Friday, March 29, 2013


Zugzwang. In knew that I knew the word, and I knew that it had to do with chess. I just couldn't quite remember what it meant.

They used it on two episodes of Criminal Minds, explaining it but not very well — at least not in a way that twigged my memory.

It's not like I thought about it very much, for if I had, I easily could have looked it up.

Anyway, sometime after the second episode, but I don't think it was on the same night, I rolled over at 5 AM with an Archimedes-like epiphany. Although I wasn't inspired to run naked around the cold, winter streets (thanks goodness) shouting Eureka!, I believed that I had the solution.

My somnolent mind had somehow deduced that zugzwang meant that it would be better if you didn't have to make a chess move because whatever move you made would put you in a worse position. Unfortunately, moves cannot be declined, so it's a real predicament.

I turned over and went back to sleep but googled the word in the morning, just to confirm that my epiphany had been correct. Miracle of miracles: it was correct.

The minds is a mysterious place. Why the meaning would come to the forefront in a somewhat wakeful moment in the middle of a night's sleep is hard to fathom, but that's what happened.

I am at the stage where words and meanings are more difficult to retrieve from the memory banks than they used to be, but it is somewhat reassuring to know that they're still rattling around in there ... somewhere ... deep in there.


Although I hadn't meant to add this chess-related anecdote, it has come to mind, and it more or less illustrates the point.

I was playing a student after school one day. I wasn't playing much chess in those days, and he had beaten me handily previously by playing an opening that flummoxed me.

We had got to the endgame, and he had a slight upper hand. He checked me once, and I moved out of check with the only viable move that I had. He checked me again, and I repeated my move. Now, it was up to him. If he checked me one more time, and I repeated the move, it would have been stalemate — because that's the rule. I would have settled for stalemate because I couldn't make any other move without losing the game.

At this point, not wishing a draw, he demurred and made a different move. That was his downfall because he was really in a zugzwang position although he didn't clearly see it. For that's all I needed to turn the tables and checkmate him in short order, and there was nothing that he could do to stop me once I had gained a tempo, which my memory tells me is another chess term. Vaguely.

I guess we were both winners, Greg because he had defeated a teacher (in the first match), and me because I had regained a shred of dignity by barely winning the second match. That was the extent of my playing for a number of years, and Greg died shortly thereafter: just a year or two later, I think. I can't remember the circumstances, whether the cause was an automobile accident or an illness.


Janet said...

I'm going to have to remember that word. I was unprepared for the sad ending to your story about the student.

Mara said...

I never learnt to play chess. None in my family play. Although I do have an uncle who plays checkers at quite a high level I think. Which of course is not chess and the only thing they have in common is that they are both played on boards!

Ginger said...

You played chess with your students? That is so cool!

Donna said...

Oh, how sad that he died...but I'm glad you had the chance to make such a sweet memory...

Mary Gilmour said...

A term my Chess book doesn't seem to have. Thanks, man with an orderly mind.

Hilary said...

That semi-wakeful state has often been a creative time for me.. remembering otherwise forgotten things - sudden inspiration where I'd previously been blocked - and solutions to problems. The mind is a wonderful place even in our advancing years.

Interesting story about your chess games but so sad to lose a youth.

KGMom said...

Great word. Is it German in origin? The Germans seem to have the best words for specific things.