Not so Black and White: chess and gender politics




Chess first came to me in the same way that Legos and Playmobil sets did: a group of characters, familiar and reassuring in their clear, hierarchical order. When I played with my parents’ chessboard, I made up stories about the pieces just like I did with those other toys, gave them names and personalities, moved them around the board to act out fantasies of medieval politics and warfare—probably generously cribbed from Disney’s Robin Hood.

Even if I treated the pieces like toys at that time, my parent’s large, elegant set communicated something more profound and elusive than the other medieval games of my childhood. A chess set always seemed to me like a vessel of some sort of ancient wisdom, an unsolvable puzzle; and this impression has really only solidified in the years of playing the game since. But if not only the games but the pieces themselves—their arrangement, their relative abilities, their shapes—communicate a system of power relationships, what system do they describe?

Olivia Bono Chess (final)

Chess as a political and social analogy is a fascinating combination of a deeply encoded and traditional power hierarchy with strangely subversive messaging about power relationships. The king is the most important piece on the board; while the other pieces are given relative numerical values by chess players, the king is not at the top but literally out of this hierarchy, with no assigned value. For computer chess programs, the king is sometimes given an arbitrarily massive number (like 1,000,000,000) to indicate the degree to which its importance is above the rest of the pieces.

But the reason that the king is valued so highly is that it is the key to the game and simultaneously so defenseless that its techniques consist mostly of hiding and running. At best, it can corner the opponent’s pieces with the help of other, generally more powerful pieces. All the other pieces—the rooks, knights, bishops and the queen—possess more threatening abilities than the king; and the pawns, the peasantry, are weaker than the king when alone but, in groups, are one of the most formidable forces on the board.

And, of course, the relationship between the king and queen is nearly a total inverse of traditional, patriarchal gender roles—all the more stunning when one remembers that chess has been played in India since around the seventh century, and in Europe since the ninth. The queen is the only clearly female piece on the board, and she is by far the most powerful, literally combining the powers of the two next-most powerful. She flies from one end of the board to the other; she attacks, pins, forks and takes, while the piece that is nominally her husband and ruler stays near his starting position, sometimes forced to stumble slowly out of danger or to cower behind another piece. The queen is the king’s protector and champion, and the king is a damsel in perpetual distress.

Of course, this is all of little practical importance in the playing of the game; as far as the competitive outcome, it is how the pieces can move that matters, not who they are or what they represent. It is fascinating to think about what this game teaches, however, especially to children learning the game for the first time. The ambiguous politics of the chess set—a feudalistic power structure with a powerless, cowering patriarch whose wife is the aggressive warrior—simultaneously reinforce and deconstruct the fairy tales and Disney movies that evoke its world of castles, knights, and monarchs.

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