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Zugzwang!

Zugzwang, that dreaded compulsion to move when your position is so stretched that anything you do will weaken it, can be a chess player's nightmare, but there are occasions when it poses no problem at all.

In it's most elementary form, zugzwang is deadly. In this simple endgame position either side to play loses first the pawn, then the game.

We've all seen it.

 

The next game (Saemisch—Nimzowitsch 1923) has been described a “The Immortal Zugzwang Game” and Saemisch is faced with a dilemma. Black's last move has deprived the white queen of her only escape square. Now, if 26.Bc1 to create some lebensraum the knight on b1 is left without protection. If anything else, Nimzowitsch threatens 26...R(f5)f3 winning queen and bishop for a pair of rooks. Is this a true zugzwang? That's debatable. To my mind zugzwang implies that the compulsion to move must weaken the position, but in this case, even if Saemisch had been able to sit without moving, Nimzowitsch's options would have remained the same.

(The notes to the game are by Nimzowitsch himself.)

 

So let's look at a zugzwang from one of my own games—and this position is typical of those zugzwangs that don't matter a bit. And why not? Because when you have a lost game it doesn't really matter if things get worse. It may even be an advantage to put your king out of his misery a little more quickly and bring an end his suffering. Think of it as euthanasia, chessboard style—Caissa's mercy.

This is the game I mentioned in the final section of my January 9 post—Play Taller Chess— and it hasn't progressed very far in the past five weeks.

 


What is Black to do? If the king moves the knight dies; if the knight moves the pawn dies; if the pawn gives check it dies in vain, for the check achieves nothing; if the knight bravely lays down his life with 59...Nxe4 clearing a path for his lone pawn it is a futile gesture for White's knight, bishop and king all have the path to the queening square well-covered.

So, we have a genuine zugzwang but since White is already a piece and two pawns to the good, winning the game is only a matter of time.

(You can see the whole game HERE.)

Why does Black play on? In Alexander Pope's words, “Hope springs eternal...” In this case that hope probably resides in my white-square bishop, the black square on h8, and fingers crossed hoping for a stalemate in the corner.

Comments


  • 3 years ago

    patzercim

    Sealednice

  • 5 years ago

    WaterAlch

    Dozy! Your blog made homepage, congrats! :D

  • 5 years ago

    Dozy

    NM GreenLaser: In the Nimzowitsch game I too found the term lebensraum "distracting." This was not for purely "odious" geopolitical connotations, but for thinking there had to be a contradiction in terms.

    It looks as though the score stands at Readers 2, Dozy nil.

    OK, point taken and perhaps a bit sloppy of me to have written it that way. My point was, of course, that had he played 26.Bc1 to create an escape square for his queen, then yadda, yadda, yadda.

    I used the German term lebensraum in keeping with the idea of zugzwang. Perhaps it would have been better to have used "escape square". But thanks for clarifying the point.

  • 5 years ago

    NM GreenLaser

    The first position in which "either side to play loses" is called mutual zugzwang. In the Nimzowitsch game I too found the term lebensraum "distracting." This was not for purely "odious" geopolitical connotations, but for thinking there had to be a contradiction in terms. Playing "26.Bc1 to create some lebensraum" (to move the knight to d2) and leaving "the knight on b1...without protection" means that the knight gets not living space, but dies in its space. Nimzowitsch had to flee from those using the term lebensraum, in order to live in space they did not control. Of course, the words we choose can be distracting and what we mean to say can be understood in ways we did not imagine. People often infer what was not implied. Many of us say after winning against a much higher rated player that we have "taken a scalp." It is doubtful that most who say that mean to approve of scalping or to hurt anyone's feelings. However, listeners may be "distracted" by the use of such an "odious" term.

  • 5 years ago

    Dozy

    drumdaddy:  Thanks for the interesting article. I'm always glad to see a Nimzowitsch game. I did find your use of the odious term 'lebensraum' to be quite distracting, and would suggest finding an alternative.

    I take your point, drumdaddy, but thought it might be in keeping with that other odious situation, 'zugzwang'. thanks for taking the trouble to comment.

    platolag: thanks for the post loved the Nimzowitsch game.

    Cheers, platolag. They're always a pleasure to play through and it's an added bonus when we're able to add his own comments.

  • 5 years ago

    platolag

    thanks for the post loved the Nimzowitsch game.

  • 5 years ago

    drumdaddy

    Thanks for the interesting article. I'm always glad to see a Nimzowitsch game. I did find your use of the odious term 'lebensraum' to be quite distracting, and would suggest finding an alternative. 

  • 5 years ago

    Dozy

    contrapunctus: haha I like how he used the word ghost.

    It tickled my fancy, too, contrapunctus. A very clever description from a brilliant man.

    setanator: Frowni cant do such a thingFrown i would screw up and get chekmated

    Not sure which particular thing you had in mind but we've all managed to screw up now and again. I'm going to make a point of not screwing up this one. If he insists on playing it out I'll take the time to knock off his last pawn then apply Hint #5 from How to Win at Live Chess. He'll probably get sick of it before then.

    soothsayer:  by the time you've exhausted all analysis and realized you don't have any moves to make, you also have just lost a LOT of time on the clock.

    Sounds a bit like adding insult to injury. I remember one game where I took ages to reach a superior position but was left with only two minutes on the clock. At that point my opponent offered a draw and I nearly knocked the table over rushing to shake his hand. If he had known how badly I play blitz he'd have played on and waited for me to blunder. It was virtually inevitable. Wink

    DarkPhobos: Your game is not a zugzwang. White threatens...

    As Bill Gilbert said in The Gondoliers: "Of that there is now manner of doubt, no probable, possible, shadow of doubt, no possible doubt whatever." I had noticed that move but, unfortunately, it wasn't White's turn.

    Perhaps I should have spelt it out.  Sorry.  I thought the context made it clear.

  • 5 years ago

    DarkPhobos

    Your game is not a zugzwang. White threatens 60. Nd7+ and 61. fxg5 winning the knight for free. Retreating Black's knight makes his position better, not worse, because it saves a piece for the time being.

  • 5 years ago

    soothsayer8

    I've been in a couple games were I've been Zugzwanged, its frustrating because by the time you've exhausted all analysis and realized you don't have any moves to make, you also have just lost a LOT of time on the clock.

  • 5 years ago

    setanator

    Frowni cant do such a thingFrown

    i would screw up and get chekmated

  • 5 years ago

    contrapunctus

    haha I like how he used the word ghost.

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