Zugzwang by Jamie Kirkpatrick



I haven’t played a game of chess in many years, but it feels like I’m playing one now. And I’m in zugzwang: I have to make a move and any move I make will weaken my position. Believe me: It’s not a good feeling.

We’re about a month away from electing our next President and the little chess clock is ticking down. Soon, I’ll have to make a move. I could move here, but that would expose my queen. I could move there but that would render my king defenseless. There are a couple of other moves I could make, but they’re equally bad, probably worse. Sigh.

How did I get here? I should have foreseen this situation but I guess I wasn’t paying close enough attention, so I made moves that (at the time) seemed right, never imagining they would lead me into my current predicament. Maybe I just fell into a hidden trap somewhere along the way. Now I’m screwed. I’m in zugzwang.

I’m not willing to walk away and forfeit this game. I have to move. Maybe I’m being too myopic or pessimistic and I’ll miraculously escape unscathed, but I doubt that. It’s time to choose and hope that things will somehow turn out alright. So I take a deep breath and put my hand gently on my queen…

Before I take my hand away, I look over the board one more time hoping against hope that there’s an escape route I haven’t yet seen, a brilliant, unexpected move that will save the day. But if there is such a move or strategy, I don’t see it. It has come down to this: these are the only choices available to me. Damn zugzwang!

Zugzwang is an old concept. The Moguls—who likely invented chess—knew such a thing existed as early as the 9th Century, long before it even had a name. Italian masters wrote about vulnerability and endgame strategies in the 16th Century, but it was a German champion who eventually coined the term sometime in the middle of the 19th Century. (Zugzwang literally means “compulsion to move.”) Somehow, knowing the history of zugzwang renders it an even less palatable outcome to this current game of chess; I feel like I’ve been a sucker all along.

My hand is still on my queen. It seems frozen, incapable of movement, but my brain knows it’s now or never. There really are only two moves available to me and I hate the thought of making one of them just because it’s the lesser of two evils. But I suppose that’s as good a reason as any at this point in the game. I’d much rather think that the move I’m about to make is inherently a good—even winning—one but it doesn’t feel like that. It just feels vaguely disappointing, the way any missed opportunity feels when life has passed me by and all the earlier choices I made have led me to this singular moment.
Chess is a game; electing a President isn’t. I move my queen forward, hoping this decision is the right one. We’ll see; as impossible as it may seem, my opponent is in zugzwang, too.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

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