The dust has barely settled on last year’s World Chess Championship match in New York: Norway’s Magnus Carlsen defended his title against the tough challenger Sergei Karjakin, in a close match. The event got me thinking about the language of chess strategy, and tactics, and the curious history, and multicultural origins of chess terminology.

Chess has been around for centuries and The Game and Play of the Chess was among the first books printed in English by William Caxton in the late fifteenth century. It is not actually a book of chess instruction in the modern sense. Rather it is an allegory of medieval society with a king, queen, bishops, knights, and rooks, and with pawns representing various trades. Each chess piece has its own moral code, together representing a kingdom bound by duty rather than kinship. Caxton used a French translation as the basis for his book and the English word chess is a borrowing from the Middle French échecs. But the story is older and more complicated than that.

Chess comes from the 6th century Sanskrit game chaturanga, which translates to “four arms.” The arms refer to the elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers of the Indian army, which evolved into the modern bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns. The chaturanga pieces also included the king or rajah and the king’s counselor, which would later be reinvented as the queen. In chaturanga, the game ended when the rajah was removed from the board—when the king was killed.

Chaturanga was introduced to Persia around 600 AD and the rajah became the shah. Persian chatrang became Arabic shatranj and made its way to Morocco and Spain as shaterej. The word check, meaning an attack on the king, was adapted from the Persian shah. A player would say shah to announce an attack on the king. The expression checkmate came from the situation in which the king is attacked and has no defense: shāh māt means “the king is dead” and this connotation of regicide persists in the Russian name for chess: shakmati.

In Latin, the game was not named after the killing of the king, but after the attacks themselves—the checks. It was called ludis scaccorum (game of checks) or, when shortened, scacchi. The Latin word for check later gave us the Middle French eschec, which became échecs in the plural and chess in English.

Along with the modern name, French is also the source of some of the game’s fine points, such as the en passant rule, which permits the capture of an opponent’s pawn when it moves two squares on its first move passing a pawn of the opposite color. It is the source of the expression j’adoube, used when a player wishes to adjust a piece without moving it. For a time too, players would announce gardez when the queen was under attack or en prise. But the warning is no longer customary.

French also contributes to the confusing noun stalemate. The Middle English word stale is probably from Anglo-French estale which meant “standstill.” When a player did not have a legal move, that counted as a win, so stalemate was a victory by standstill. Today a stalemate in chess counts as a tie, and the word has been extended to a more general description for a deadlock. En passant, j’aboube, gardez, and en prise have been less successful as general terms. The same can be said for the Italian word fianchetto, from the diminutive of fianco which means “flank” and referring to a particular deployment of one’s bishops.

German is the source of a number of chess words, such as Zugzwang, referring to the situation in which players have no moves that will not weaken their position Zugzwang has been extended to refer to situations in which the pressure to do something is counterproductive, as in the following examples from Zugzwang fan Nate Silver (from 2008: “Either way, it is a reminder of the state of zugzwang that McCain campaign finds itself in” and from 2016: “For Clinton, this is a zugzwang election where she’d rather stay out of the way and let Trump make the news”).

German gives us the monosyllabic term luft (“air”) referring to a flight square made by moving a pawn in front of a king’s castled position, which we find in Luftwaffe and Lufthansa, and the derisive patzer, used to describe a poor player (cognate with the verb patzen meaning to bungle). The German verb kiebitzen (“to look on at cards”) makes its way to Yiddish as kibitz and refers meddling in games by spectators.

Many modern tactical terms are of English origin. There are pins (when a piece cannot move because it would expose a more valuable one) and forks (double attacks), both terms dating from the nineteenth century. Twentieth century coinages include the windmill (when a rook and bishop work together to both check the king and capture material) and the x-ray or skewer, where a piece indirectly attacks an opposing piece.

One of my favorites terms though is the smothered checkmate, a term which dates from about 1800. This occurs when the king is surrounded by its own pieces so that it has no flight squares and is checkmated by an opponent’s knight. It is a rare occurrence but when it happens it will take your breath away.

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Sep 29, 2020

Magnus Carlsen vs. Wesley So, the grand final of the chess24 Banter Series

“Oh boy, this is gonna be a rough day!” said Magnus Carlsen after blundering into mate to fall 0:2 behind against Levon Aronian in their chess24 Banter Series semi-final, but a brilliant 3rd game set the stage for a comeback. Magnus went on to score 5.5 from the last 6 games to set up a final against Wesley So, who had earlier cruised to a powerful victory over Liem Quang Le. Wesley won three games before Le hit back, but although the Vietnamese star lost 6:3 he’s already earned a place in the next Chess Tour as the best performing qualifier.

The final of the chess24 Banter Series, between Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So, will take place at 20:00 CEST on Tuesday 29th September, with a $12,000 top prize at stake.

Magnus Carlsen vs. Wesley So, the grand final of the chess24 Banter Series, has now been scheduled for Tuesday at 20:00 CEST. There’s pride and a $12,000 top prize ($6,000 for the runner-up) at stake, and you don’t want to miss this. Tune in live here on chess24 for commentary by both the players and other commentators, in multiples languages!

See also:

  • chess24 Banter Series hompage
  • All the chess24 Banter Series games with computer analysis
  • Carlsen and co. in Banter Series Finals action
  • Carlsen vs. Giri in the Banter Series Quarterfinals
  • Carlsen-Aronian and So-Le in the semi-finals
Feb 01, 2020

Paravyan & Tan Zhongyi win 2020 Gibraltar Masters

21-year-old Russian Grandmaster David Paravyan is the surprise winner of the 2020 Gibraltar Masters after defeating Andrey Esipenko and Wang Hao in tiebreaks. Seven players had tied for first place on 7.5/10 but only four could battle it out for the £30,000 top prize, with Mustafa Yilmaz, David Navara and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave all missing out – in MVL’s case by a single performance rating point! China’s Tan Zhongyi took the women’s top prize of £20,000 after beating French Champion Maxime Lagarde to reach 7/10.

21 players went into the final round of the 2020 Gibraltar Masters with a chance of first place, but it could all have been so different. In the penultimate round former World Junior Champion Parham Maghsoodloo sacrificed his queen for a second day in a row, but this time all it earned him was a lost position against 17-year-old Russian Grandmaster Andrey Esipenko. If Andrey had converted his advantage he’d have gone into the final round with a half-point lead, and only Wang Hao, David Paravyan and Mustafa Yilmaz would still have been able to catch him.

See also:

  • Official website
  • All the Gibraltar Masters games with computer analysis
  • Gibraltar Masters 1-6: Praggnanandhaa topples Topalov
  • Gibraltar Masters 7-8: Mamedyarov drops out
Jan 13, 2017

Analyzing your games is one of the main ways of improving in chess

Analyzing your games is one of the main ways of improving in chess. During this procedure you will be able to pinpoint your typical mistakes, as well as weaknesses & strengths. Your games are your business card in the world of chess.

Each person has their own approach to game analysis. Nevertheless, there are some common traits. When communicating with other chess players, I often learn new interesting ideas. The article offers some of the methods for you to consider.

There are two types of analysis – preliminary and deep. The first type is performed right after the game has been played, before the next round. The second one takes place after the end of the tournament.

Preliminary analysis

After the game has been played, it is useful to discuss it with the opponent. Nowadays this tradition is becoming less popular for a number of reasons. One of the common arguments is “why should I care what the patzer thinks, if I can go home and have the engine show me the right options?”. This snobbish reasoning doesn’t make much sense, because we humans learn by exchanging ideas and comparing opinions. If you understand why your partner made a good/bad move, it will help you much more than if you just take a look at the line suggested by your engine. Also, computers don’t give practical advice (“here you had weak light squares, so I decided to trade bishops and fix your pawns on certain squares to attack them in the upcoming endgame”). An interpreter is required to explain the ideas behind computer’s moves. At the recent Grand Prix in London you might have seen the world’s leading players hold post-mortem discussions. Notably, men are more likely to analyze games together than women. Of course, it is important not to overdo. For example, if you are playing in a demanding tournament (many rounds, 2 games per day), you might need to save yourself some time and energy. Try to find the right balance.

Second round: preliminary analysis at home (hotel room). Optimally, you should have a chess engine and a coach/second/friend to discuss the game with. Sometimes you can skip the post-mortem with your opponent, but this second round is a must. Don’t get too carried away: at this stage your goal is to fix some critical mistakes (bad time management, forgotten opening lines, poor tactics vision, etc.) in order to avoid them in the following rounds. Important: you have to review ALL the games. Some people think that if they won quickly, then there is nothing to look at – everything was great. Or, another shortcoming, some people don’t want to review their losses, because it depresses them. A strong chess player should be merciless towards himself, but in a constructive way: don’t blame yourself, just try to perform better next time.

How does one analyze? There are many options. Some people write down their emotions and plans that they had in mind during the game. Others simply jot down the main lines they had been calculating. It depends on your working style and on the amount of time that you have at your disposal.  Also, you should assess your emotional state before and after the game. This will help you see the whole picture. As you all know, psychology plays a vital role in chess.

After a preliminary analysis you should leave the game alone and start preparing for the next round. Don’t waste your energy on things that don’t matter anymore: “could I have saved that endgame?”, “what if I played c5 instead of e5 on move 1?”, “is there a middlegame plan that could have helped me trick the opponent?”. Also, don’t get too upset about losses/missed wins. What’s done cannot be undone. You can’t change the past, but you can affect the future.

Deep analysis

When the tournament is over, you can start working on increasing your chess mastery by correcting the weak spots in your game. Again, there are numerous ways of doing it. For example, you can start by analyzing the game yourself and then check your ideas with the chess engine. If you are lazy or don’t have enough time, you can analyze with the chess engine right away (not recommended for sub-master level). Performing some sort of automatic analysis is a strict no-no (some chess engines have those seemingly appealing modes – “the computer will take 30 seconds to review each of your moves and offer recommendations”). Your brain will degrade if you rely too much on computer evaluations. Remember that a PC won’t be at your fingertips during the tournament, so you have to learn to make choices on your own, without the guidance of our electronic assistants. Also, like I have already mentioned, we have to enhance our experience and knowledge by understanding certain principles and game situations, while computers have a unique solution to each particular situation. We can’t afford to follow in their footsteps, because our calculative skills are much worse.

During deep analysis you should find new ideas, the right continuations, outright blunders and hidden inaccuracies. Also, like a doctor, you should come up with a diagnosis: how the game proceeded, why, what “medicines” you should self-prescribe. Of course, having a coach is also helpful, because not all of us have the required expertise and objectivity.

By comparing your preliminary and deep analysis you can arrive at the right conclusions on what was going on, what you did wrong and why. Reminder: apart from the moves, ponder your psychological and physical states. Sometimes there are trivial matters that greatly affect the playing strength: you were nervous after being late for the game and having to run from the hotel room to the tournament hall; you didn’t eat well enough; your opponent won three games against you before, so your brain mentally gave up in advance, etc.

Chess is a complicated game, so even a deep analysis can sometimes include mistakes. For example, you might remember how the readers of Garry Kasparov’s “My great predecessors” books used to send him their suggestions and improvements which were included in the later editions. However, while perfection knows no limits, studying your own games carefully is the key to becoming a better player.