Join 3,556 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


There’s games and then there’s life. They ain’t the same thing.
November 28, 2011 9:15 AM   Subscribe

David Hill is a gambler. Each column will tell the story of a single bet that he made and examine what that bet reveals about life in America. The most recent is $5 Chess Game, Best of 3, Zuccotti Park.
posted by davidjmcgee (23 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
A growing number of people in America know what it feels like to be in zugzwang. For some of them their whole life has been one long zugzwang, they can’t remember ever having any good options.

Brilliant. The whole thing.
posted by maudlin at 9:25 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Great read, thanks for sharing.
posted by deezil at 9:29 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


You learn something new every day, and some days it is worth knowing. Zugzwang.

I really enjoyed this.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:38 AM on November 28, 2011


Zugzwang is one of the best concepts in chess. The parts of games I like the most are those that directly apply to the larger world. Really high level chess play becomes a combinatorics and memory exercise that I find less exciting - after all, a computer can do it better - but ideas like zugzwang, and ko in Go, are really beautiful simple illustrations of deep ideas.
posted by freebird at 9:40 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


A better life lesson in Go, and one more closely related to zugzwang maybe, is sente vs gote. Although from another perspective a ko fight is the same thing but with a longer timescale.

In fact, sente vs gote would be a good way to describe the Occupy movement. These are people who've been in gote all their lives and are mad at the ones in sente.
posted by DU at 9:43 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I enjoyed it apart from the "growing number of people in America know what it feels like to be in zugzwang" line, which was more wooden than the House of Staunton.
posted by a puppet made of socks at 9:44 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The House of Staunton make blinged out turntables for rich heiress DJs.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:46 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is great.
posted by alby at 10:10 AM on November 28, 2011


I enjoyed it apart from the "growing number of people in America know what it feels like to be in zugzwang" line, which was more wooden than the House of Staunton.

Yeah, it was nearly great, but that part also caused a mental record scratch in my head.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:16 AM on November 28, 2011


My name is also David Hill. Therefore, I approve this message.
posted by dhdrum at 10:29 AM on November 28, 2011


Now the Floyd Mayweather Jr. column, that was great.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:31 AM on November 28, 2011


Very good. Is this level of quality typical of McSweeney's these days, or is it still mostly one-note 'comedic' essays? I gave up on it about five years ago
posted by Kwine at 10:33 AM on November 28, 2011


I enjoyed it apart from the "growing number of people in America know what it feels like to be in zugzwang" line

It's not the most beautiful of prose, but the analogy itself seems spot on. The whole paragraph about a straight sacrifice to move yourself out of a bad position really had me nodding my head along.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:35 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The article has a bad definition of zugzwang. The word is German, for "compelled to move."

The core definition is that you are in a position where you are at a disadvantage if you have to move, but are otherwise not.

Here's a simple example in chess. Black has nothing but a king, on, say, D8 (the middle left of Black's king row.) White has two pieces, a pawn right in front of the Black king on D7, and his king, one more row back and one more row to the right, at E6.)

If the move is Black's, he will lose. He can't stay put. A move to the left or right (C8/E8) aren't legal, because he'd move into check (the pawn at D7) as is the move to E7 (because of the white king at E6). So, his only move is to C7. White moves his King to E7, which protects the pawn, queens it on the next move, and wins on a standard King-Queen vs. King ending.

If the move is White's, the game will be drawn. He will either stalemate on his first move, or lose the pawn. In the former, White can't move the pawn, and moves the king to D6. Black then is not in check, but can't move (C8/E8 are blocked by the pawn's capture, C7/E7 are blocked by the King D6, and you can't capture the pawn at D7 for the same reason.) When a player has no legal moves, but is not in check, the game is a stalemate.

If White makes any other legal move, then black captures the pawn, and the game is drawn.

So, White has a winning position, if he doesn't have to move first. Black has a draw -- if he doesn't have to move first. Both are in zugzwang -- their results worsen if, and only if, they have to move first.

There are plenty of positions were all the moves are losing ones. That's not zugzwang, that's just a bad position. Zugzwang is when the position is weaker simply because the player holding the position is required to move.
posted by eriko at 11:04 AM on November 28, 2011 [10 favorites]


I must say I'm disappointed in the ethical standards of chess hustlers.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:12 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


This allegedly-1450 player either doesn't know what zugzwang is, or else he's deliberately misrepresenting it in order to make a rather strained analogy. I'm not that much better than he is (~1600, although I haven't played a rated game in years), but I at least know what zugzwang is.

Zugzwang is a term used in chess to refer to a position where every move you have is a bad one.

This is true, but it's not the whole truth. Zugzwang is a position in which every move is a bad one, but also one where you would be OK if it were the other player's move. In chess, you're not allowed to pass your turn—if it's your turn, you must move. Zugzwang describes a position where you would pass your turn if it were legal to do so, because that would be your best option; but since it's not legal to do so, you have to move, and all of your moves are sucky ones.

