Zugzwang Challenge

At the most recent Queens’ Academy in Philadelphia, I focused my lesson on zugzwang, which means stopped train in German. In chess lingo it means a position in which every move you make worsens your position- if you could just pass, you would be ok. Here is one of the most basic examples of mutual zugzwang, and one of a handful endgames which it is crucial for even kids to memorize.

White to move is forced to either lose his e7 pawn or play Ke6, creating a stalemate. Black to move must play Kf7, allowing Kd7, winning instantly. Achieving the desired version of this position is a crucial endgame skill.

I showed a few more examples, including the following more advanced favorite of mine:

This is a famous study from 1922 by Richard Reti. The solution is Kh1!! Now any move that Black makes allows White to find a knight fork or to queen the a-pawn. Check all 13 of Black’s moves to see for yourself.

Then I gave my students an exercise that I had never tried before. I asked them to work in groups of two to create their own zugzwang positions from scratch. Because many of the students are not that experienced with rigorous training or tournament play, I was not sure how they would do, and was extremely impressed at the following two amazing creations:

This position illustrates "mutual zugzwang." If White is on move, she is forced to play either A. Kxf4, which loses to Kd5 Kf3 Kcd4 Ke2 Kc3 and Black wins because she is in front of the pawn, B.Kxd4 loses to Kf5 in the same way. If White tries to bide her time with Kf3 or Kd3, Black can just play d3 or f3, winning. If Black is on move, Kd6 or Kf6 are forced, allowing White to capture a pawn and gain opposition (If Kf6 Kxf4 and if Kd6 Kxd4.) This position seems so pure in its demonstration of mutual zugzwang that I imagine it already exists in an endgame book. Either way, I was very impressed that my students created it from scratch.

In this zugzwang creation, White must play e7,after which Bf4 is checkmate. (Bf4 is not checkmate until White plays e7, blocking the king’s only escape square.)

The day before this class, I read the New York Times article about separate girls and boys education that Jean just blogged on. It occurred to me the interactive element of this exercise would be particularly well-suited to female players. Their excellent performance on the zugwang challenge is powerful anecdotal evidence that I should come up with more chess challenges that emphasize cooperation.

Feel free to post ideas or exercises in a similar vein.

Brian Castello said,

April 20, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

I think its great to have a Queens Academy and feature lessons on Zugzwang as this is such an important element of chess in playing endgames sucessfully and recognizing mating patterns. I see so many beginners get to endgame positions a rook or even a queen up unable to mate, gain material or force the King from safety because they concentrate on checking rather than using Zugzwang to force the opposing King away from its protection or vice versa. Although “Zug” does mean train in German, it comes from the word meaning “to pull” and in board games means “a move”. Zwang is the past tense of “zwingen”, to force or compel. Thus a Zugzwang is not a stopped train but a forced move. In chess there is always a compulsion to move. No matter how good your position is unless you have no legal move and are stalemated you must make a legal move, even if all legal moves are to your detriment. Zugzwang is the principle that you may not “pass” in chess.

siteman said,

August 19, 2008 @ 2:26 am



RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment