Sunday, July 11, 2004
All the right moves
The problem Yalom set out to solve, apparently, is how the queen went from being a relatively weak piece -- able to move only a single space, and only diagonally -- to the most powerful piece on the board. The change occurred in the late middle ages which, you'll recall, is before women's lib. That puzzles Yalom, and while she doesn't have an explanation she outlines three factors that she thinks might be relevant. First there is the fact that the Virgin Mary was venerated in medieval culture, second there was the rise to power of Isabella in Spain, and lastly Yalom notes that in southern Europe (the region where the change took place) women generally had more expansive rights than elsewhere in Europe.
I'm quite skeptical of Yalom's search for an explanation that looks for a strong link between European culture's understandings of women and the rules of chess. Keep in mind that two (or three, depending on how you count) other changes in the rules of chess took place at about the same time. First, the practice of castling was introduced and refined (originally castling took several moves -- you began by moving your king towards the rook and then the rook was allowed to jump the king). Second, pawns were allowed to move two spaces on their first move -- this led to the en passant rule, which is arguably a third change.
Maybe there are grand socio-historical explanations for each of these changes as well. I would argue, however, that the adoption of these rules, together with the increase in the queen's mobility, combined to make chess a better game. So, on this theory, the explanation for why the rules are the way they are now ultimately comes down to playability.
Of course, that's only part of the story. It leaves hanging the question of how the decision was made to try these particular changes in the rules. Was there a medieval John Nash who looked at a chess board and declared that the rules should be thus and so in order to attain strategic parity? Were a number of variants tried and these three settled on based on their success? Did some monk get the rules fortuitously wrong?
These questions may well be unanswerable. But it is here, if anywhere, that work like Yalom's might be able to tell us something. As theories for the changes in the queen's mobility go, I like Yalom's hypothesis that some bright social climber introduced a more powerful queen into the game in an effort to curry favor with Queen Isabella. Unfortunately, Yalom's only proof seems to be that this makes a good story, and that's just not enough.