eastern European languages refer to the queen as the “vizier” – a high ranking government officer – not necessarily female. Russian (ferz’) and Turkish (vezir) retain this derivation. The original vizier piece could move only one square in each direction.

As chess moved to medieval Europe the piece became more powerful – it could move any number of moves in any direction. During this period, it acquired a new identity – it became a queen, perhaps inspired by the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine. Norway, Denmark, the British Isles and Iceland use the terms “king” and “queen”, easier perhaps having lived under monarchies since the Vikings.

The most common name for the piece in Western Europe is “dame” (or its cognates). As in the musical South Pacific, there ain’t nothing like a dame. In French, the piece is called the “dame”. This change in terminology happened centuries before the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France – who might otherwise be blamed for depriving chess of its noble character.

Most European languages use more than one word for the piece – not only “queen” but also “dame” or “lady”. The subtle linguistic differences between queen and dame would require a more extended exploration of aristocratic and political history beyond the scope of this article.

However, we should not overlook one simple explanation. The advent of chess notation brought about the need to distinguish between pieces. In many languages, the word for king and the word for queen have the same root. For example, in Spanish, the word for king is “rey” and the word for queen is “reina”. Chess notation requires clarity and so a word with a different initial letter meets this requirement.

The Queen Names map is not intended to be definitive. It illustrates that chess terminology imports the history and culture of the world. Long live the queen, the lady, the dame and the vizier.

Two cultural groups held out against foreign influence and retained their own words to refer to the queen: Estonia (Flag) and Georgia (Jackal). The Flag and Jackal – a tempting title for a book on chess name history – or a club for the independent-minded.

An Unofficial Champion

Mary Rudge (1842-1919), who had been called the women´s world champion before the title existed, died today 100 years ago. She played her first competitive games by correspondence. This was no unusual start at chess for a woman in the 19th century. Rudge became Bristol Chess Club´s first female member after the club decided in 1872 to accept women.

Mary Rudge was the youngest daughter of a medical doctor who taught his children to play chess. She did not marry and worked as a teacher for some years. When she was without income, friends remembered her chess prowess and organised exhibitions for her to raise money. Rudge was most likely the first woman to give simuls.

The exclusion of women from clubs and competitions was still widespread when the first Ladies Chess Club was founded in London in 1895 and the first Ladies Chess Congress took place in London in 1897. Rudge who was already 55 years old won the main competition of the congress. The British Chess Magazine went on to refer to her as women´s world champion.   

Rudge died in 1919 nearly two years before Vera Menchik and her mother and sisters moved from Russia to England. Soon afterwards the world chess federation FIDE was founded and introduced official women competitions. Menchik won all championships until she was killed in a German air raid in 1944.

Source: Wikipedia

“While Chess Brightens up Life, Women Brighten up Chess”

The lower pick-up-rate of chess by women and the male dominance in competitions have been a matter of discussion since ages. Many commentators treat the topic with galantry as has Savielly Tartakower in the above quote. It is taken from an impressive collection of statements, arguments and clippings that were excerpted by Edward Winter, the eminent chess historian, and span from the 19th century to the present day.

Apart from the male dominance among the commentators one can also observe that the disregard of chess by women is rationalized. Places and social circles where chess is played are not welcoming for women. On the other hand “Lasker´s Chess Magazine” warns in 1906 that the creation “of ladies’ chess clubs is a means of perpetuating mediocrity among its members.”

It has often been asserted that women lack the recklessness and ambition required to succeed on the board. Hermann von Gottschall, the Deutsche Schachzeitung´s editor, argued in 1893 that the typical female tendency for intrigues should empower their play. In the same light hearted fashion he went on to claim that their preference for light chatter should not at all hinder women, because in the usual café or club game talking takes precedence over the actual moves.

Von Gottschall wrote for a nearly exclusively male audience, as did so many after him. More recently, explaining the male dominance in chess has become a minefield, and that can also be established from Winter´s collection (which also contains the above photo from a book on the German Chess Congress 1905 showing an actress performing Caissa in the opera “The Royal Middy”, which features a notorious checkmating trick).