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Five chess terms to have entered wider usage

John Murray

Chess is a simple yet detailed game that acts as a metaphor for battle, power and hierarchy, so it’s perhaps little surprise that many of the terms used in it often crop up away from the chessboard.

If you want to keep your use of the English language two moves ahead, consider dropping in a couple of the following terms  from the 1,500-year-old game:

1. Checkmate

Achieving a checkmate is the aim of the game in chess, and is a situation in which a player has no legal move that will prevent their king from being captured in the opponent’s next turn.

Outside of chess, it can be used to describe a position in which there is nothing to do but concede defeat.

“Argentina is in checkmate and must negotiate a way out” – Financial Times, March 27th, 2015

2. Stalemate

It’s a little disappointing to think that all the brain power that goes into chess can go to waste in the form of a draw. Usually, one player will be much happier to achieve this, as it’s often forced by the one in an inferior position.

Away from the pawns and kings, a ‘stalemate’ can refer to a situation that cannot be resolved. It’s also often used in other sports when teams finish level, with football being a common example.

“Hungary lose ground after Greece stalemate” –, March 29th, 2015

3. En passant

The popularity of chess around the world has led to it borrowing several terms from other languages, and this French phrase meaning ‘in passing’ is one of them. It refers to an unusual form of capture in which a pawn that has move two square forwards to avoid being taken can be captured by an opposing pawn moving diagonally directly behind it. This can only be performed immediately after the two-square move, while it is also the only move in which a piece can be captured without being replaced on the same square by its capturer.

‘En passant’ can also be used in a similar way to the English ‘in passing’, meaning in an innocuous or incidental fashion.

 “‘Those seats have been re-upholstered since I was last here,’ Sir Rocco observes, en passant, glancing across to the chairs tucked around the dining table.” – The Telegraph, March 28th, 2015

4. Zugzwang

Not as commonly heard as the others, perhaps, but a nice German word meaning ‘compulsion to move’. A zugzwang is a position from where any move is a detrimental one, and it would be preferable for the player to simply miss a turn.

There are real life examples of this too, with politicians in particular often finding themselves in situations where whatever they choose to do, they’ll come out of it badly.

“Least importantly in Cameron’s zugzwang… he found himself criticised for going on breakfast TV in the first place.” – The Independent, November 11th, 2012

5. Endgame

Lastly, the fairly literal term ‘endgame’ refers to the stage of a chess contest when few pieces remain on the board and a result is imminent.

Of course, we can apply this term to negotiations or other battles of wits too.

“Iran nuclear talks ‘enter endgame’ in Switzerland” – BBC News, March 28th, 2015

On the whole, it’s fair to say that chess has broadened our language to a greater extent than the likes of noughts and crosses or snakes and ladders.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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