Wednesday, November 02, 2011


zug·zwang (tsktsväng) n. A situation in a chess game in which a player is forced to make an undesirable or disadvantageous move.

[German Zugzwang : Zug, pull, move (from Middle High German zuc, pull, from Old High German, from ziohan, to pull; see deuk- in Indo-European roots) + Zwang, compulsion (from Middle High German twanc, from Old High German).]

Count Fiducio Stronzo Manicotti della Pidated extended one bony finger to wick away a large drop of sweat that had landed in the bowl at the end of his pug nose. At the other end of the chess board sat the King, whose position in the game would be described, in chess terminology, as zugzwang.

It was late in the game, and despite Manicotti's best efforts to let his Sovereign vanquish him, the King had held off victory with enormous success. Each player was down to their king and a single pawn, jostled together at the center of a board in an untenable ring-around-the-rosey. The pawns blocked each other, which reduced each player to moving his king and losing his pawn. From this position, neither player had a single move they could make without worsening their position and losing the game. This is zugzwang.. Unfortunately for Count Manicotti, it was the King's move.

"Are you sure I can't pass?" asked the King for the ninth time.

"As I say, your Majesty, I would not object," Manicotti said with a brittle smile. "It is," he added, "only a game."

"But do the rules of chess allow it?" asked the King.

Here Monsignor Farfalle interrupted, withdrawing a long pipe from between his cracked lips: "Majesty, the rules of chess do not allow it. You must make a move."

The King stared intently over the pieces. "Fancy that. Any move is a mistake, yet one must move."

"It is often like this," the Monsignor purred. "To do nothing, even this is a choice with consequences."

The King's torturer, who was often on hand to dispatch those who aroused the monarch's frustration, parked one foot up on a stool in the corner of the antechamber and began sharpening his machete against a strap that hung from his waist.

The King's expression remained impassive. Count Manicotti, for his part, cringed with each gasp of the blade against the strap. The King calculated and recalculated despite the lack of options. His mind tensed around the problem, relaxed, and tensed again. To break the monotony, he opened his mouth and moved his lips around without paying much attention to the words that fell out.

"Sometimes, even for a King, it is as if we are chased to the top of a flagpole and have nowhere to go from there."

The Monsignor straightened in his chair. "Majesty, you have everywhere to go from there!" He set the pipe down in the ashtray. The ashtray, of course, was a dwarf slave who stood by the chair with a leather hat fashioned into a small bowl. "Have I told the story of Saint Simeon, the hermit who lived on top of a pillar?"

Manicotti buried his face in his hands.

"There he stayed, in continuous prayer, undertaking a life of loneliness and devotion," Monsignor continued without encouragement, "Because even though one's choices seem limited on top of a pillar, the millions of choices available to those people below all lead nowhere!"

The King frowned. "I don't understand. Are you saying he was freer where he was, on top of a pole?"

The Monsignor chortled with delight. "I remember when Count Manicotti here was very briefly a student at seminary." The Count sat up and stared at the craggy-faced vicar. "I asked the Count why he thought Simeon had taken his seat at the top of the pole. And the Count, who was an irreverent young man, said to me, 'I think he just had a stick up his ass so he made a vocation out of it.'"

The Monsignor's laughter sounded very much like a heavy door swinging shut. The King glared disapprovingly at the Count, then focused his gaze back on the chess board.

"All our choices lead nowhere," repeated the Monsignor, gazing into the blazing fireplace. "Until we put ourselves right up against impasse. From the top of the pole, how do you take a step?"

The King decisively grasped his king and moved it to the right, away from his pawn. Instinctively, he said, "Checkmate."

In chess terms, he was exactly wrong: he had lost. Yet, as the torturer stood on his feet, standing at a height sufficient to cast a shadow against the chess board, Count Manicotti knew that in a sense, it was he who had lost. In this victory, an inevitable and fatal defeat was confirmed.

The torturer approached the table without waiting for the order.


Arun said...

Thanks for this post. You are a wonderful writer.

Zugzwang is one of my favorite German borrowings into English, and sometimes is quite artful at describing certain aspects of the current economic imbroglio.

Algernon said...

Arun, it's an honor to see you here.

Folks, Arun blogs at Angry Asian Buddhist.