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the hidden language

The Hidden Language of Chess Players

In chess as in life, sometimes you're just a patzer caught in a zugzwang.

Photo by Flickr user David Kinney

In the Hidden Language, Nat Towsen interviews an insider of a particular subculture in order to examine the terms and phrases created by that subculture to serve its own needs. This is language innate to an insider and incomprehensible, if not invisible, to an outsider.

Bruce Pandolfini speaks with the familiar tone of an uncle telling stories. The language of chess is second nature to him, so he takes care to separate chess terminology from everyday speech. When we met, he had just come from a tournament; we talked over lunch before he had to head off to give a private lesson.


A Brooklyn native, Pandolfini rose to the rank of Master in competitive chess before leaving the tournament circuit to give lessons full time in 1972, "during [Bobby] Fischer's rise to the top." He claims to have given more lessons than anyone else, though fully admits he's never done the research to back that assertion ("maybe someone in Russia has me beat," he allows). He published his first chess book, Let's Play Chess, in 1980 and soon signed a nine-book contract with Simon & Schuster, making his name synonymous with chess books.

Explaining his game's terminology can be confusing, Pandolfini told me, because it often has different meaning to players than it does to the average person. He carefully explained those differences and highlighted some of the more interesting words and phrases from the world of chess.

Photo by Brian Killigrew


Brackets denote paraphrasing. Everything else is in Pandolfini's words.

Pawn: n. The smallest and least valuable unit in chess. On occasion, however, once it reaches the last row, it is converted to something else, [usually] a queen. Thus the lowliest unit can be raised to the highest.

Promotion: n. When you advance a pawn to the last row, you have to change it into something. Usually, you change it into a queen.

Underpromotion: n. If you change a pawn into anything less valuable than a queen, sometimes a knight, [for strategic purposes].

Stalemate: n.
1. In real life: You're balancing against the opposition; neither side can make progress.
2. In chess: The game is over [and drawn, because one player cannot move].


Checkmate: n. The end of a chess game.

Zugzwang: n. A situation where neither player wants to move. Whoever moves makes a concession that the other side can exploit. Usage: Most players don't use "zugzwang" to mean that neither player wants to move; they usually use it to mean that just one player doesn't want to move.

Squeeze: n. (technical) zugzwang. Usage: Exclusively refers to a situation involving both players.

A Pawn's Lust To Expand: n. A pawn advances up the board and becomes more powerful until it promotes. Etymology: Coined by the chess master Nimzovich.

Kibbitzer: n. Someone who interferes with games by making comments… always has an opinion on something, usually wrong—or messes up the game in some way. He has nothing to lose.

Patzer: n. A very weak player. Someone who always falls for traps. Usually plays very quickly and automatically.

Fish: n. Another weak player. e.g. "He's a fish, I can beat him easily."

Scholar's Mate: n. A four-move checkmate. Usage: I always jokingly say I think very few scholars use it these days.

Play For The Center: v. Trying to guard, control, occupy, and influence the squares in the center of the board. Eventually one hopes to station pieces there, without having to move them away because from the center pieces have greater mobility, they can do more.

Ahead On Time:
1. adj. Having more pieces in action than the opponent does.
2. adj. Being able to control the flow of play because one has the initiative.
3. adj. [Being able to] achieve something before someone else does, such as a pawn race [a situation where two pawns are competing to be promoted.]


Tempo: n. A unit of time.

Fried Liver Attack: n. An attack when white sacrifices a knight in the Two Knights Defense. Etymology: It's so named because it was played by an Italian master in the 1600s while eating fried liver.


Some chess terms ( checkmate, stalemate, and pawn, most commonly) have made their way into everyday speech already. Zugzwang is a perfect word for describing a situation in which taking action will actually worsen your situation (plus it's a lot of fun to say out loud). Kibbitzers, who give bad and unwanted advice, certainly exist outside of the chess world, as do patzers, who fall into common traps without thinking.

An underpromotion could refer to someone taking a job or position at a lower pay grade that provides more opportunities or a better living condition. We should all try to play for the center: focus on controlling the things that matter so that everything else falls into place. A pawn's lust to expand can easily describe the drive of an unknown person with little power who nonetheless drives forward to succeed in their field. And we can use ahead in time to refer not to the clock, but being ahead in opportunities.


Bruce Pandolfini has published more than 30 books on chess, including the expansive Pandolfini's Ultimate Guide to Chess. Readers can submit their own chess questions to be answered in his column on He is also available for private lessons.

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