10 September 2007


by Ronan Bennett (Bloomsbury)

The chess term “zugzwang” comes from the German for “compulsion to move”. ((And hence also the title of this piece of music, which I had chosen long ago.)) Ronan Bennett might well have felt something of a similar compulsion when it came time to deliver each chapter of this novel: it was originally published in weekly instalments by the Observer last year. Now, however, it has been rewritten for production as a book, so the author has had more time to calculate variations.

If you are in zugzwang, the compulsion to move is necessarily fatal. Your position would be fine if you could just pass, but you must move, and any move you can make loses the game by force. To illustrate this particularly piquant mode of defeat, two characters in the novel play a game of chess (which is based on a game played by British grandmaster Daniel King). Through his narrator, Bennett handles the explanations of strategy with lucidity and drama, though unfortunately near the end the publishers have allowed two of the chess diagrams to become decoupled from the positions stated in the captions, which makes it a bit more of a challenge for readers unaccustomed to analysing endgames in their heads. Luckily, the concept of zugzwang is also, as so much in chess, a potentially rich metaphor for life, and Bennett’s story finishes with a vivid example, after he has choreographed an array of pieces and combinations that initially seems bewildering.

The setting is St Petersburg, 1914. Our narrator is a middle-aged psychoanalyst named Otto Spethmann. His friend Kopelzon, a violinist with whom he plays chess, brings him a new patient, Rozental, a seriously gifted player who is going to compete in the great St Petersburg tournament (which did actually occur) featuring Capablanca, Lasker and Alekhine, but he is terribly neurotic, in the manner of literary chess players from time immemorial, always swatting at imaginary flies. “Tragically, Rozental’s genius was flawed by acute psychological instability,” Otto informs us, perhaps unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, a newspaper editor has been murdered and a policeman called Lychev is asking awkward questions of Otto. Otto’s daughter, Catherine, appears to be mixed up in something dodgy. As in Bennett’s The Catastrophist (set in the Belgian Congo just before independence) and Havoc, in its Third Year (set in a 17th-century Yorkshire terrified by the threat of Catholic insurgency), real and supposed political plots are afoot. Anyone might be a member of the secret police or the Communist party – or, disconcertingly, both. Otto also finds time to fall in love with the beautiful Anna, the daughter of a plutocrat known as “the Mountain”, who does not approve of the liaison. Otto nonetheless finds the courage to grasp the bull by its horns: “I wrapped her hair around my right hand and with the left took hold of my cock.” ((Congratulations to Matt in the comments to Goodbye, cruel Word, who noticed that this remarkable line took pride of place in my WriteRoom screenshot.))

By that point Otto, it seems, has been liberated from the rather sententious and fastidious side of his character that we first met, when he was giving to saying parenthetical things such as “uncertainty being to the rumour mill what the scent of food is to any empty stomach”, or announcing, perhaps unnecessarily: “The work of the psychoanalyst is not unlike that of the detective.” By the time the novel is rushing along like Otto himself to its climax, our initially sedate doctor is leaping around like Matt Damon, equally skilled in unarmed combat and shooting. Having neatly allegorised Otto’s planning for his dealings with various suspicious characters in chess terms – “What is needed always is a cool eye and a clear head. Calculate. Calculate concrete variations. What do I do if my opponent does this? What do I do if he does that?” – Bennett finishes, as do many classic 19th-century chess games, with wild and sacrificial violence.

Indeed, numerous characters repeatedly spring into rooms holding revolvers at opportune moments, as though in obedience to Raymond Chandler’s law of plotting. (“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”) Bennett nonetheless handles the lurid, sensationalist action with admirable cross-cutting momentum. A certain awkward formality of syntax in the dialogue manages to imply Russian without insisting upon it, and perhaps the most interesting things in the novel are the dream sequences, abruptly interjected into the narrative without overt flagging, and which manage to be disconcertingly imaginative without becoming silly: here, the novel’s psychoanalytic subtheme is illustrated rather than explained.

