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I once read a scene where winning the hand of the castle maiden required beating her at a game of chess. And selfsame castle maidens sometimes played like the Polgars and went medieval. The rule was any player can always ask for a rematch, unless you mate in (at most) 4. I guess the dame had secretly fallen in love with the knight and ran willingly into a coup du berger (=Shepherd's Mate, AKA Scholar's Mate).

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    Did you read this thing (novel? short story? poem? play) in English, German, Latin, or some other language?
    – user14111
    Feb 6, 2022 at 15:43
  • German; I think the book was called "Rittersagen"; it was a prosa-ized version of...well, I don't know, could have been a poem as well. And I could swear it was one of the more well-known Artus knights. "Coup du berger" was untranslated. (I already searched Google Books for that, no luck.) Feb 8, 2022 at 9:05

2 Answers 2

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One chess scene that somewhat matches is from Huon de Bordeaux, a chanson de geste of the late 13th century. It is possible that you are recalling a German-language retelling of this. The original does not feature the Scholar's Mate, but does contain a high-stakes chess contest which is swayed by affection.

The overall story concerns the unfortunate Huon, who is sent to accomplish various tasks after accidentally killing Charlemagne's son. As part of his adventures, he comes to the home of the emir Yvorin, who challenges him to play his daughter at chess. If he loses he will be beheaded, and if he wins he gets to spend the night with her. She has apparently defeated many men before. In the course of the game, Huon initially is in a losing position, but is able to fight back and win after the lady is distracted by his fair appearance.

The French text can be read online, with this bit of the story starting at the line "Mais a eskiés te vorrai esprover" (= "but I shall make you prove yourself at chess"). My loose translation follows each quoted passage below.

After the terms of the challenge are set out, Huon makes ill-advised moves.

De se maisnie perdi l'enfes asés;
Adont commence grant colour à muer.
La damoiselle le prent à regarder:
Vasal, dist el, dites, à coi pensés?
Près ne s'en faut que vous n'estes matés;
Ja maintenant arés le cief copé.

From his side he lost pawns freely, and started to blush. The lady noticing this said: Sir, tell me, what are you thinking? Soon you shall be mated and then you shall have your head cut off.

The knight (who is disguised as a minstrel's servant, by the way) replies that the game is not yet finished, and that her father will have great shame when she is lying naked in his arms ("quant en mes bras toute nue gerrés"). Distracted by this thought,

Tant pense à lui, pour se grande biauté
Qu'ele perdi son ju a mesgarder.

She thought so much of him and of his great beauty that she lost the game through inattention.

He claims victory, and her furious father declares to her:

Mal soit l'eure que vois oi engerré,
Quant tant haut homme avés de ju torné,
Et 1 garçons vous a ichi maté.

Cursed be the hour when you were born, for of all the great men that you have contested with, only this servant has mated you.

The virtuous Huon gives up his claim on her, saying that she can return to her chamber, and the father gives him a hundred silver marks in gratitude. But she is not so happy, saying -

Se je séusse que ne déust faire el [...] je l'éusse maté!

If I'd known that you wouldn't go through with it, I would have mated you!

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There is a poem called The Scholar's Mate, by an anonymous author "B---", published in the Yale Literary Magazine in 1841. The maiden Delia plays white and her suitor Damon black.

If Damon lost, 'twas his a ring to give,
If Damon won, a kiss he must receive

They play a variant of the Scholar's Mate where black wins, in modern notation

  1. e4 e5 2. d3 Bc5 3. Nc3 Qh4 4. Nf3 Qxf2# The final position

Therefore Damon gets the kiss - this time.

The maiden blushed that pleasing debt to play,
But Damon lost his ring another day.

Surely it was Delia who was really in charge of the game.

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  • Very nice find (have an upvote), but 0.0000001% chance it was the specific thing I searched (the date alone!). Feb 8, 2022 at 9:01

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