Chess players are amused when the language of their game—checkmate, stalemate, pawn, gambit—shows up in nonchess contexts: “He’s just a pawn to be sacrificed.” I particularly like the word zugzwang.
Normally in chess it is a big advantage to be the player who is on move. But there are those rare chess positions in which whoever must move is at a huge disadvantage, because he has no choice but to give ground (In chess, you have to move a piece when it’s your turn; you can’t opt to stand still). This kind of standoff has the beautiful guttural name zugzwang. It is worth striving for such chess positions, even if you’re on the losing side and must give way, just so that you have a reason to utter the double-z word, which can’t even be spelled in Scrabble without resorting to a blank tile.
At BookExpo, the publishing gala in which 30,000 booksellers, editors, and authors crowded the Javits Center, I visited the booth of Bloomsbury, publisher of Garry Kasparov’s forthcoming semi-self-help book How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom. There was a huge stack of his book, and next to it, an equally mammoth stack of Zugzwang,
Ronan Bennett’s murder-thriller set in St. Petersburg. Now if only they had interlaced the stacks, so that the removal of any single book would cause the whole pile to collapse. That would have been true zugzwang.