Earlier today, while I was watching the final round of the Sinquefield Cup online, I witnessed a somewhat rare but glorious move in one of the matches that caught a player in what is known as a zugzwang. For those who are not aware of what this is, this phenomenon occurs when someone would be better of not moving at all, but has to move, and any move makes them much worse off than they would otherwise be. As is often the case when this occurs, the position ended up leading to a stellar win by Levon Aronian, who ended up in a three-way tie for first place with World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen and this year’s World Chess Challenger, Fabiano Caruana. That is impressive company, and the way he did it was by finding the right move that was left open by a blundering opponent in time trouble. He found it and a game that had been close to even ended up being his to win.
In chess, one can have this phenomenon because you have to move. There are some games where you can pass on the initiative to someone else, and in a zugzwang, that is exactly what you want to do. In chess, though, you have to make a move on your turn if you want to resign. There are no other options, although sometimes–as was the case in Nakamura’s loss to Magnus Carlsen–a player wants to avoid making that choice as long as possible before either resigning or making the only possible legal move. That aspect of chess can help with strategy, as a player may threaten multiple pieces or moves and there is only one response that can be made. The stress and tension of chess is a result of the way that the board and the pacing of the song are set up. Each piece has its limitations and also its threats, and the best player is the one who can manage best the situation on the board. It is easy to see why the sport has attracted such high praise for centuries given the taxing mental demands it makes on others, and why it remains a vital game today .
In life, though, one would think that zugzwang would be less common. After all, a conversation on the internet is not a chess game. One does not have to reply. We may for various psychological reasons think that we need to reply, but we in fact have the option to do nothing, to release the tension through time, rather than to respond in an escalating flame war that only beclowns both sides. If this option to remain silent, to avoid increasing the pressure or making a move that will only make things worse, is seldom taken, it is seldom taken because we consider ourselves often to be in positions where responses are viewed as necessary when they are not. We act as if we were in a timed chess match and had to make a move–and often make a move quickly–rather than simply let time pass and let the nothingburger be seen for the meaningless matter that it is. It is not necessary in life to slander those nominated for supreme court positions simply because one does not like the politics of those supporting and nominating him. One can get on with life. It is not necessary to make a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to dealing with the honor given to a dead Senator, but rather one can simply let the moment pass and see that there was, indeed, nothing to worry about ultimately.
And yet we do worry. Even though we do not have to spout off on everything, we do spout off on far more than we have to. We let the pressure of the moment put us in a position where anything we say would give someone else a club to beat us with, and even though no one is putting a gun to our head and telling us that we must speak or die, or even though we have not committed to a game like chess where moves are required, we act as if we have to make a move when in fact we do not have to say or do anything at all. We can read a book, watch a movie, talk about something else, and avoid making ourselves look ridiculous by falling into the rhetorical traps set for us by others. Yet we act as if we are playing chess under time pressure when we in fact are at liberty to do something else. We remain imprisoned by our own mindset and do not see how free we are to change the rules of the game, or even to change the game, where we do not lose any points that are worth keeping track of by stepping away from a board that has gotten to heated.
Why is this? Chess is clearly an adversarial game. While white and black can draw–and if you watch the highest levels of chess, this happens often when both players are making the strongest move and neither can gain an advantage–the game is a zero-sum one. Anything that is an advantage to one player is a disadvantage to the other. This is not true, though, in our conversations with others. Chess is not a good metaphor for our interactions with others, because conversation and interactions are not zero sum games. We can act as if anything that speaks for one person speaks against the other, but we would be unwise in framing ourselves to be the enemies of the people we are talking with. Even where we might debate in some areas, there are other areas in which what is a benefit to one is a benefit to the other. An acceptance of the dignity and worth of humanity as humanity serves to benefit all, not merely one side or the other in a contentious conversation. And yet we often think that the people we are communicating with are opponents across a rhetorical chess board rather than people we could win over as allies. In chess, one does not have the opportunity to charm an opposing pawn or bishop, or receive gallantry from a knight. The pieces are stuck in opposition to those of the other color. In life, we can change the board, change the game, take a break when things are too heated and we are not in the right frame of mind, and realize that we need not view those we communicate with as opponents or rivals or enemies, but rather as different pieces on the board, sometimes being manipulated or pitted against each other for the evil plans of others who do not have our best interests in mind.
 See, for example: