Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Zugzwang

Published on Nov 29, 2019 05:57 PM IST
In a game of chess, a player is ‘in zugzwang’ when any possible move will make their situation worse, and yet they have no choice but to proceed
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times | By

Zugzwang (noun), in chess & other games, for a “compulsion to move” that places the mover at a disadvantage.

The Grandmaster, outwitted by his opponent, found himself in zugzwang and chose to resign.

Zugzwang, a word of German origin, refers to a situation often found in chess (and sometimes in other board games) in which the player finds himself at a disadvantage because he is forced to make a move that will have adverse consequences for his position in the game. Zugzwang applies particularly in those situations where the rules of the game do not permit one to simply pass and decline to move. In zugzwang, the player being compelled to move always implies that their move will create a significantly weaker for position for them in the game. A player is said to be “in zugzwang” when any possible move will make their situation worse – but they have no choice but to do it even if it leads to certain defeat.

Although the term emerges from games such as chess, it is also used in combinatorial game theory to denote a move that directly changes the outcome of the game, turning it from a win to a loss. This is why I found it appropriate to recall the word when the Maharashtra political crisis reached its climax and the three-day government of Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar was forced to resign. When they were sworn in in a “midnight coup” in the wee hours of Saturday last, it looked like the BJP had pulled a fast one on their rivals, the Shiv-Sena-NCP-Congress combine that had been spending several weeks putting together a coalition government for the state. The adroit manoeuvring of NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, the resort to “resorts” that placed vulnerable legislators of the three parties out of the reach of BJP poachers, and the decision of the Supreme Court forcing a confidence vote on November 27, placed the short-lived government in zugzwang. Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar had no choice but to resign. Their triumph had turned into a fiasco.

The term zugzwang was first used in German chess literature in the mid-19th century, and seems to have passed into the English language when it was used as such by chess World Champion Emanuel Lasker in 1905. Indians, however, knew of the concept of zugzwang in our writings about shatranj dating back to the early 9th century, though I have been unable to trace the Sanskrit equivalent of the term, which now seems to have lost out to its upstart German version even if that was invented a thousand years later.

Positions with zugzwang occur fairly often in chess endgames, especially in king and pawn endgames. “Putting the opponent in zugzwang is a common way to help the superior side win a game,” says one chess source, “and in some cases, it is necessary in order to make the win possible.” One could very well apply that lesson to Maharashtra.

In fact when the Fadnavis/Ajit Pawar swearing-in occurred, I had first dusted off another word from my lexicon on Twitter, recalling “snollygoster”, an 1845 American coinage for a “shrewd, unprincipled politician”. But once the swearing-in turned into a swearing-at, a new word seemed apposite. After all, the coalition had not actually yet staked their claim to form a government. It was the position of their opponents in zugzwang that finally made their win possible.

Close Story
Story Saved
Saved Articles
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Wednesday, August 17, 2022
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now