Then there are positions where all possible moves are bad ones, but you'd be just as screwed if it were the other person's move. That's not zugzwang, that's just a bad position.

[On preview, eriko beat me to it. And don't even get me started on that whole "sacrificing to get out of zugzwang" hogwash. If you can do that, it wasn't zugzwang to begin with.]

The "growing number of people in America" he refers to aren't in the economic equivalent of zugzwang. They're just in bad positions.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:15 AM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


I really enjoyed it. I don't think it's worth another OWS fpp, but I also really liked this story in the New Yorker about a guy who has lost everything as a techie in Seattle and makes the pilgrimage to Zucotti park. Both of them have a similar perspective: that outside of the drum circle, and the tent city, at a certain point OWS really has been a movement for everybody.
posted by codacorolla at 11:19 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thanks! I love this. I saw the chess players there that morning and at the time my thoughts turned to orchestras playing while their ship goes down. Little did I know wonderful things would happen that morning, one of them this story.
posted by stagewhisper at 12:24 PM on November 28, 2011


The article has a bad definition of zugzwang. The word is German, for "compelled to move."

And that's not how he's describing OWS?

While we're holding him to the specificity required for chesstheletes, I think it's worth remembering that he's describing a feeling, not the technical definition of the board. There's a reason, a good reason, he doesn't bust out notation. I know that he's not right, even on the emotional level. True zugzwang yields but one emotion: whatever you feel when you know you will lose. However, as an allegedly-1450 player myself, I think it's worth remembering how much of mid-level chess is shrouded in uncertainty. Yes, I occasionally know for certain that I am in an zugzwang. But, occasionally, -- especially in the mid-game, which is where his game is at -- I suspect I might be. I fear. I can't be sure because I don't trust my skillz enough to be sure.

If anything, I think his sloppy (read: for people who didn't come to read about chess) definition actually helps make his point. Half-experts over-use terms (backwards pawns, doubled rooks, etc.) both because they make them feel smarter and because they, at times, have worked. This seems appropriate for political and economic stuff as well: failure to disambiguate subtle stuff, a reliance on bulleted points that could be chapter headings, using it to refer to smaller points along the way when it ought to be applied only to the end result. This isn't an essay about his expertise; his obvious ability to learn just enough to be dangerous quickly makes him a really interesting critic of things like OWS, a movement plagued by/gifted with a lot of fellow travelers.

The point I am trying to make is that, even if he forced the metaphor a bit, this article helps me understand OWS in a way I hadn't. It's not pure zugzwang, obviously. And it's not a straight sacrifice. It's about the tiny chance that you are wrong, that it isn't as bad as you think it is. And, after all, it's your turn.
posted by Dromio_of_Columbus at 12:47 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


And that's not how he's describing OWS?

The reason that OWS hasn't been utterly destroyed -- the reason they are still on the board, still able to play, is that OWS hasn't had to make a move.

They are just there. All the moves have been made by others.

OWS is, so far, the ultimate antizugzwang.
posted by eriko at 8:24 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


But the line is not about OWS it was about people.

If zugzwang is the idea that it is the compulsion to move, the inability to pass, which forces you into a terrible situation then I can't think of a better analogy for these times.

We are not allowed to think about alternatives.
posted by fullerine at 1:02 AM on November 29, 2011


Well, I took high-school German, so I think I can definitively say that zugzwang means pressure-train.

WOO-WOO!
ALL ABOARD THE PRESSURE-TRAIN!
DESTINATION: WIN!
WE'RE RIDING THIS PRESSURE-TRAIN ALL THE WAY TO KICK-ASSYLVANIA!

All passengers for Vertiform City, please transfer at Keystone Station. Thank you for choosing Pressure-Train.
posted by team lowkey at 2:33 AM on November 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


But the line is not about OWS it was about people.

If zugzwang is the idea that it is the compulsion to move, the inability to pass, which forces you into a terrible situation then I can't think of a better analogy for these times.


No, I still disagree. Terrible situation? Yes. Terrible situation becuase of the inability to pass? No. Do you think if economically disadvantaged Americans could pass, that would help their situation? It doesn't seem that way to me.

If we want to metaphorically extend the concept of zugzwang beyond chess to other situations, it seems to me that it would mean a situation where doing nothing would be a great option, if only it were possible to do so.

The OWS movement, as eriko describes it, is not zugzwang, because doing nothing and waiting for the other side to make another move is a great and possible option.

The economic situation of many Americans is not zugzwang for the opposite reason—doing nothing would be a terrible choice, regardless of whether it's a possible one or not. (There's no chess term for this because it makes up the vast majority of situations; in 99% of positions, passing your turn would be a bad choice even if it were possible; it's the ordinary state of affairs. Zugzwang is notable, and has a name, precisely because it is relatively rare.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:19 AM on November 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older Lots of countries have never won an Olympic medal....  |  "The thing is, some really goo... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments