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Edging Toward Japan: The 'queen' of the board's shifting status in chess and shogi

A chessboard set up for Damian Flanagan's son's alternate version of chess, with the queens held captive by the opposing side.

By Damian Flanagan

    A couple of years ago, I taught my 8-year-old son to play chess. But a few days later he startled me with his personal reinvention of the game, whose rules he taught back to me. It's rather intriguingly feminist.

    In this version of "chess," each of the queens has swapped starting positions and is now held captive by the rival camp. The objective of the game is not to defend at all costs the king, but rather to liberate the queen from her "captivity." Whichever player manages to remove all the opponent's pieces from around the captured queen, allowing her unfettered movement, wins. In this take on chess, the king is almost an irrelevance, who can be "taken" as the game proceeds. There's a few other rule changes too, like the ability to "castle" both king and captured queen regardless if there is a piece in the way.

    It's fascinating when you change the rules like this, how all the timeworn opening gambits go out the window and a new intriguing range of possibilities emerge.

    But then, while wandering around the Pergamon Museum in Berlin recently, I came upon an exhibit on the history of chess, which showed me just how much chess has evolved over the centuries as it moved in different directions. Of all pieces, it is the role of the "queen" which has changed the most.

    Originally, in Arabic chess, it seems this piece was not a "queen" at all, but the "counsellor" ("firzan") to the king ("shah") and it could only move one square in a diagonal direction. As the game entered Europe, however, its mobility began to increase. In the 13th century, in Castile (Spain), it was referred to as the "alferza" and could now progress on its first move two squares diagonally or straight ahead even if it meant jumping over other pieces. It was however not until the 15th century that the powerful "queen," capable of moving in all directions, emerged.

    A shogi board (Getty Images)

    I became interested to know when the "queen" piece had disappeared from the Japanese form of chess, shogi. But looking into this I was amazed to discover what a complicated history shogi has. It seems a variety of chess had already been introduced into Japan by the 9th century, and by the medieval period there were many complicated variants on the game -- played on different sized boards -- known as "Heian shogi," "Heian dai-shogi," "sho-shogi," "dai shogi," "wa-shogi," "tenjiku-shogi," "dai-dai shogi," "maka dai-dai shogi," "taikyoku-shogi." A form called "chu-shogi," which was still commonly played in Kyoto until the 1930s, retained the "queen" piece, while the standard game removed it.

    It's intriguing to think of chess as a game reflecting the ongoing re-evaluation of female roles in society. My son's innate "reinvention" of the game was apparently following in a venerable tradition. I wonder if Japanese shogi too will soon come under pressure to reinvent itself with a female character at the heart of the game.

    @DamianFlanagan

    (This is Part 4 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

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    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. One of the books he authored was "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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