Zugzwang in Chess (The Beginner’s Guide)

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Zugzwang: a Beginner's Guide
Table of Contents

TL;DR – What is Zugzwang in chess?

  • Zugzwang is a chess concept that describes a position in which you are forced to make a bad move. This occurs due to the nature of the game of chess (you cannot pass your turn) and the fact that you may find yourself in a position where the only legal moves you have are all very bad.
  • There are certain concepts to understand that will improve your ability to use Zugzwang to your advantage, including opposition, triangulation, and trébuchets. Once you know these, you’re on your way to being a Zugzwang master.
  • Zugzwang appears mostly in endgames, but it can also feature in the opening and middlegame. There are several examples of this occurring in chess history, including the ‘Immortal Zugzwang Game’, explained below.
This video is from the Endgame Studies 101  course by  IM Kostya Kavutskiy

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Learning chess is like scaling a mountain; the higher you climb, the better the view gets. As you play, learn, and deepen your understanding of the game, the more patterns, concepts, and terms you will become familiar with, and the more beautiful and complex the game reveals itself to be.

Zugzwang is one of those concepts. Learning it is well worth your while: it can help you win a lot of games, especially in endgames where there are less pieces on the board, and using it to your advantage can be a very satisfying way to win a game.

Definition of Zugzwang

From the German words Zug, meaning ‘move’, and Zwang, meaning ‘force’, ‘pressure’, or ‘compulsion’, Zugzwang can be loosely translated into English as a ‘forced move’. While this concept can apply to other turn-based games (including, for example, checkers), in chess it means a player can be forced to make a disadvantageous move due to two facts:

  1. You cannot skip a move in chess.
  2. A player can find themselves in a position where they have no legal moves that do not lead to a serious disadvantage.

How to Pronounce Zugzwang (and How to Write it)

Before we go any further, let’s learn how to say it correctly. Chess is an international game and different chess concepts often come from different languages and cultures. As explained above, Zugzwang (pronounced [ˈtsuːktsvaŋ] or “tsoog-tsvahng”), comes from Germany.

Here’s an audio recording of how to say it.

If you want to describe a position like this in chess notation, the symbol “⊙” can be used to represent Zugzwang.

Examples of Zugzwang

Now that pronunciation has been taken care of, the best way to understand Zugzwang is through practical examples. First, let’s look at a basic endgame example, with Black to move:

Zugzwang in the endgame. Neither player wants to move
Reciprocal Zugzwang: In this position, neither player wants to move. FEN:3k4/3K4/3P4/8/8/8/8/8 w KQkq – 0 1

Here Black is in Zugzwang as their only legal move is Kc7, which loses the game! With the Black king on c7, White can play Ke7, and on the next move make a queen, whatever Black plays. If the same position were on the board, but with White to move, the game would be a draw, as Kc6 results in stalemate, and all White’s other legal moves would allow Black to capture the pawn, causing a draw. This means that the position is in fact mutual or reciprocal Zugzwang, as neither player wants to move.

At this point it is important to differentiate Zugzwang from stalemate. Stalemate occurs when a player is not in check, but they cannot make a single legal move. If this ever happens on a chess board, the game is a draw. With Black to move after White promotes a pawn to a queen, this position is stalemate: 

Stalemate if it is Black to move
This position is stalemate, if it is Black to move. FEN: k7/p7/K7/8/8/8/8/1Q6 w KQkq – 0 1

In this position, if it were White to move, checkmate would be coming on b7. But as it is Black to move, Black would have swindled a half point, as they have no legal moves, but they are not in check (and so it is not checkmate). This is called stalemate.

By contrast, when a player is in Zugzwang, the game will continue! Here is another example of Zugwang, this time with White to move:

White can put Black in Zugzwang and win
Here, White can put Black in Zugzwang and win. FEN: 8/p5pk/K5np/2p4Q/2P5/8/8/8 w KQkq – 0 1

After White plays their queen to f5, pinning the knight on g6, Black’s only legal move is the terrible …h5, allowing Qxh5, checkmate, on the following turn. This is an example of deliberately putting your opponent into Zugzwang to force them to weaken their position. Whenever you recognize that your opponent has few legal moves, you should always start looking for ways to take advantage!

Let’s look at one more example. What would you play here as Black?

A Zugzwang puzzle for Black
The winning move for Black is …Ka3. FEN: 8/8/6p1/7p/2P4P/1k4P1/p7/K7 w KQkq – 0 1

Here, if Black plays …Ka3, suddenly White is in Zugzwang, and has to play g4. Black can take the pawn with …hxg4 and White has no way to stop this pawn from becoming a queen, and delivering checkmate, on g1. …Ka3 is an important move for Black to find, as if they had played g5 instead, it would be White who would make a queen and win.

