Art of Zugzwang

This little party-trick is called zugzwang. We know that opposition is so important in deciding who wins in the endgame. You now understand the basic fundamentals of this technique, when you've got the opposition, when you haven't and why it's so important. In wrestling for the opposition against a tough and wily opponent, further techniques are usually required, this one in particular.

The term is taken from German. Translated to English it means 'compulsion to move'. It is used to describe any position where the player to move has no legal move available that does not significantly undermine his position. One of your primary endgame goals is to inflict the zug on your opponent.

It's a technique used primarily in the endgame, although occasional examples do arise earlier, to bring about winning positions in evenly matched situations or to rescue lost positions and squeeze a draw from an opponent.

Concept Origin

Chess Strategy: Zugzwang

Black to move is in Zugzwang. Promotion is now impossible; he must now choose between abandoning the pawn or stalemating the enemy king. A winning position has now been reduced to a draw

As this technique is often needed to win games it has been a theme of chess endgame play for numerous centuries. Many chess study works from various masters contain tactical problems based on it.

The term came into common use around the middle of the 19th Century. It was a regular term in many German chess magazines and chess publications from central Europe. It was early in the 20th Century that the term became commonplace in the English speaking world to describe this theme in chess.

Aaron Nimzowitsch wrote the notable and important My System where he mentioned zugzwang frequently. Nimzowitsch's playing style was largely based on frustrating his opponents through blockading, space restriction and other similar tactics. He was therefore a big fan of this tactic. When My System was translated to English the term became part of the furniture in chess circles.

Mutual Zug

This is mutual zugzwang as whoever moves next loses!

In chess it is not always advantageous to have the move. Sometimes it is better if it's the other guy's turn. Usually when we think of the zug we think of one player having the problem.

In some positions both players would like to not have the turn to move. This is referred to as mutual or reciprocal zugzwang. It's still only the player who has to move who is actually in trouble. The only difference is the other player does not have a series of waiting moves available. So he himself must be careful as one wrong move could have a negative effect on his prospects.

The most common examples or at least the most striking examples of this comes in king and pawn endgames. In the diagram whoever is to move is in zugzwang. If Black is to move he is lost. If White is to move he loses. Play through the examples in the Zugwang tutorial game viewer.

Moving On

You can see how a lot of games are decided in this way. Only weak players can be counted on to make unforced errors. You will have to force bad moves out of many of your opponents.

It rarely happens in the middlegame. This is because with so many pieces available it is harder to bounce your opponent into weakening his position. It's in the endgame when there isn't much material left and only a handful of possible moves that this tactic is employed.

Players will then try to bring about positions where there are no good moves and only bad moves are available. Just as the zug is sometimes used to gain opposition or some other concession, there are further techniques sometimes used to bring about the zug. One such important technique is triangulation.

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