Archive for November 22nd, 2019

Matching wits with Marilyn Yalom in Palo Alto: a game of chess in 2004

Friday, November 22nd, 2019
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How did the queen become so powerful? (Photo: Chris Stewart//San Francisco Chronicle)

No sooner did I tweet the news of author and French scholar Marilyn Yalom‘s death on Twitter, than lit critic John McMurtrie, formerly book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted right back. (See below.)

Since her death, a few people have asked me which is my favorite of Marilyn’s books. After John’s tweet, I think the answer would have to be the one I haven’t read yet: The Birth of the Chess QueenThat’s because of his story in the Chronicle fifteen years ago.

His charming tale of a memorable match in Palo Alto begins:

The chessboard before me is full, and my mind, it so happens, is suddenly a blank.

“My, these are nice-looking pieces,” I think to myself in a daze, scanning the dignified Nordic figures in this replica of the famous “Lewis chessmen” set from the Middle Ages. My pieces have their backs turned to me and they’re ready to enter the breach at my command. Now if I can only pull my thoughts together and put these little warriors in the right squares.

My opponent makes her first move. Here we go – time to kiss my kingdom goodbye.

On the opposite side of the board is Marilyn Yalom, the author of “Birth of the Chess Queen: A History” (HarperCollins, $24.95). The book explores the rise of the game’s queen vis-a-vis the rise of real queens in Europe. Yalom says she doesn’t play the game well, but surely she must be understating her prowess: She’s a senior scholar at Stanford’s Institute for Women and Gender who just wrote an entire book on chess. My knowledge of the game, on the other hand, never progressed much beyond childhood “matches” on the beach, when all it took to put an end to a game was the arrival of another game – any other game.

But there was no getting out of this match today. A challenge was laid down (silly me), and e-mail and phone calls were exchanged. As with war, once the plans have been drawn up, there is no easy way to back down. This battle was going to be waged.

Yalom, 72, stumbled upon this bit of knowledge six years ago and was intrigued. Many historians have written about the game’s evolution, she says, “but they’re not asking the questions that I’m asking.” Namely, what outside forces helped put a woman on the board, then made her the most powerful piece in the game?

In the midst of the chess game, John recalls “getting lost looking out the big back window of Yalom’s spacious house, taking in the soothing sounds of a nearby rooster. Amazing that one can be in Palo Alto, not far from Stanford, and still hear farm animals.” And it’s still that way. The redwood-and-stone home is where a reception after was held after her funeral today. She will be much missed. Read the rest of John’s story here

Matching wits at the July 23, 2004, game. (Photo: Chris Stewart//San Francisco Chronicle)