The 12 Chess Terms That Every Journalist Needs To Know
Dec. 26, 2012, 5:07 PM
Here’s a headline that was in USA Today a few days ago: Obama, Boehner continue stalemate on ‘fiscal cliff’.
Anyone who knows chess terminology knows that headline makes no sense.
A “stalemate” happens at the very end of the game, when neither side has a legal move, and so the game is tied. There is no way to “continue” a stalemate.
And the headline writer presumably was not trying to imply that there were literally no more options in the discussion. In fairness, lots of people misuse stalemate.
That being said, chess offers up a wealth of nice terminology that can spice up your writing if you use the terms correctly. Anyone who writes professionally, whether as a journalist or analyst or anything else, could benefit with some knowledge of chess terms.
So as a service, here are a few terms, what they mean, and how they might apply to the news.
Alekhine’s Gun — When your queen and both rooks are all along the same file, they can be incredibly powerful. This orientation is named after the chess master Alexander Alekhine. This is a great term to use to describe any time you have a bunch of heavy hitters all lined up together, focusing on a single target.
Bad Bishop — In chess, you have two bishops that move along diagonals, each of which only occupies one color throughout the whole game. The bishop that starts on a white square can never occupy a black square. In a game where all of your pawns on light squares, your white bishop becomes a “bad bishop” as it becomes hemmed in and impotent. In politics, you see assets misused all the time, as their vantage point makes them particularly ill-suited to bring a certain case. A Wall Street CEO coming out as a spokesperson for later retirement? That’s a bad bishop.
E2-E4 — This is the most common opening move in all of chess, as it involves moving your king pawn out two squares. Bobby Fischer famously called this opening move the “best by test.” When a politician makes the most predictable possible announcement (such as when Obama started the Fiscal Cliff talks by saying he wanted everyone to freeze taxes on incomes sub-$250K) that was the E2-E4 of political moves.
Five-Piece Endgame — A very common endgame scenario in chess involves one side having a king and a rook while the other side has a king, a rook, and a pawn (five pieces total). Usually the side that is a pawn up can win, but not before an extremely drawn out and predictable fight that leaves little room for error. Any scenario where the finale is obvious, but the process of getting there is drawn out might be characterized this way.
Kibbitzer — Kibbitzers are those annoying folk who stand behind you while you play, whispering or even outright commenting on the game in progress. Pretty much everyone on twitter is a kibbitzer.
Knight Fork — Due to the knight’s unusual L-shaped moves, it can be used in clever ways to attack two other pieces at once. Anytime a politician or business attacks two far apart things in one blow, the term applies.
Queening — A pawn that makes it from its starting point all the way to the other end of the board gets promoted into being a queen. After taking the lead on budget issues, Paul Ryan got queened when Mitt Romney made him his VP selection, essentially making him one of the most powerful people in the GOP.
Simul — When a master demonstrates his skill by playing several simultaneous games at once with amateurs. Any executive who has to multi-task and address several different issues at once could be said to be playing a simul.
Theory — Because there have been so many documented chess games, almost every possible opening sequence has been played several times over. Grandmasters have a huge library of these openings memorized, and can play them rote without much thought. As long as a game is going according to some previously played sequence, it’s all going according to “theory.” Eventually every game deviates, at which point the real game begins.
Zeitnot — In competitive chess, the players use a chess clock, which alots each player a certain amount of time to make all of their moves. As the endgame draws near the need for speed causes the players to make worse moves because time is running low. That time pressure is Zeitnot. That could be used to characterize the Plan B fiasco.
Zugzwang — This is a state that occurs usually near the end of a chess match, when it becomes advantageous for the other side to make a move before you do. This might happen if you have a perfectly secure position, but you’ll inevitably weaken your position by moving. When John Boehner is calling on the Senate to move next, you know the fiscal cliff talks are in zugzwang.
Zwischenzug — An “in-between” move. If there’s an obvious play, but the player decides to delay that move for whatever reason, this is a Zwischenzug. Again, Plan B might have been a Zwischenzug.
Bottom line is that chess offers a wealth of cool terms with unique definitions that can spruce up writing. No need to stick to tired terms like stalemate or checkmate.
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– GM Susan Polgar