Key Zugzwang Concepts 

To recognize Zugzwang and to play correctly when it appears on the chess board, there are a few concepts you need to know that go hand in hand with Zugwzang. These are: 

  • Opposition
  • Triangulation
  • Trébuchet

Here we’ll give a short explanation of each complementary concept.

Opposition

Opposition is another key chess concept that is essential to learn, especially if you want to learn how to win endgames. It refers to a position where both sides’ kings are facing each other across a rank or a file, separated by one square, like this:

Opposition is a key chess concept
Neither king can move to the three highlighted squares. This fact can be used to force your opponent’s king to move to a square they don’t want their king to be on! FEN: 1k6/8/1KP5/8/8/8/8/8 w KQkq – 0 1

As neither king can move directly next to the other king, in a position like this the player with the move is forced to move across or away from the opponent’s king. The player who does not have to move ‘has the opposition’.

This is a critical concept to understand, especially in endgames with few pieces remaining on the board. Often the ability to seize the opposition in a king and pawn endgame is all you need to force the opponent’s king away from a key square, allowing you to win! Watch how White takes the opposition here, and forces Black’s king away from stopping the pawn promoting:

Using the Opposition to win in chess
Here White uses the concept of opposition to win the game.

If Black moves the other way, to a8, White can move their king to c7, and use the same concept to keep the Black king at bay, and promote the pawn. Alternatively, if the defending side is able to gain the opposition in this kind of endgame, this can allow them to cancel out their opponent’s advantage, and force a draw:

How to defend with opposition
How to defend with opposition. Here Black is able to reach a stalemate position (they have no legal moves and are not in check) and draw the game.

By playing Kd8 in the above sequence, Black takes the opposition and prevents White from advancing their own king. While this is not Zugzwang in itself, understanding how the opposition works is vital to many Zugzwang positions, and the concept of opposition often allows you to put your opponent in Zugzwang.

Triangulation

Triangulation is a tricky way of putting your opponent in Zugzwang! As mentioned above, move order is critical, and typically when there are less pieces on the board, the more important it is that you pay close attention to who will have to move when. Triangulation refers to a specific technique to ‘waste’ one of your own moves in order to hand the burden of playing a move over to your opponent. The simplest example of triangulation is, again, a king and pawn endgame. Look at this position, with White to move:

Using triangulation to win an endgame
White must play Kf3! FEN: 8/8/3p1k2/3P4/4PK2/8/8/8 w KQkq – 0 1

If it were Black to move in the above position, due to what we explained about opposition, Black would have to retreat his king away from its key defensive position, and allow White to win. 

But it’s White to move! Here White can play the key move Kf3! Now Black only has one square to move to that will prevent the e-pawn from advancing, …Ke5, but after White responds with Ke3, and Black returns to Kf6 (again the only square available), White can return to the same initial position with Kf4, but now Black is the one to move! While White went for a triangular walk around the park, ‘wasting’ a tempo by visiting three squares, Black only had two possible squares to occupy, and so the move order was reversed. Now White will win the game. This is a classic example of using triangulation to win.

Trébuchets 

Normally, when there is Zugzwang on the board, one player is trying to win and the other to survive. A trebuchet is a special type of Zugzwang in which whichever player takes the opposition and forces their opponent into Zugzwang will win the game:

A trébuchet position is a type of reciprocal Zugzwang
A trébuchet position is a type of reciprocal Zugzwang. FEN: 8/8/8/3pK3/2kP4/8/8/8 w KQkq – 0 1

Here, there are no waiting moves! Whoever moves has to abandon their last remaining pawn and allow the other side to advance, turn their pawn into a queen, and win. This position is known as a trébuchet.

Zugzwang in the Opening and Middlegame

Logically, Zugzwang is most likely to appear in the endgame, when there are less pieces on the board and so less potential moves for both players. However, that is not to say that it only ever occurs in endgames. Though rare, it can happen in the middlegame and even in the opening.

Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson (author of the excellent book and Chessable course, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins) came up with the phrase ‘Zugzwang lite’ to describe an early position in which neither side wants to move as they will be forced to make a (slight) concession to the other player, like for example, in the Symmetrical English. Even less commonly, Zugzwang can also occur to devastating effect in the middlegame, as has happened at various occasions throughout chess history. 

