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Queen Isabella and the Invention of Modern Chess

Were the rules of chess shaped by a long-forgotten battle? Eduardo Gil Bera, following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment playwright Gotthold Lessing, explores the eccentric world of late Renaissance chess, in which Spanish maestros -the world’s finest- wrote the earliest treatises on the game. The queen piece rose to its preeminence on the chessboard as a result of one writer’s desire to pay tribute to Queen Isabella of Castile on the occasion of her spectacular intervention in the siege of Baza.

Lessing took up Spanish in 1750, and practiced conversation with his cousin Mylius- one wonders what people thought of that. That same year, he made plans to start some suitably momentous translation, his choice hovering between Calderon’s Life is a Dream and Cervantes’ Exemplary Novels. He was twenty-one, in his third year at the medicine faculty of the University of Wittenberg, and the author of poems in the manner of Juvenal, acidly deploring the mediocrity of the human species. Then, in early 1751, no hint of his intention having surfaced previously, Lessing wrote the first of the 450 pages that finally comprised the manuscript of his translation of Huarte’s Examen de ingenios (The Examination of Men’s Wits).

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Working from the Spanish edition of 1662 printed in Amsterdam, he enlisted a Latin translation, Scrutinium ingeniorum, by Joachim Caesar, as his linguistic icebreaker. Lessing’s sudden interest in Huarte was sparked by chess. The Examination of Men’s Wits was the first academic work to concern itself with the significance of the game and with the mental faculties and even the diets of those who regularly played it. So far, only the rules of chess had been published, in 1575. As any real chess buff well knows, Lessing was quite the enthusiast: the pivotal motif of his masterpiece, Nathan the Wise, is a chessboard.

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In his role as a librarian, Lessing undertook a review of the literature on chess. He found there had been a peak of publications about the so-called “new” game in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Spain. The original works, many of which were lost or survived only as a bedraggled band of a few rare copies, were out of Lessing’s reach, but he nonetheless made the inference that that particular period had seen a drastic change in the way chess was played.

On November 7, 1489, the Spanish troops laying siege to Baza, a principal city of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, received a visit from their Queen, Isabella of Castile. The “game” had been dragging on since the summer. Now the Queen’s arrival-ending a protracted and stately journey-delivered checkmate. A herald announced to the besieged townsfolk that Spain’s cannons would fall silent so that all those within the city could climb the walls to watch the royal welcome, while the Queen, in her turn, was to gaze upon the city, her serried ranks of soldiers, and the multitudes of present and future subjects. She rode a white mule, whose mantle of crimson and gold hung down in folds almost to the ground; the saddle was silvered and gilded, the satin bridle embroidered with gold ciphers. You could follow the Queen’s approach from a long way off: you would hear the crowd’s cheers, and see the battalions’ standards bowing in obeisance. Her first stop was the northwest encampment, where the artillery was emplaced. Her companions were her daughter, the Infanta Isabella, and Cardinal Mendoza, both clad, sleeved and gloved in gorgeous velvets, purples and brocades. The King of Aragon came forth from the southeast camp to welcome her, followed by his train of barons.

His doublet was crimson, his stockings gold satin, a richly worked cape hung from his shoulders; at his side a priceless scimitar rested, on his head a silk hairnet. The royal followers’ horses panted under blue mantles studded with golden stars. The King and Queen having thrice bowed to one another, the Queen removed her headgear to show her face. The King kissed first the Queen’s cheek, then the Infanta’s. Three days of feasting ensued, as did negotiations for the surrender of the town. The final terms were most merciful. Over the past months, the king had handled the siege operations themselves, while it had fallen to the Queen to marshal supplies from the Spanish rearguard in Jaen. At long last, the Queen’s trek to Baza made the intended impression on besiegers and besieged alike and brought the chess game to a close. During the revels marking the conquest of Baza, one of the pieces performed was a song that was later to win favor as a popular romance:

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Sobre Baza estaba el rey,
lunes, después de yantar
[Upon Baza was the king,
On Monday after luncheon…]

Nothing is known to us about the author. Neither do we know anything about the chess virtuoso who, in homage to the Queen, made new rules that were to ignite a revolution in the way the game was played. In the original version of chess, the piece sitting at the king’s side moved in feebly oblique steps, a single square at a time. But after the capture of Baza, the Queen became the strongest piece on the board, and the game veered onto a hitherto unimaginable course.

It was at this time, too, that the first chess books came out. One of the works concerned with the new version of the game, Llibre dels jochs partits dels schacs en nombre de 100, by a certain Vicent, went to press in 1495 in Valencia; another, Repetición de amores e arte de axedrez con 150 juegos de partido, by one Lucena, was printed in 1497 in Salamanca.

The new chess, with its dominant queen, became all the rage. Damiano’s handbook titled Questo Libro e da imparare giocare a scacchi et de le partite, printed in Rome in 1512, termed the new style of play all rabiosa, giving us an idea of how far chess had departed from its former pattern.

One of the events surrounding the coronation of Pope Pius IV in early 1560 was a world chess championship-purportedly held to mark a shift for the better in papal relations with Philip II-in the course of which Spaniards matched wits with Italians. The winner was a priest of the town of Zafra, Ruy Lopez, a famous Spanish champion who wiped the Italian maestros out.

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Ruy Lopez himself had a book published the following year in Alcala, Libro de la invención liberal y arte del juego del axedrez, later widely translated, imitated and adapted: notably, in Selenus’ Das Schachoder König-Spiel. This thick tome, which made the presses groan in Leipzig in 1616, was reputedly the first chess manual in the German language. Selenus-the nom de guerre of a self-effacing Teutonic duke-very appositely wondered why the game described by Ruy Lopez featured a Queen vested in the supreme powers of a field marshal, and why such high office attached to a female.

A few days before the Spanish royal treasury’s second bankruptcy, in the summer of 1575, a new world championship was hosted in Madrid. Philip II gave the victor, an Italian named Leonardo da Cutri, a prize of a thousand gold ducats, an ermine cloak, and a gold chain, from which hung a daintily crafted chess piece: the rook. In that same year Huarte’s The Examination of Men’s Wits saw the light. One proposition defended in the text was that the chess player’s quintessence was the power of imagination; one of the authors cited was Juvenal. For Lessing, what was there not to love?

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Queen Isabella and the Invention of Modern Chess. (2021, Mar 29). Retrieved November 27, 2021, from