Word Wednesday – Rocks and Hard Places

Most of you already know that I have a slight  healthy obsession with board games. I love to play them with friends and I use them to teach social skills such as patience and turn taking when I work with kids and teens on the Autism spectrum. I remember spending a lot of rainy afternoons at the cottage as a kid playing games like the Hardy Boys Treasure Game,  Scrabble, Don’t Lose Your Head, and even Sorry! (which caused far more tears than smiles). I’ve since graduated to more strategic games that don’t rely purely on luck to win. I was taught to play chess when I was in grade three – mostly because I couldn’t keep my hands off the gorgeous chess set my parents had bought on vacation, and dad figured it was a good way to teach me to think a few steps ahead.

         Some of my favourite childhood games

I was by no means the next Bobby Fischer, but I got pretty good at the game throughout my childhood and teen years. Sure I had games where I got too cocky and underestimated my opponent and promptly had my rear end handed to me on a platter, but overall I was always learning and getting better. My grade six teacher introduced my class to the strategy game of Go – and for a few years I abandoned chess and played Go every chance I could, but by high school I was back to chess.

There was a brief period of time where I didn’t play board games in early university – though my best friend is one heck of a cribbage player and we did play a lot of online cribbage. The crowd I hung out with didn’t really play board games and I was busy with school, football, and the newly discovered world of online gaming. Then I found friends who loved board games as much as I did, or even more and they introduced me to games I’d never heard of and some I’d heard of and never played. Sometimes there was a good reason for having not played them as I discovered when I lost an entire weekend to a mega game of Risk and another weekend to Axis and Allies. Those games take an amount of patience I just don’t possess most of the time.

So I was launched into the world of strategy board games with offerings like Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Thurn and Taxis, and Ticket to Ride. My friends would often host board game afternoons or evenings and we’d start with a warm up game and move to the more pure strategy games afterwards. Every so often Jenga would come up and I’d be reminded of a word I first learned in the context of playing chess, but that is applicable to a lot of other games when you have to make a move even if it’s not in your best interest to do so: Zugzwang.


The term zugzwang was first used in chess literature in Germany in the 1850s and was used in English referring to chess by the turn of the century. The concept, however, is far older than that having appeared in chess literature in the early 1600s. Zugzwang is a compound word, comprised of zug – meaning “move” and zwang – meaning “compulsion”. Zugzwang, then, is the compulsion to make a move even if it is to your detriment. Often the condition of zugzwang is such that the player will lose by making any of the possible moves. The word has escaped the chess world though, and can also be applied to those rock and a hard place scenarios where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

What got me thinking of zugzwang this week wasn’t board gaming, but the situation at the Cincinnati Zoo where the Gorilla was killed by zookeepers after a young child got into the enclosure and the 400 lb gorilla was standing over him. The zookeepers were very much in a condition of zugzwang – no matter what they did they would have been wrong in the eyes of the public. Had the gorilla killed the boy, while zookeepers were waiting for tranquilizers to take effect they would have been criticized for taking too long. Had they attempted to rescue the boy and something gone wrong, they’d be criticized. If you’ve seen any of the coverage, you will know they are being criticized for shooting to kill. Total zugzwang. 

Zugzwang (zug·zwang) noun

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


By koalateagirl

Jenn Annis is a writer, editor, historian, special needs advocate, and tireless defender of the Oxford comma. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.


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