What is Zugzwang in Chess?

Cartoon of older man playing chess in the park

The word zugzwang is one of the most important chess terms. It is a German word and could be translated as “compulsion to move”.

Zugzwang is a situation when a player gets a disadvantage because it’s their turn to play, but all the available moves are bad. Any move the player who is in zugzwang has to play will clearly weaken his position.

Due to the fact that there is no possibility to skip a move in chess, being in Zugzwang can decide the outcome of the game. Zugzwang appears relatively rarely in practice. Zugzwang positions normally arise in the endgames, when the number of pieces and possible moves is reduced.

To understand the key idea, let’s take a look at an easy example:

Sometimes creating a Zugzwang position is the only possible way to win the game. Here’s another example:

If you want to learn the maximum from this example, we suggest you to stop reading and try to solve this chess puzzle first. It is White to move. Can you spot the winning idea for White?

In order to discover Zugzwang’s motivations, you need to plan not only your own play but also control opponent’s possibilities and moves.

Miracles of Zugzwang

Let’s dig a little deeper and investigate some more interesting examples of zugzwang. Feel free to use all the examples from this and other articles for chess training sessions with beginners who want to learn about chess terms like zugzwang.

Again – If you want to learn the maximum from these examples, we suggest you try to solve the puzzles before reading on.

What Is Zugzwang And How Do I Use It? – The Ultimate Guide
White to move

In the first example (see the diagram on the right), White has an extra rook, but Black’s passed pawn on a2 is very strong. It looks like Black will easily get the draw or even win as he threatens to promote his pawn into a queen on the next move.

What can White do? At first glance, it seems like there is no chance to stop the pawn. However, White has the incredible saving move 1.Ra1!! at hand. This move changes the evaluation of the position.

Now, after 1…Kxa1 2.Kc2 (c1) Black is in Zugzwang. He only has one move to play – 2…h5.  This, however, is a losing one. But as it is not allowed to skip your move in chess, it has to be played. 3.gxh5 g4 4.h6 g3 5.h7 g2 6.h8Q# mate!

What Is Zugzwang And How Do I Use It? – The Ultimate GuideThe second example (see the diagram on the left) is similar to the position we investigated at the start of this article.

At first glance, it looks like the game should end in a draw. White is an exchange up, but Black has two pawns in return. If White does nothing, Black simply takes the pawn on g6.

However, White again finds an unexpected way to win the game: 1.Rxh6!!

Suddenly Black is in Zugzwang: If the bishop moves, then 2.Rxh7 is mate and if Black plays 1… gxh6, a nice mate follows after 2.g7#!

Examples in Chess Compositions

The next example is taken from a chess composition by Leonid Kubbel:

Situational chess training diagram by Leonid KubbelThe last example (see the position on the right) is also taken from a collection of chess compositions by Leonid Kubbel. It is White to move in the position at hand. Can you spot the winning idea?

White wins by trapping Black’s rook. 1.Bc5! (White threatens a key tactical motif with 2.Rh8+, winning the rook on a8) 1…Rc8 (1…Kc8 2.Ba7!+- and Black is in Zugzwang. Once the king moves to d8, White wins the rook with Rh8+.) 2.Bb6+ Ke8 3.Bc7!! a5 4.Kd1 a4 5.kc1 a3 6.Kb1 a2+ 7.Ka1! (7.Kxa2? could be met by 7…Ra8+ and the rook escapes. It is key to always calculate lines to the very end.+-.

Mutual Zugzwang

Chess board training diagram position where whoever moves next loses the pawn and the gameMutual Zugzwang is a sort of a Zugzwang in which whoever has to move is in a disadvantageous situation. This type of position is shown in the example on the left. Whoever moves next loses the pawn and the game.

Even though Zugzwang appears relatively rarely in practice, we see that knowing it may help us to win different types of chess endgames, and you never know when it will happen. That makes knowing the technique of Zugzwang very important for every chess player.

In the end, we leave you with a chess puzzle to solve yourself (see the diagram below):

Chess puzzle to solve
White to move – You can post your answer in the comments section below.

Further your endgame study with these helpful resources:

One comment on “What is Zugzwang in Chess?

  1. Avery Church says:

    for the puzzle, you want pawn b2 to b3. suppose rook attacks b3, then you advance pawn to b4 being protected. suppose pawn attacks a3 then, b4 goes to b5 attacking rook. suppose rook attacks b5 again, pawn goes to a4, protecting, wasting a turn of black’s and wanting to play a5 to restart the protection chain. if your rook attacks your right pawns instead, you can advance your left pawns and capture the rook, and if the king goes to the left, push the bottom right corner, and vice versa if the black king goes to the right.

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One comment on “What is Zugzwang in Chess?

  1. Avery Church says:

    for the puzzle, you want pawn b2 to b3. suppose rook attacks b3, then you advance pawn to b4 being protected. suppose pawn attacks a3 then, b4 goes to b5 attacking rook. suppose rook attacks b5 again, pawn goes to a4, protecting, wasting a turn of black’s and wanting to play a5 to restart the protection chain. if your rook attacks your right pawns instead, you can advance your left pawns and capture the rook, and if the king goes to the left, push the bottom right corner, and vice versa if the black king goes to the right.

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