Zugzwang (n.)

phrase from chess, but applicable to life

a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage

Think of an unmarried son or daughter coming home during the vacation. The child (?) is already past 26/27: the age considered appropriate for getting wed, by Indian standards. Finding a suitable time, the parents sit their progeny down & pop the million dollar question, the elephant in the room, ” When are you planning to get married and settle down? You are not getting any younger?”

The youngster’s situation can best explain the concept of zugzwang. Think of the alternatives:

  1. S/he does not want to get married at all. Or at least not at this time and considers there is plenty of time ahead.
  2. H/she already has some particular person in mind…has made promises or commitments.. but does not want to tell the parents now, wanting to stay away from ,” Why not tell us earlier? We could have met the person earlier? Do the other set of parents know? Could you not have waited some more? .” & other EBM ploys” Is she from our caste? Family background? Will the match appear right in the eyes of the relatives & friends from both sides? What does s/he do? etc. etc.

Consider the situation from the point of view of either party. And you can best understand zugzwang. Whatever words are spoken, or action is taken, is a decisive, serious disadvantage, which will cast it’s pall on whatever happens next. Life, & especially such situations, are truly zero-sum games per Decision Theory. Both parties cannot win. And in fact many times, both the parties feel they are losing, end up driving the discussion or decision to more & more unpalatable outcomes. The feeling of being caught between the devil & the deep sea makes everyone miserable. Tempers fly high, Emotions are at peak. And both feel that they are caught in a lose-lose game.

In Marathi there is a classic proverb धरल तर चावत , सोडल तर पळत. ( If you hold, it will bite, if you let it go, it will run away) Think of a snake ( a difficult situation) in your house( your life). Ok, so have caught the snake by the tail. How do you handle it now? Leaving it is fraught with risk., it will escape & fight/bite another day. But holding it by it’s tail is equally problematic; it can whip around & bite. Action must be taken. But every alternative is full of negative possibilities. A true zugzwang.

Life is complex & complicated only because rarely are you faced with a choice between good and bad. That one is easy. Quick wins guaranteed, But Life always presents us with zugzwang. Choices between 2 goods or 2 bad options. One side there may be marginally “more” good than the other option provides. But finally good is a judgement. It is a moving goal post. It changes depending on many indeterminates like your situation, what you can commit, time at your disposal, resources you have etc. etc. So how do we choose? {And we assume that we have the freedom to choose, which by itself is another deep hole.} Really, there are no clear answers which will stand the test of time and analysis, so often we just take a plunge based on limited data points & less-than-complete understanding. And then live the rest of our days agonizing whether our decision call was right. Did we choose the better right, euphemistically? No clear answers there!!

Then there is the choice between 2 bad things. Theoretically one less bad than the other. But how do we judge less and more? what scale do we use? There goes Alice down the Rabbit hole, yet again. Should Hitler have created multiple Concentration Camps or just one? Were the French Revolutionaries better with just the guillotine? Should they have worked on making the guillotine more efficient? Were Hitler’s mass graves with detainees themselves digging the graves, standing on the edge & getting shot better than the Gas Chambers? Which gas causes less pain and quicker death? Extreme examples but the principle is the same as is prevalent in today’s Avoidance Avoidance Conflict dilemmas. With a heart condition, stenting or open heart surgery? A routine test detects a lump. Should I do biopsy or live in uncertainty? Given the diagnosis of Breast cancer , Mastectomy or ChemoTherapy? Should I take radiation, knowing its side effects & harm it causes to surrounding good tissue? There are no blacks and whites left today…..there are multiple shades of grey making choices more and more difficult. What decision model will help me decide to switch off the ventilator for my parent, when the Dr in his Hippocratic stupor, claims there is life still, though in a vegetative state?

It is not only in Medical parlance we see such dilemmas. Think of a typical Union Management negotiation for a long term settlement. Both parties know that they need to resolve the issue & move forward. Though the end point must be mutually beneficial, Union must get a fair deal, wages and benefits, for the workmen, the Management must remain in the realm of capacity to pay, competitiveness and past history & future precedents it is creating. While these outer parameters are clear look at the extreme gamesmanship that often gets displayed in these situations. Most often neither party is ready to be open and transparent and that delays the solution. Both parties stick to their alternatives, without transparency and solution orientation, They both understand the obligation to make a move, but try to see that the attendant disadvantage to themselves is minimized. Sharply differing perspectives on advantage & disadvantage make union management negotiations a long drawn out affair. Same is true when you are negotiating to buy a house or salary & perks for a new job or even a re-sale of a car.

My father was not a good chess player. Additionally, he was a poor loser. So his strategy was simple. Play the game till such a time the outcome is still indeterminate, the game could go either way. Sometimes he would make the right moves at this stage and be in a winning position. Which was fine by him. But as soon as he realised he is cornered, there is no way he can wriggle out of the tight spot, & is staring at a Checkmate, he would put one finger under the chess board, and flip over the Board. Down would come tumbling, Knights, Horses, camels & all. Game over. Obviously he was not ready to be at a disadvantage.

On the other hand, in zugzwang there is an obligation to make a move, rooted in the knowledge that your move will end up with a significant disadvantage to you, how do you handle this? My father’s way will not make you friends. Rather a priori acceptance that Life will deal me many deals where I must play my best, humbly accept disadvantages which may lead to defeat, still not lose my gamemanship & accept the obligations to make my moves regardless of outcomes…that is the way to play this chess-game we call Life. Celebrate your losses. Celebrate the wins. Enjoy the game!

Remember what you lose on the swings, be ready to win on the roundabouts: vikas