Zugzwang a review


by Ronan Bennett 2007


Set around the great chess tournament held in St.Petersburg, in April/May 1914 (annotated) where the winner was to become endowed as the first chess Grand Master by the Tsar,Bennett takes the reader on a journey through plots within plots, revolution and chess. A thrilling, novel novel as a game is played throughout the story that challenges the reader to play along. (I skipped that but it will intrigue players I’ve no doubt) Bennett states of the main character, Rozental, “chess enthusiasts will have their opinion on the identity of the man on whom they think it is based.” The game played when the characters have time to play it is the Spethmann-Kopelzon game, (not the championship game) which it is said “bears a remarkable similarity” to King-A.Sokolov, the Swiss team Championship played in 2000.


I am not giving anything away the cover does not, to say “zugzwang is a chess term derived from the German, Zug (move) and Zwang (compulsion,obligation). It is used to describe a position in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. he is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse.” I have never heard of this concept before but it strikes me that there is a lot in the way of general explanation of world events that can be understood through applying this idea. Hence this review.

Add a touch of spice, a psychoanalyst, (Otto Spethmann) and a few Anna K’s, police, spies, double agents and concert pianists (Kopelzon) and you have as the cover says, “A riveting story of treachery,murder,intrigue and passion” in a mere 274 pages and with an excellent Biblio of political background of late Tsarist Russia. Such big characters and ideas in succinct style. It is not surprising to learn Bennett is a regular chess journalist for the Guardian.
Bennett states in Acknowledgements that “Similarities may also be observed between Zugzang’s Gregory Petrov and the real-life Bolshevik militant Roman Malinowski.”

A can’t put down and informative read. Enjoy it from the bargain tables as I did.
Other reviews

16 Responses to “Zugzwang a review”

  1. 1 Arthur

    Interesting review, thanks!

    I do agree the concept of forced move is highly relevant to international strategy so I tried to download it from “library genesis” (which has pretty well everything) to read later (no time now).

    Unfortunately they seem to only have Italian edition which seems bizarre so may be worth somebody (else) looking further for downloadable:


    (eg libgen could have misspelled title)

    Also looked at the link for other reviews. Had to search at that site:


    Didn’t read them carefully but it was interesting how it can be so complicated to determine what is and is not a zugzwang, even in chess – that the publisher’s had incorrect illustrations.

    MUCH more complicated in politics.

    But certainly the “Diplomacy” games we used to play should have helped avoid absurd analysis (eg Russia CANNOT be a mediteranean power).

  2. 2 Steve Owens

    Patrick, Arthur keeps repeating that Russia cannot be a mediteranian power like hes making a point to one of us. It cant be me because Ive never stated that Russia could be a mediteranian power so I guess it must be you. I havent read everything you have written (shit I only have one life) so if you could just point me to the offensive piece I will read it.

  3. 3 jim downing

    “…..a position in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. he is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse……” ok……so what?…….your living and then you die…………thing is you do it in spite of it’s futility…..like playing chess

  4. 4 patrickm

    A few points Jim; most serious chess players resign when this situation is evident to them and the non chess playing reviewer had ‘…never heard of this concept before’ but it struck her ‘… that there is a lot in the way of general explanation of world events that can be understood through applying this idea.’ so it may well strike others that think they may have spotted such a situation developing in say the Russian intervention in Syria (as just one example, but you might spot it in the Greek debt crisis or whatever just as Admiral Yamamoto spotted it before he planned the attack on Pearl Harbour). And most importantly it was for her ‘A can’t put down and informative read.’ to recommend to the rest of us.

  5. 5 Arthur

    Side issues and I still don’t have time but:

    1. Resignations following zugzwang in end games (which are the most common illustration) are just resignations following certain loss. Zugzwang itself merely means that player would prefer not to have to move. Can occur before end game and can result only in losing an advantage rather than the game.

    eg wikipedia illustrates “Hooper & Whyld 1992, p. 458” an end game. Both B and W would face zugzwang if it was their turn to move in end game. B would have to resign but W would certainly not resign – merely concede draw.

    2. The relevant concept for multi-sided political and military conflicts is “initiative”. When you have the initiative the other sides(s) are being forced to respond to your plans rather than develop plans of their own. This is normal and can shift from one side to another.

    3. Syria is spectacularly multi-sided and the game “Diplomacy” far more relevant than chess.

    4. eg impending defeat of one “camp” by another naturally produces divisions among the winners who expect they may be fighting each other next eg Assad regime’s near collapse encourages Kurds to seize Arab territory from other anti-regime forces to link Kurdish areas and Turks to intervene against this while the complexities of disentangling Arab Sunni forces fighting both Daesh and regime from their former allies and neutrals in Al Qaeda that will be their future enemies are major with immediate civil war among Sunnis in Idlib a danger responded to by demands that any ceasefire should also apply to end bombing of Al Qaeda.

    5. The bizarre media focus on US and Russia, neither of which are central players (and related focus on US domestic politics and on Daesh rather than Assad regime as the most important enemy and lack of western support for democratic revolution throughout the region) goes with “chess” analogies. The game “Diplomacy” is far more relevant (both in its dipolmatic and military aspects).

    6. But even in a war with just two camps the level of bewilderment required to be surprised at military offensives intensifying as one gets closer to a ceasefire is quite staggering.

    7. Much of the commentary in the media, not just here, sounds straight from “Sputnik” with the Assad regime that was in trouble holding Damascus now believed to be about to hold Aleppo (thanks to the miraculous powers of a couple of squadrons of Russian bombers). The reality being ignored is that a ceasefire means the consolidation of functional local governments throughout most of Syria and hence the eventual end of the regime. The bombing of civilians was to prevent that and ending it means ending the regime’s only plan for survival. The current fighting is in fact preparation for the impending ceasefire so nearly all commentary says it proves that won’t be possible.

    8. There is no more hope of discussing what is really going on in the media at the moment than there was when the Iraq war “debate” was all about “WMDs”.

    9. But there is one interesting “zugzwang”. Opponents of doing anything, who prefer fascist regimes to “chaos” are stuck with having to side with Russia against the US. Donald Trump and the French National Front, the pseudoleft et al can do it but most western conservatives cannot. More and more of the media coverage is making people aware that the Assad regime has to end by denouncing Russia for delaying that. Ultimately this does help prepare public opinion for the western troops that will be needed, although in just as ridiculous a manner as WMDs did for Iraq.

  6. 6 jim downing

    Chess is a board game……nothing more……..like Go it is a game with perfect information………………unlike any human affairs or their behaviours………….looking for anything else is stupid

  7. 7 Arthur


    Mystery of the missing english version solved.

    The italian version was (incorrectly) listed in the main “Science and Technology” section and I forgot that I should be looking in fiction section (which has another 1.5 million files).

  8. 8 jim downing

    When the First Emporer united China, he said “that’s it”, and he confiscated all the weapons of the “world”, and melted them into 12 giants, placed in the palace. When the farmers rebelled with their tools, the government found that they coundn’t assemble the troops and no weapons, so the empire collapsed after only 15 years. In the Tang dynasty the empire was so powerful and prosperous and the anti-war momvement was so strong, they thought that there was no need to get their people in the army, so they hired Iranians to be the soldiers. When they hired and the army rebelled, the crown found themselves to be in the same situation as the First Emperor. Not every emperor is Mao, and most of them are not. The system has its own will, and the system has its ability to compromize the emperor. So now we have the ‘communist’ autocracy we have today…………….learn from history….not chess

  9. 9 Arthur

    jim downing: “your living and then you die…………thing is you do it in spite of it’s futility…..like playing chess”

    For a much more enjoyable world view about the bizarreness of the world we live in you really should read all five volumes of the trilogy “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”:

    Galactic History includes all the oddities of Chinese history plus many more aspects of Life The Universe and Everything.

    Regards, Arthur Dent

    PS I am encouraged that the recent announcement of negotiations for political transition in Syria and of Russia withdrawing most of its forces (with Hezbollah and Iran also doing significant withdrawals) has not yet been instantly followed by another rant that this is exactly what Patrick has been expecting all along and further confirms his views.

    If patrick can continue to shut up for a while and just try to understand what is happening by reading without writing there is hope.

  10. 10 jim downing

    a point of view , not a world view, merely a rhetorical device not unlike the answer being 43 and ‘don’t worry, be happy’………….who has ever beaten these words
    O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
    And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come;
    Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
    How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
    As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
    To put an antic disposition on,
    That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
    With arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake,
    Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
    As ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’
    Or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’
    Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
    That you know aught of me: this not to do,
    So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear.


  11. 11 jim downing

    by way of self deprecation in that you may have a point in that I am taking from the ‘Scottish play’ ….it’s just I watched it at the Nova recently…………perhaps I am a bit too bleak

  12. 12 steve owens

    May I ask you a history question?
    In June 1953 at the behest of Khrushchev, Zhukov placed the army on the streets of Moscow. He smuggled weapons into the Kremlin and hid with other officers in the room adjacent to the room where the Presidium meet. These officers burst into the room and arrested Beria.
    My question is, was this a coup and if not why not, it seems to have all the elements of a coup to me.

  13. 13 patrickm

    Your question is, ‘was this a coup…?’ My ANSWER yes. But of course, this was before I was born.

  14. 14 steve owens

    My follow up question is why did no one as far as I know in the Communist world identify this as a coup? How can one of the parties leading members be dragged out of a meeting of the Presidium put on trial found to be guilty of being a British agent a serial rapist and a pedophile before having a bullet put in his brain.
    I dont get the part about it being before you were born. I have opinions as Im sure you do on events that occurred before I was born.
    I cant find much pro Beria stuff on the net but this is fairly comprehensive.

  15. 15 steve owens

    Just as a point of interest it seems that Beria was a pretty on the ball sort of guy ran a network of spies, ran the NKVD, ran the Uranium project and ran the missiles program. All of these were highly successful operations. Politically he seemed safe as the other 2 prominent leaders Malenkov and Molotov were supposedly his political allies yet he doesnt notice that Khrushchev has recruited the politburo against him and his 2 deputies and that Zhukov has placed 300 tanks around Moscow and has smuggled weapons into the Kremlin which would not be easy the Kremlin was guarded by Beria loyalists to the extent that after the arrest they had to smuggle Beria out of the Kremlin in the boot of a car.
    I was ignorant of all this until I watched Death of Stalin a great comedy but a bit loose with the facts.

  16. 16 steve owens

    Just another historical note. In the movie Khrushchev grabs Malenkov and asks what about Tukhachevsky, Pyatakov and Sokolnikov “didnt they deserve a trial?” Unfortunately Pyatakov and Tukhachevsky were dead before Beria became head of the NKVD Sokolnikov was apparently murdered while in prison by other prisoners. Beria was head of the NKVD at the time. The bit about strangling his mother in front of him seems to be fiction.

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