Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit enraptured millions when it was released in late 2020. The show, named after a well-known chess opening move, follows the life of Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy. Though utterly brilliant and able to quickly rise through the ranks of the elite chess players, she finds herself constantly embattled by drug and alcohol addiction. Due in part to the massive success of the show, as well as increased time indoors due to COVID-19, the game of chess itself has seen an explosive resurgence of interest.
One aspect of the game experience that is downplayed in The Queen’s Gambit is the rampant sexism that occurred—and, to a lesser degree, continues to occur—within the professional chess world. Judit Polgar, the only woman to ever break into the Top 10 chess player rankings, reflected during an interview with The New York Times that she found the male competition’s treatment of Beth to be “too nice.” “There were opponents who refused to shake hands…one who hit his table on the board after he lost,” she remarked.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that, in modern chess, the strongest unit on the board is also the only female piece: the queen piece is now the undisputed ruler of the board. However, this was not always the case. Originally brought to Europe by Persian traders in the eight century, chess would take several hundred years to evolve into its current form with the all-powerful queen. The Persian game of Shatranj (adopted from India’s Chaturanga) had no ‘female’ pieces when it was brought to Europe–rather, the queen’s modern position was held by the vizier (the advisor). This piece was extremely weak, only being able to move one space in any direction diagonally. Over the course of the next two hundred years, the vizier was gradually replaced in European chess by the queen. She, however, remained just as weak on the playing board as the vizier she replaced. Her awkward and ineffective movements were described as “symbolically sinful,” with one medieval commentator going so far as to write: “[Her] move is aslant only, because women are so greedy that they will take nothing except by rapine and injustice.”
A radical change, however, would come over Europe—and by extension, chess—during the fifteenth century, with the ascension of Queen Isabella I of Castile to the Spanish throne. This change is covered in Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom. In it, Yalom argues that the rise of powerful medieval monarchs like Queen Isabella heavily influenced the transformation of the queen chess piece into the most potent figure on the board.
Queen Isabella was a remarkable historical figure who challenged contemporary interpretations of women’s role in society. Isabella carefully shared power with her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, to ensure that power remained concentrated between them where she could control it. Isabella was also heavily involved in the shift of power away from the Mediterranean states and toward the Atlantic rim kingdoms. Though herself no frontline soldier, she worked tirelessly to plan military campaigns, operated as the quartermaster-general and armorer of the Spanish royal army, and built Europe’s finest and most formidable arsenal of artillery to crush the fortresses of her enemies. Spending days on the road without her husband, she often personally oversaw the levying of soldiers, the resolution of disputes, and the quashing of rebellions throughout the countryside. Indeed, so powerful was Isabella that it led to one contemporary European author to write, “This queen of Spain, called Isabella, has had no equal on this earth for 500 years.”
Though perhaps in actuality the most powerful ruler of her time, Isabella remained, in the medieval perspective, symbolically secondary to her husband Ferdinand. Indeed, this is reflected in chess; the queen, though supremely powerful, remains inferior in value to the king. While the king’s movement is severely hampered when compared to the ability of the queen (the king only being able to move one space in any direction), the game is won or lost by protecting him, and not necessarily the queen. Indeed, the “queen sacrifice”—a play in which the queen is given up in exchange for a more tactically advantageous position—has a troubling, real-world application.
A study conducted by researchers at Utah State University found that failing companies tended to hire more female CEOs – and then fire them. Figures provided by PricewaterhouseCoopers additionally showed that substantially more women (35%) were removed from leadership positions than men (27%). More troubling yet, the researchers at Utah State found that in the vast majority of these cases, when a female or minority CEO is replaced, it is usually by a white man. As with the queen sacrifice, a female or minority CEO is brought in by a struggling company in order to improve its strategic position. Her duty, it would seem, is to improve the position of the board (literally and figuratively) and she is, ultimately, expendable. Female CEOs are, certainly, considered replaceable in ways which male CEOs are not—her own personal ability or competencies aside. So, how can this problem be addressed? If you’ll forgive the pun, the issue lies, once again with the board.
Ali Cook, one of the researchers from Utah State, spoke in an interview with The Guardian, describing ways to increase the number of female and minority CEOs. Cook argued that the boards of these companies must themselves first become diverse: “Sentiment such as boards wanting directors with board experience, and with similar interests and experiences to their own perpetuate predominantly white males serving that board.” So, it would seem that for us to move away from a culture of “queen sacrifice” in the modern business world, we first need to change the rules of the board.
To do this, we stop protecting the king.
We would do well to consider people for their individual merit and worth—ultimately, protecting one group of people absolutely above all others is morally untenable. Diversity, especially in decision making, helps ensure success. And, yes, there is a chess metaphor for that. One of the most common finishes in chess is a king and queen endgame. In this scenario, the king and queen face a lone, opposing king. The king is unable to secure a checkmate alone. He must rely on the queen working in tandem. So too, the lone queen cannot herself force the checkmate. Indeed, only by each other, can the king and queen secure the ultimate victory.
Chess board: Alexis Fauvet via Unsplash