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Chess: Too exacting to be art; too inexact to be science; too erudite to be sport: too demanding to be a be just a game. Perhaps a metaphor for life and struggle. In Goethe's words, "Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game." If chess is a metaphor for life, it's not surprising that chess terms have become part of the broader language.


The familiar word check – to restrain, or to inspect for quality – comes from chess. But how that word evolved from the chess meaning is problematical

The word clearly came into English with the game of chess, which Europe acquired from Persia. The game's object is to capture the opponent's king (Persian shah), and in Persia a player would announce shah when he threatened the opponent's king with immediate capture. As the game spread through Europe, this announcement shah passed through several languages (Arabic, probably Old Spanish, and Old French) to become "check" in Middle English, in the early 1300s.

But ask how this chess usage evolved to the modern sense, and you will find that the authorities are notably vague. AHD simply says "through a complex development".

We can do better, noting that by the late 1300s Chaucer was using "check" in the sense of being restrained or under compulsion (just as, in chess a check compels immediate attention, restraining the player from other action).
    They were checked both the two, / And neither of them might out go; / [Be]For other so they gan to crowd, / Till each of them gan cryen loud, / "Let me go first!" – 'Nay, but let me!

    "I am mine owen woman, well at ease, ... Right young, and stand untied ... Shall none husband say to me checkmate.
    [From The House Of Fame, 2093-2097 and Troilus and Cressida, Book II, 750-754; language somewhat modernized; originals here]
From there, it seems that "check" as a restraint came specifically to mean a device to restrain or prevent against theft, fraud or the like, as in hat check, or as in like records to verify financial drafts against forgery. From there one can see using "check" to mean bank-drafts themselves. And by the same token, "to check" something is to verify that all is proper.

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Quote "...too erudite to be sport..."

Chess is the only sport that I play. And if I really want to work up a sweat I use a full-size set.


Richard English
 
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I've seen (but never tried to verify) that checkmate comes from "shah mat", meaning "the king (shah) is dead".
 
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endgame – the final stage of an extended process or course of events [In chess: the final stage of a game, when most pieces have been removed from the board; requires different strategy]

After two optimistic political quotations, we illustrate a typical misuse of endgame to mean simply "the desired final result"]
    Sinn Fein has played its cards with such skill that the British are now locked into a process that will almost inevitably lead to Irish unity. ... We are at last entering the endgame in Northern Ireland.
    – John Lloyd, Ulster enters the endgame, New Statesman, Aug. 20, 2001

    The real news out of Cuba is not the flood of refugees, but the terminal crisis of the Castro regime, which has clearly entered a new phase. The endgame has been more protracted than many expected a few years ago, but the outcome is not in doubt--only the timing.
    Endgame in Cuba, National Review, Sept. 12, 1994

    [Companies that overcame major problems] maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame, and a commitment to prevail as a great company despite the brutal facts
    – Jim Collins (noted business author), Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't
Bonus word: Surely there must be some adjective meaning "pertaining to chess". The word is scacchic, but it is extremely rare. I can find only one use, apart from wordlists, and in that one use it was misspelled. "In addition, a bad motion picture offered a surprising scaccic feature … with a giant robot chess set, in which each piece is at least eight feet tall." – En Passant magazine, Oct. 1967

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Yes, Haberdasher, checkmate derives, via Arabic, from Persian shah mat 'the king (is) dead'. Shah is from Old Persian khshayathiya and is related to Sanskrit kshatriya 'one of the varnas or castes, the princely caste'.
 
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Chess is the only sport that I play.

Let it not be said that Richard doesn't like sports. Wink
 
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In chess the pawn is the most numerous of the pieces, with the least mobility and value. It is, if you will, the foot-soldier of the army of chessmen. The name pawn comes to us (via Old French) from Medieval Latin pedo or pedon, foot soldier (which, humorously is from Late Latin "one who has wide feet"). The pawn is the slogging infantry grunt, sent to do the dirty work.

From this meaning comes the more general meaning of the term.

pawn – a person without real power, used (manipulated) by others for their own purposes
    But Diana was never just a girl of today, a simple Cinderella who found her Prince Charming until the dream went sour. In truth, she was the flowering of a far older tradition than anything dreamed of in the modern age. She was the latest in a long line of women used as pawns in the eternal battle between the English nobility and the monarchy it constantly schemes both to join and subvert.
    – Rosalind Miles, A girl like Diana - Princess of Wales, Saturday Night, