A canny reader spots a fine reference to chess in Sir David Omand’s evidence to the Iraq Inquiry (pp 56/57):
The second point that strikes me is that greater care is needed in threatening the use of military force to back up diplomatic measures. It is quite an easy thing to say that tyrant X will not move unless there is the threat of force behind the measures. I’m sure that is correct, but military deployments generate a huge momentum of their own and they are subject to their own railway timetables.
I can remember explaining this to the Cabinet Secretary at the time, using the concept of Zugzwang in chess, where you force your opponent into a position where they have to move and every move they can make will worsen their position. That’s Zugzwang.
The diplomats thought that was what had been done with UNSCR 1441. It was a brilliant piece of diplomacy to achieve that, but instead of putting Saddam in that position of Zugzwang, we turned out to be in that position ourselves because we were forced to look for and get the inspectors to look for the smoking gun in double quick time before the window for invasion closed and that window was conditioned by the American political timetable.
So, as it were, the biter was bit.
The chess idea of zugzwang (German for move-compulsion) is that a player has no move that does not lead to a drastic disadvantage. This video explains it nicely. The unexpected first move by White leaves Black with no options thanks to the White knight that can fork king and bishop in multiple ways:
And see this famous position where the mighty Nimzowitsch leaves White with no good options even though there are so many pieces still on the board.
Conclusion for diplomacy?
Be careful. If your opponent has no good moves, maybe you don’t either…