An Immortal Zugzwang Game

The below position is the critical moment from a game that has become known as the ‘Immortal Zugzwang Game’, played in 1923 between two masters, Friedrich Saemisch and Aron Nimzowitsch: 

Saemisch vs Nimzowitsch - an Immortal Zugzwang Game
Saemisch vs Nimzowitsch – the key position from the Immortal Zugzwang Game FEN: 6k1/3q2p1/p2bp2p/3p1r2/1p1Pp3/3bQ1PP/PP3rB1/1N2R1RK w KQkq – 0 1

In this position, it is White (Saemisch) to move, after Black  (Nimzowitsch) played the “brilliant” …h6!! Take a look at White’s position and try to find a move that allows White to not lose or lose material (hint: you can’t!) 

While this is not as clear-cut as some of the positions discussed above, although White can make some pawn moves to delay here, Black can freely move his king back and forth, waiting until White has to make a move that loses, such as Rc1 (losing the queen to Re2) or Kh2 (losing the queen to R5f3), or even g4, (losing the game after …R5f3 Bxf3 Rh2#). In his own annotations, Nimzowitsch said this of the move 25…h6:

25.ce1 h6!! A brilliant move which announces the Zugzwang. White has not a move left. If, e.g., Kh2 or g4, then R5f3. Black can now make waiting moves with his King, and White must, willy-nilly, eventually throw himself upon the sword. 0-1”  – Aron Nimzowitsch

Here you can check the full game complete with Nimzowitsch’s own annotations from his classic My System. As unlikely as it might seem, this position was in fact (almost exactly) repeated in the Chessable Masters 2020, with Magnus Carlsen putting Daniil Dubov in a very similar position, and winning!

How to Use Zugzwang to Win

Now that you know all there is to know about Zugzwang, it’s time to put it into practice. Here are two more puzzles to test your new Zugzwang understanding. Try and solve them before scrolling on! The first one is Black to move and win:

A Zugzwang puzzle with Black to move
A Zugzwang puzzle with Black to move. FEN: 8/p2k4/P1p5/2K3p1/1P4p1/6P1/7P/8 w KQkq – 0 1

The solution: Black needs to play ..Kc7! After which, White’s king has no option but to retreat (if White plays b5, Black can capture and then win the a6 pawn anyway by forcing the White king back to c4 from d6), and Black has time to walk over and capture the pawn on a6.

This final puzzle is a legendary composition, created by legend Paul Morphy when he was just a child. White to move and win:

A Zugzwang puzzle created by Paul Morphy!
A Zugzwang puzzle created by Paul Morphy! FEN: kbK5/pp6/1P6/8/8/8/8/R7 w KQkq – 0 1

Solution: The winning move is Ra6! Zugzwang! And a win for White. If Black captures the rook, White advances the pawn to b7, checkmate! And if Black moves their bishop to any square, Ra7 checkmate! Game over. 

So that was our guide to Zugzwang. We hope it will help you on your chess journey and serve you well in your endgame battles. For more details, practical explanations, and direction on how to incorporate Zugzwang into your chess games, check out the following resources:

Endgame Bootcamp with John Bartholomew

The Fundamentals 2: Boost Your Chess

Winning Chess Tactics

Nunn’s Chess Endings Volume 1

FAQs

1. What does Zugzwang mean in chess?

Zugzwang is a concept that describes a chess position in which you are forced to make a bad move. This occurs due to the nature of the game of chess (you cannot pass your turn) and the fact that you may find yourself in a position where the only legal moves you have are all very bad. 

2. What is the opposite of Zugzwang?

Although there are positions in which every move a player makes leads them to win the game, there is no real opposite of Zugzwang. It is much more common in chess for both players to be able to gain an advantage by moving their pieces, but only Zugzwang can force a player to make a losing move.

3. How do you play Zugzwang?

Knowing how to use Zugzwang to your advantage depends on your understanding of the complementary chess concepts introduced above, such as opposition, triangulation, and trébuchets. Playing Zugzwang correctly requires patience, imagination, strong calculation skills, and knowledge of endgame positions. 

4. How do you pronounce Zugzwang?

Zugzwang is pronounced [ˈtsuːktsvaŋ] or “tsoog-tsvahng”.

5. What are in-between moves in chess?

An in-between move in chess, also known as Zwischenzug or intermezzo, is a forcing move that interrupts your opponent’s idea by making them respond (often coming with check), allowing you to change the position and play a winning move on the next turn. Although Zwischenzug is another German word beginning with the letter ‘z’, it is not closely related to Zugzwang.

6. What language is the word Zugzwang?

The word Zugwang is German, combining the word for ‘move’ (Zug) and ‘compulsion’ (Zwang) into a single concept that can loosely be translated into English as a ‘forced move’.

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