Zugzwecklos: When you have chess moves, but it doesn’t matter

Beginning chess students are quickly introduced to the remarkable concept of “zugzwang” — German for “It’s your move, pal” — in which a player’s position may be perfectly fine as is, but any move makes things worse, and may even lose. Unfortunately under the rules, passing is not allowed when it’s your clock that is ticking.

But there’s a related phenomenon we’ve decided to call “zugzwecklos,” or “move futility.” That’s when a player has plenty of legal moves that, while not losing, have no practical bearing on the fix that he is in.

To take a concrete example, check out Belarusian GM Sergei Azarov’s victory over Indian IM Guha Mitrabha on his way to winning the 104th edition of the fabled New York City Marshall Chess Club’s championship last month. In an absorbing Classical Dutch struggle, Azarov uses a mobile queenside pawn majority and White’s blocked-in bishop on g2 to weave a fascinating bind.

Things are still in flux after 27. Qc5 b4!? (wasting no time mobilizing the pawns, as 28. Nxe5? Qf8+ 29. Qxf8+ Rxf8+ 30. Nf3 b3 gives Black a clamp on the position) 28. Ra6 Nd4 29. Qxe5 (White should seize the offer to break out with 29. Nxd4 exd4 30. e5 [and not 30. Qxd4? c3 31. bxc3 b3! 32. Rb6 b2!], liberating the bishop) Nxf3 30. exf3 Bf7! — a rare case when the player who is down materially seeks simplification.

Zugzwecklos arrives after 31. Qxe8+ Bxe8 32. Ra1? (Kf2! c3 33. bxc3 b3 34. Bf1 b2 35. Bc4+ was the last chance to slip the straitjacket to come) c3 33. Ke1 Ra8!! 34. Rb1 (Rxa8 cxb2 35. Rxe8+ Kf7 36. Rd8 b1=Q+ 37. Rd1 Qc2 38. Bf1 b3 and Black wins) c2 35. Rc1 b3, and now Mitrabha has no productive moves to prevent the calamity to come.

Remarkably, after 38. Ra1 Ra8! (again!) 39. Rc1 Ra2 40. Kd2 Rxb2 41. Bc4 Ba4 42. e5 (Kc3 Rb1 43. Kd2 b2) h5 43. f4 Ra2 44. h3 Ra1! 45. Bxb3 (Rxa1 b2) Rxc1 46. Bxa4 Rg1 47. Kxc2 Rxg3, White has survived to an ending where he has a bishop and pawn for the rook. But Azarov has just enough to clinch the victory, as after 52. e6 Kf6 53. Kd2 Re5, the white e-pawn can’t advance and the Black h-pawn if ready to roll; Mitrabha resigned.


An even more extreme example of zugzwecklos can be seen in a game between two Danish masters at another club championship, this one in Copenhagen in 1953. The whole game, featuring a razor-sharp Vienna Game line, is worth replaying, as Black gets three pawns for his gambited piece in a deeply unbalanced position.

But it’s White who applies the sleeper hold after 20. Ng5!? (let’s all be grateful the instantly winning 20. Rxc7! Bxg2 21. Ng5 wasn’t played, spoiling the ensuing fun) Bxg2 21. Rxc7 Bxh1 22. Nxf7 Bd5 23. Nxd6+ Kf8 24. Bg5! (eyeing a deadly check on h6) Rh8 25. Bh6+ Kg8, and Black’s rook and king are trussed up in the corner of the board.

White’s windmill checks produce a classic zugzwecklos after 28. Nc8! Bc6 29. Rg7+ Kf8 30. Rxb7+ Kg8 (Ke8 31. Nd6+ Kd8 32. Bg5 mate) 31. Rg7+ Kf8 32. Rxa7+ Kg8 33. Rxa8! Bxa8 34. Nd6!! (see diagram), locking the jailhouse door.

Black has plenty of moves — his pawns can advance and his bishop is free to roam the board — but his king and rook can never escape. White could just run his queenside pawns up the board or — more sadistically — just have his king mosey on down to e7 and then (depending on where Black’s bishop may be) play Ne4 or Ne8 followed by Nf6 mate. Faced with that Chinese water torture, Black decided just to resign.

Mitrabha-Azarov, 104th Marshall Chess Club Championship, December 2020

1. d4 f5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. g3 e6 4. Bg2 Be7 5. O-O O-O 6. c4 d6 7. Nc3 Ne4 8. Nxe4 fxe4 9. Nd2 d5 10. f3 Nc6 11. fxe4 Rxf1+ 12. Kxf1 dxc4 13. Nf3 b5 14. Be3 Rb8 15. Rc1 Qe8 16. a4 a6 17. axb5 axb5 18. Qd2 Bb4 19. Qc2 e5 20. d5 Na5 21. Bd2 c5 22. dxc6 Nxc6 23. Bxb4 Nxb4 24. Qd2 Nc6 25. Ra1 Bg4 26. Qd5+ Be6 27. Qc5 b4 28. Ra6 Nd4 29. Qxe5 Nxf3 30. exf3 Bf7 31. Qxe8+ Bxe8 32. Ra1 c3 33. Ke1 Ra8 34. Rb1 c2 35. Rc1 b3 36. Bf1 Rd8 37. Be2 Kf8 38. Ra1 Ra8 39. Rc1 Ra2 40. Kd2 Rxb2 41. Bc4 Ba4 42. e5 h5 43. f4 Ra2 44. h3 Ra1 45. Bxb3 Rxc1 46. Bxa4 Rg1 47. Kxc2 Rxg3 48. Bd7 Rf3 49. f5 Rxh3 50. f6 Re3 51. fxg7+ Kxg7 52. e6 Kf6 53. Kd2 Re5 White resigns.

Kupferstich-Andreasen, Club Tournament, Copenhagen, January 1953

1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Bc4 Nxe4 4. Qh5 Nd6 5. Bb3 Nc6 6. Nb5 g6 7. Qf3 Nf5 8. Qd5 Nh6 9. d4 d6 10. Bxh6 Be6 11. Qf3 Bxb3 12. Bxf8 Ba4 13. Bg7 Rg8 14. Bf6 Qd7 15. Na3 Nxd4 16. Qh3 Qxh3 17. Nxh3 Nxc2+ 18. Nxc2 Bxc2 19. Rc1 Be4 20. Ng5 Bxg2 21. Rxc7 Bxh1 22. Nxf7 Bd5 23. Nxd6+ Kf8 24. Bg5 Rh8 25. Bh6+ Kg8 26. Rg7+ Kf8 27. Rc7+ Kg8 28. Nc8 Bc6 29. Rg7+ Kf8 30. Rxb7+ Kg8 31. Rg7+ Kf8 32. Rxa7+ Kg8 33. Rxa8 Bxa8 34. Nd6 Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected].

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