grayscale photography of chessboard game


First of all, let’s just take a moment to enjoy the aesthetic decadence of that word. It’s zippy, it’s got zest. In some ways, as we will see, it captures a greater than zero percentage of the zeitgeist. It is every bit the equal of “zozzled,” a Jazz Age term for drunk.

But “zugzwang” isn’t merely a synonym for inebriation. Many of you may know the word already; it is a term in chess, a game I know little about other than I have no aptitude for it. Which I’m OK with.

If you want to know the truth, and I sense you do, I have ethical issues with chess, and not purely because I’m not good at it. I don’t think it’s right to force horses to move only in “L” shapes. They’re wild, beautiful creatures: let them roam where their spirits take them! Also, the Bishop’s proximity to the King and Queen suggest an improper conflation of Church and State.

But back to “zugzwang.”

The word, a noun, describes a situation in which a player is compelled to move, but any move open to the player not only fails to improve their prospects, it will weaken their position. Worse, the seasoned and savvy Chesser (pretty sure that’s not a thing) knows each subsequent move will aggravate the already dire situation. Each move is guaranteed to cause harm and bring the Chessilator (or Chessatrix) closer to inevitable defeat. But the dictates of the game require the moves be made.

I love this word for more than its devil-may-care prodigality with the letter “Z.” I’m drawn to this perennial dictionary cellar-dweller because it captures a condition I have sometimes felt myself. And although I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone, I also hope and believe I’m far from alone. There are some days (months, years) in which getting out of bed is a necessity to be endured rather than what I assume most people feel in the morning.

Most people, I’m guessing, feel sometimes happy, sometimes stressed thinking about the day ahead, and more times than not not thinking much of anything when they rise and shine (a familiar sounding phrase). Either way, most move about with a certainty that was factory-installed in their brains’ motherboards that life is innately worth the effort.

But that’s not a given for some of us. Whether this a result of faulty chemistry, a toxic environment, poor life choices, or and admixture of the three, some of us feel we have no say in our options, that the game is hopelessly rigged, the dice clearly loaded, and calendars catalogue an unbroken string of sucker bets.

And for some, realistically, that’s all true.

Or may as well be. There are people who simultaneously doubt the existence of God yet are positive He/She/They are out to get them. This overlaps with Zugzwang. In fact, perhaps that’s what that state of mind should be called. Or maybe “Zagzwung.” Or, and I’m just spitballing here, “Ziggy.” Although I think that’s the name of a comic strip character. One whose comic conceit, come to think about it, is based on his life being a veritable endless zigzagging zipline of zugzwangs.

Dear Lord: could that be why he was named Ziggy in the first place? Did you just get chiils? I’ve got chills.

I’m not a scholar, and that’s a question best left for the historians to debate. At any rate, I think it best we leave naming that yawning chasm of existential despair to the marketing department. The larger point is that this state of being, a mathematical truth in chess, can feel just as concrete in people’s lives.

But life isn’t chess. The horses don’t move in “L” shapes. There may be rules, but I haven’t been able to get anyone to show them to me, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say they are, at best, guidelines.

Some say we can end our feelings of hopelessness and loss by viewing our earthly journey as insubstantial and invisible as air when compared to deeper cosmic truths. I’m not saying they’re wrong. They may be right. I’m not nearly smart enough to suss that out, although I do think my Ziggy-Zugzwang connection merits further study.

But the thing about air is that, while it seems insubstantial and invisible (most of the time), it isn’t. In fact, of course, it’s a fundamental requirement for life as well as ubiquitous, presuming you’re not underwater. I would humbly suggest, for people experiencing varying degrees zugzwang, the key is not to ignore that feeling. It feels real; it feels substantial, and as we stare down the barrel of our coming days, it cuts a striking presence. You’re not alone in feeling that way.

It isn’t real, though. There are too many variables in life, even more than in chess, a game known for its virtually endless variables. Life, as many of us know to our cost, isn’t a game. Well, there is a game call “Life,” but that’s not life life.

So to those who feel their lives caught in a zugzwang, as I sometimes do: take heart. In fact, get jazzed, hell, get zozzled if that’s your thing. Because while life compels us to move, our fates are not fated.

Zugzwang! Sorry, I just wanted to say it one more time.

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13 thoughts on “Zugzwang

  1. Jack, first of all, I’m amazed at how skillfully you handle a tough topic, intersperse humor and end with room for hope. Thank the heavens that wherever we exist on the always/sometimes/once/never continuum for feeling the state you describe, that you can write about it as you do to make it understandable for others.

    Secondly, it seems to me that the point of all this – life, writing, art, relationships and most everything else that makes the journey worthwhile is empathy and love. And we only get there when we can see that the game plays out differently for everyone (trying to go with the chess metaphor, not sure how that’s working).

    And thirdly, I love all the Z words I learned in this piece too. Makes me want to get crazy and try to use the word zeitgeist successfully in a sentence, something I’ve never done before and still haven’t.

  2. My dad had written a blog post with the same title a long time ago, so I was intrigued when I saw this. And your post didn’t disappoint. As Wynne indicated, you addressed some deep topics, and ones that are relatable, but you did so in a delightful way!

  3. Cheers to Wynne and Kendra for their comments…feeling much of the same, so rather than be lazy and just say “ditto” 😉 I’ll add that I can’t wait to learn the outcome of the “Ziggy-Zugzwang” study.

  4. “Perennial cellar dweller”! Yes, this is great word porn! Lol!

    The ultimate purpose it seems of philosophical thought and existential examination is to be able to navigate life easier, for truly the Zen of life lies in the little things!

    I used to think that greater knowledge would transport me away from my life, from the pain and the anxieties, plus the depressions, but as I slowly transformed my thoughts, I realized that I was simply learning new tools to navigate my life.

    When we dread facing more of the same problems every day, teaching ourselves to see how we view ourselves and the space we inhabit in our lives is a crucial turning point to be able to change and have changes occur.

    When I viewed myself harshly and unkindly, I could only see the negative, the things that I wasn’t able to do. I wanted to jump freely away from my problems, and was frustrated that all I seemed able to accomplish were baby steps, that seemed to constrain me in limited L shaped moves, doing g something, but seemingly getting nowhere.

    Only later I noticed that it was the accumulated baby steps that moved me out of the space I was in, and into a completely new space, both in my mind and in my life.

    Baby steps baby! They rock!

  5. Masterful. I thought this was all fun and games (pun intended) until I looked up the word and found that it was a thing (to use your phraseology). By the way, apropos of nothing, I once had an Italian friend who always referred to the “z” as a “dirty s.”

  6. You really took a word and ran (or should I say zoomed for you?) with it, all the way to uncover an imminent existential crisis I never knew I had. Of course I have a few already, but I hadn’t looked at life in this way before. I love your writing, and love that you love the letter z. It makes me laugh, which is my best coping mechanism for this game of chess.

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