There are many cases in chess when your position is so perfect, you just don’t want to move.
Or you might say to yourself, I really wish I didn’t have to move any chess pieces right now to compromise my position.
Unfortunately, you cannot skip your move in chess. White moves, then black, then white and so it goes.
You may find yourself in a predicament where you don’t want to move because it will hurt your position and you’ll lose. This is what we call Zugzwang.
In this article we’re going to look at what zugzwang means, how to induce it on your opponent, and why it’s so important.
Let’s get started.
Zugzwang (pronounced tsook-tsvahng) is a German word that means “compulsion to move”. In chess terms, it means you must make your move even though your position will be worsened.
In this example, black is out of moves. The king is stuck on f8 and the pawn on h6 is blocked. The only move is the rook to either h7 or g8. In either case, it’s mate in one.
Here is a famous game that shows zugzwang with a lot of pieces on the board and is known as the immortal zugzwang game. This game proves you can be in zugzwang with plenty of pieces on the board.
H6 is played by Nimzowitsch and it is a very subtle waiting move that means the end is coming for white.
White’s options are very limited as no move can safely be played.
- The knight is stuck on b2
- both pawns on the queenside cannot move without an overwhelming pawn storm
- Both bishops have no moves
- The queen is stuck
A move like kh2 just would run into Rf3 (the bishop cannot take because it is pinned). White’s queen is trapped and forced to capture the rook, spelling the end for white.
Another example comes from my article on the Evan’s Gambit Accepted, Ba5 variation. There is a moment that is similar to zugzwang. Black finds great difficulty in making any move, even so early in the game.
This position doesn’t necessarily mean doom for black, but it expresses how difficult it is for black to make a move that improves their position.
The light squared bishop and rook are trapped behind pawns that cannot move easily. Black has to spend some time to even get coordinated while white enjoys a ton of space. This position is +1 for white so not overwhelming, but can show how tough a position can be to play. As Magnus Carlsen once said, an easier game to play is better than material equality.
Zugzswang can occur at a lot of different points in a chess game, but it is more often likely to occur in the end game when there are less pieces on the board.
The most common way Zugzwang appears is in a king and pawn endings. You often can achieve zugzwang by triangulation
In this position, you want to start counting before you play your last move. Notice how white has one non king move left. If the pawn were on a3 already, then it would be a draw as the kings would be stuck in opposition, unable to move.
If it were black’s move here, the game would be drawn as black would then play a3 and gain the opposition. White would then be unable to make progress.
The simplest explanation of zugzwang with a quick picture is known as the trebuchet.
When approaching the trebuchet, you need to carefully consider where not to move your king as you approach the pawns. Dvoretsky calls these mined squares in his endgame manual.
If you achieve the opposition, you have put your opponent into zugzwang.
This scenario is what both players wish to achieve to win or draw, however, both players want to achieve this scenario so it is not their move. If white moves, the game is drawn. If black moves, the game is lost.
Black of course cannot win this game due to insufficient material, but black should know how to draw whenever possible.
Zwischenzug (pronounced zwis chen zug) means in between move. If your opponent is not forced to make a move, then may
An example of Zwischenzug from one of my speed chess games. Before recapturing the queen on c3, I was able to interpose a check with dxf7+, and then capture the queen.
Zugzwang can occur at any time for any player. Often, the point of resigning in grandmaster games occurs when there are no good moves left.
Knowing what Zugzwang is is one thing, but forcing your opponent into an unfavorable position is an art. Sometimes a move can have two purposes in the form of a sacrifice.
- If your opponent takes the material advantage you’re offering, they will lose
- If they decline, your position improves.
Here’s an example from one of Magnus Carlsen’s games.
I originally saw this position from this reddit post and thought it was a great way to show the best chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen, inducing zugzwang on their opponent. See if you can find the move and why.
The answer to this puzzle is so great because black really doesn’t have a good answer. If the rook captures, then the pawn will promote faster than any of the three black pawns. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many pawns you have, but how quickly they will promote into a queen.
Here’s a game I played in which my opponent was unable to make any great moves. I noticed this and slowly improved my position with my king.
When your opponent cannot do anything, it is a moment of perpetual zugzwang. They can either resign, or just sit back and wait for the inevitable.
Sometimes games that are clearly won can also be in a state of perpetual zugzwang. I say always keep playing until the very end because you never know when a blunder will even the score. Even games that are so far in your opponent’s favor can be won or drawn if they get careless.
There isn’t exactly an opposite of zugzwangwang in chess. It could be a position where any move you make leads to a winning position, but this isn’t a common way to think about the game. These positions are usually overwhelming in their favor to one player over the other and it doesn’t matter what move you make.
I like to think this is true for some puzzles. It doesn’t quite matter which pieces you move as long as you don’t blunder and you’ll still be ahead
There is also a special scenario where whoever has the move wins. This is from a bullet game I lost where I thought I was being so clever. Bishop e5! threatening to win the queen and if it moves, theres a checkmate on h8. Yes!
What I overlooked was that white had their own checkmate and I had to block it. This isn’t quite the opposite of Zugzwang, but in this case, whoever gets to move first wins with their checkmate.
You are unable to skip a move if you don’t like any of your options. If you are unable to move and you are not in check, then the game ends in a stalemate.