There are also political resonances beyond the specific setting, as with the generalised state paranoia about a certain class of people who are permanently under prima facie suspicion of being “terrorists” (in Zugzwang‘s milieu, Jews such as the hero), or when Otto, finding himself surrounded by men with a passionate conviction of justice, remarks: “I find just men utterly terrifying.”

In the end, the shades of Nabokov (who made a troubled grandmaster the protagonist of The Defence) and Zweig (who also examined the relationship between chess and madness in The Royal Game) will not be troubled by this racy addition to chess fiction. Especially indignant fans of the great American chess champion Frank Marshall, who also took part in the St Petersburg tournament, might even feel tempted to apply the following dismissal of him, by one of the novel’s characters, to Zugzwang itself: “A tricky player, but tactical, and shallow.” But then, it is the view of some modern chess players that at their deepest, tactics become strategy.

  • ejh

    Congratulations on spotting the two errors – not that they’re hard to spot, though many reviewers missed them. That Bloomsbury’s proofreading wasn’t up to spotting them (or that Bennett failed to spot them, presuming he read his own proofs) is pretty bad.

    Except that there are not two but three errors. The second of the two diagrams on p. 261 claims that it is a position of Zugzwang. But very clearly it is not.

    This should hopefully be the subject of a blog entry (soon) and a Review in Kingpin (probably not soon).

  • Well, it is zugzwang in the sense that whatever black plays loses by force. But you’re right that it’s not zugzwang in the sense that he would be okay if he could pass the move. (If he could, white could just exchange on e8 and win trivially with something like Kf6 then d4 & e5, which I confess I hadn’t noticed when reading the book.) I don’t really know if this deserves really to be called an “error”; even GMs often use the term “zugzwang” quite loosely when commentating. But it’s a good point! Sort of embarrassing not to use an absolutely clear-cut example when the whole novel is so assiduously built around the concept.

    Do you have a database with the model game, King-Sokolov (Swiss Team Championship 2000) on it? Would be interesting to know if the final position is the same. Presumably King (with whom Bennett also writes a chess column) was consulted on this.

  • ejh

    This database does the job. It does incidentally point up another error, albeit a minor one: the listing “King-Sokolov” (enter those two names in the White and Black fields) isn’t quite adequate because there were two active Sokolovs at the time. An initial (A, in this instance) should have been appended.

    The database shows that the real and fictional games finished at the same point. There would be several ways to win if it were White’s move: taking the pawn on f7 does the job, as does the plan you propose, or simply exchanging and playing d4, since if …Ke7 then e5.

    It’s absolutely not a position of Zugzwang. The previous diagram is an example of zugzwang, but this one is not. It’s just a won position, it has no special features.

    Were the diagrams incorrectly rendered when the piece was running in the Guardian? Whether they were or not, that they came to be printed in the state they were beggars belief.

  • Aha, thanks. To be fair Bennett’s prose itself describes the positions correctly: “You’re in zugzwang, Reuven,” comes after 50 a4 when it is actually zugzwang, and after Kg7 the narrator just says “the game was mine”. Evidently something went drastically wrong in the captioning stages (I didn’t follow the version that ran in the Observer, so don’t know if it was like that originally: you’d think if it had been, some reader would have pointed out the mistake). Look forward to your blog post on the matter (do provide a link here).

    For the benefit of other interested readers, here are the two positions in question, at left after 50 a4, at right after 52 Kg7. Both are described as positions of zugzwang in the captions on p.261, but as ejh points out, while the first one is zugzwang (black is forced to abandon the double defence of f7 and f8; and the alternative …f6 doesn’t help after Qxe7 Kxe7 Kg7; but if black could pass the move then white couldn’t make progress), the second position is not really zugzwang but just normally lost:


    The full game score is:

    [Event “SUI-chT”]
    [Site “Switzerland”]
    [Date “2000.??.??”]
    [Round “0”]
    [White “King,Daniel J”]
    [Black “Sokolov,Andrei”]
    [Result “1-0”]
    [Eco “B25”]
    1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3 d6 6.Nge2 e5 7.h4 h5 8.Nd5 Nce7
    9.Nec3 Nxd5 10.Nxd5 Be6 11.c4 Bxd5 12.cxd5 Bh6 13.b4 Bxc1 14.Rxc1 b6 15.Bh3 Nh6 16.Qd2 Kf8
    17.0-0 Kg7 18.f4 exf4 19.Rxf4 Re8 20.Qb2+ Re5 21.bxc5 bxc5 22.Rxc5 g5 23.hxg5 Qxg5 24.Rc2 Kh7
    25.Rg2 Rg8 26.Qf2 Qe7 27.Rf6 Kg7 28.Rf4 Kh7 29.Bf5+ Nxf5 30.Rxf5 Rxf5 31.Qxf5+ Kh6 32.Qf4+ Rg5
    33.g4 hxg4 34.Rxg4 Kh5 35.Rg2 Rxg2+ 36.Kxg2 Qc7 37.Qf5+ Kh6 38.Qf6+ Kh7 39.Kg3 Kg8 40.Kh4 Qb6
    41.Kh5 Kf8 42.Kh6 Ke8 43.Kh7 Qc5 44.Qg7 Ke7 45.Qg5+ Ke8 46.Kg8 Qc7 47.Qh6 Qe7 48.Qg7 a6
    49.a3 a5 50.a4 Kd8 51.Qf8+ Qe8 52.Kg7 1-0

  • ejh

    The posting is here.

    As a matter of interest, even in the first of the two diagrams, the position would be won for White were it his turn to move. I still think it’s zugzwang, because Black is obliged to abandon his defensive post not by threats but by the fact that it is his turn to move: but it’s not, perhaps, a perfect zugzwang.

  • A very fair account. Out of interest, if it is white’s move in the first diagram, how does he plan to win, avoiding perpetuals?

  • ejh

    Well, he can play 1.d4, after which 1…Qxe4 2.Qxf7 and although I don’t see a clear win yet, Black’s not got perpetual and I think White ought to have enough (though a stronger player, knowing more about queen endings than I do, might have a different opinion and would certainly have a better-informed one). That was what I saw personally after I started wondering about the initial diagram.

    However, what the computer then saw, after I consulted it, is 1.Qh6!! Now if 1…Kd8? 2.Qf8+ is easy, while if 1…f5 2.Qg6+ (not 2.Qe6??? which loses) followed by 3.exf5 and the pawn will promote. 1…f6 is better but 2.Qg6+ Kd8 3.Qg7 Qe5 4.Kf7 wins the f-pawn and although Black can have the a-pawn, White will win the d-pawn while being sheltered from checks. Finally if 1…Kd7 2.Qf8! and the point to grasp is that after White’s king takes the f-pawn (after, say, 2…Qg5+) Black won’t have a perpetual because White will put his king on the eighth rank and then interpose with the queen.

    I don’t recommend trying to follow this without a board.

  • No, I had already looked at d4 Qxe4 and discounted it, I can’t believe that white wants to give up his centre and go into some tedious checkfest where his only advantage is king position and doubled pawns vs singleton on d-file. I would say black has pretty decent practical chances to draw that.

    Qh6 is nice computer move, though. ;) FWIW, my engine abandons d4 very quickly and also settles on Qh6.

  • ejh

    “some tedious checkfest where his only advantage is king position and doubled pawns vs singleton on d-file.”

    I don’t think that happens: I think White can win the Black d-pawn in return for one of his own and should then win the resulting ending with the advanced passed pawn. More on the first diagram.

  • Well, like I said, it’s a practical mess and IMO would be a dubious OTB decision. ;) (I would like to be more convinced by the inevitability of your second diagram too.)

  • ejh

    IMO would be a dubious OTB decision

    Well if I saw Qh6 and its consequences I’d go for that instead, but somehow I don’t think I ever would…

  • Me neither!

    Update: with the help of computer analysis, it seems that d4 Qxe4 is in fact merely a draw.