The Emperors List: Chess Terms You Ought to Be Using Right Now


The big news in politics this month was the return of the word “Zugzwang.” No one really cares about the theatrical productions produced by political parties. Zugzwang is something people can believe in.

German can be enchanting to English ears, as evidenced by Fahrvergnügen and Weltanschauung.

Zugzwang has the added appeal of a goofy sound that describes a complex problem. Zugzwang (German for “Obligated to move”) applies to situations when anything you do will end in disaster, somewhat like reviewing the menu choices at Olive Garden. Chess has many such terms that come alive once freed from the game.

It remains a terrible misfortune that culture clings to the myth that playing chess makes you intelligent. This misconception be easily cured by talking to a chess master for 2 minutes. What chess actually teaches you is how to follow rules and eliminate options. Systematic-minded players excel at chess, which is why computers regularly beat the world’s best players.

Where chess really excels is in producing wonderful turns of phrase that come in handy in politics, literature and late night business deals involving alcohol and half-naked women. Here are five chess terms you can use to make your point:

En passant – (French for “In passing”) Several bizarre variants of chess began to be generally adopted as Renaissance kings and their courts discovered that they really weren’t very good at chess. Unlimited squares for bishops and queens was one of those rule changes that became official for no good reason. Another was the two space opening move for pawns. Ridiculous, but it does speed up the game. A vestigial remnant of the more reasonable “one space per move for pawns” rule is en passant, which allows you to capture phantom pawns on the spaces where they would be if the world was fair.

How to use it: Even though the CEO was playing golf with our competition last weekend, I won the contract en passant.

Fianchetto – (Italian for “The little flanking maneuver”) – Hypermodern chess, which is actually super ancient at this point, insists on covering the center from a distance. The most direct way to do that is to develop your bishops along the diagonals, providing a minor flank attack in the background while you go about your dirty work with your pawns.

How to use it: She had to agree to the new terms after she was fianchettoed with the cute little kitten.

Kriegspiel – (German for “War game”) A bizarre variant of chess which will probably become the new normal. You must make you moves without seeing the opponents pieces on the board. An umpire is provided to answer simple questions like, “Can I place my queen here?” The only way to make this anything more than “Chess meets Battleship” is to read the umpire like Sherlock Holmes. A shifting eyebrow or the hint of a smirk can tell you everything you need to know about your opponent’s field position.

How to use it: I’m attempting to speed up the cognitive development of my friend’s child in order to free up a space in the daycare, but it’s all a bit of a kriegspiel at this point.

Prophylaxis – (Greek for “Guarding beforehand”) Exactly what it sounds like, with all apologies to synaesthetes. This term covers all moves that protect yourself while prevent ing others from moving into threatening positions. Rooster blocking in the vernacular.

How to use it: I didn’t want the promotion but I took it to prophylaxis all over Frank. I hate Frank.

Trebuchet (Latin for “Throwing bulk“) – This is the situation where you find yourself when you find a way to Zwangzug your Zugzwang. Now neither one of you can make a move without destroying yourselves. It differs from “Balance of Terror” in that neither of you have anything to gain by the other’s loss because it is probably the most embarrassing way to win. Players with no pride or self-esteem have a huge advantage here.

How to use it: Our folie à deux will rapidly descend into a trebuchet unless one of us refills that minibar.

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