Thursday, 25 May, 2006


The German word zugzwang ("compulsion to move") is used in game theory to mean that a player is put at a disadvantage because he must make a move that will force him into a significantly weaker position.  The player would like to pass, but cannot.

In other games, the term is used less precisely.  In chess, for example, it can mean that the player who has the turn has no beneficial move, or that taking a turn will result in a significant loss of material or a negative change in the outcome of the game (i.e. going from a winning position to a drawn or lost position).  In simple language, being in zugzwang means that you have to move and that whatever move you make will be disadvantageous.

I've seen the word used outside of game theory a few times, most recently here in Mike Shedlock's discussion of inflationary pressures.  Here again, the word is used to mean that somebody has to choose from a bunch of bad options.

I suspect we'll be hearing this word more often in the near future.  It's just too good a word for the media not to hijack, mispronounce, and squeeze until it's lost all meaning.  They'll do to it what they did to the acronym SNAFU ten or fifteen years ago.  Pretty soon you'll hear about people being zugzwanged, or that the situation in Iraq is a zugzwang.  Invariably we'll be told that poor people exist in a state of permanent zugzwang.  I can see the T-shirts now:  "Go zugzwang yourself."

Remember, you heard it here first.