"She is an awesome warrior who can move in any direction -- forward, backward, to the right, to the left, and diagonally -- one space at a time or across the entire board," writes Marilyn Yalom in Birth of the Chess Queen (HarperCollins, $24.95). But the queen did not always evince such power and flexibility. Indeed, she was a late insertion into the greatest of board games: In India and other regions where chess originated, all the pieces started out male. How the piece once known as the vizier to the king underwent a sex change is the subject of this foray into chess history.

The answer, Yalom suggests, has to do not only with the accession of women to real-life thrones but also with the cult of the Virgin Mary. The book is brocaded with chess anecdotes, mostly centered on women of note who happened to play it, including Elizabeth I of England. Once, when the French ambassador was shown into the queen's presence as she was playing chess, he commented on the game's similarity to real-life maneuvers. "I understand you," Elizabeth replied. "Darnley is only a pawn but he may checkmate me if he is promoted." It was a rather prophetic remark -- in marrying Mary of Scotland, the Darnley in question became king of Scotland, "and his only child with Mary, James VI of Scotland, ultimately became James I of England after Elizabeth's death." Yalom is also the author of A History of the Wife and A History of the Breast.

-- Dennis Drabelle