Some questions arising from "Birth of the Chess Queen"

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Paul McKeown
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Some questions arising from "Birth of the Chess Queen"

Post by Paul McKeown » Sat Jul 27, 2019 5:47 pm

I have been doing some long overdue reading, now that the chess teaching and organising calendar lightens during the summer break.

A particular pleasure has been the feminist, Marilyn Yalom's, "Birth of the Chess Queen A History", pub. Harper Collins, 2004

(In contrast to David Shenk's, "The Immortal Game", which although highly praised, I just couldn't swallow and ultimately failed to finish. Sadly I found it padded, lacking in chess erudition, breathless in style, never pausing to deepen understanding, and I wasn't entirely convinced of its historical soundness. Perhaps horses for course, or YMMV.)

Back to Yalom. Her academic background is evident as she deepens herself in numerous sources in various languages to produce a (for me) thorough and convincing, yet enjoyable narrative.

Nevertheless questions arose, which others perhaps can help me with.

pp. 206 to 210, titled, "Isabella, Ferdinand, and Columbus", gives her translation from the French, in Le Palamède, October 15, 1845, of a story presumed initially recounted by Hernando del Pulgar. The story goes that Columbus, begging yet again for royal patronage for his desired voyage westward to India, interrupts Ferdinand in a chess game against Fonseca, something of a duffer. The interruption leads Ferdinand to blunder horribly, as he thinks, leading him to curse the Genoese. Pulgar, however having seen further whispered a mate in four to Isabella who then in turn whispers to the king that he is not lost, after all. Winning the game, Ferdinand's humour is improved and Cristóbal Colón is granted his sought patronage.

Surely, however, this is just myth-making, rather than reliable history?

Is this not a retelling of Dilaram, in an updated setting, undoubtedly known in chess circles in Spain from Moorish sources, during and in the immediate aftermath of the Reconquest?

Moving on, Yalom repeatedly references the Catalan poem, Scachs d'amor, 1475, which recounts the game between Castellví and Vinyoles, played in Valencia and witnessed by Fenollar.

This game is quite evidently one of modern chess, rather than of shatranj:


Why then does Murray, in his famous history, pay it scant attention, and link the birth of modern chess to Italy, rather than Spain, or more properly, to Catalan speakers from Valencia?

[My supposition is that Murray was exhausted after decades of research and wished to publish; the discovery of Schachs d'amor happened late (1905), and its dating was not at the time a secure fact. I would be interested in counter-suggestions, or, even better some firm knowledge of Murray's views.]

Finally, reference is also made to the Llibre dels jochs partitis del schachs en nombre 100, the first printed book on modern chess, from Valencia, 1495, written by Francesch Vicent. This of course is a famous "lost" incanabulum. Two copies were known to historians, one lost in 1811 when the Buonopartist army set fire to the Abbey of Santa Maria at Montserrat. The other was reportedly bought by an American collector in 1913.

Does anyone know who that collector was, and what is known about the fate of his copy of the book?

Geoff Chandler
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Re: Some questions arising from "Birth of the Chess Queen"

Post by Geoff Chandler » Thu Aug 01, 2019 2:07 pm

Hi Paul,

The Columbus tale sounds metaphorical. This 2017 link: 'New World Discovered Because Of - A Chess Game?'

https://www.chess.com/forum/view/genera ... chess-game

Mentions the above story and the poster got it from Edward Lasker's 'Adventure in Chess' published by Dover in 1959.

(searched high and low for my copy alas no).

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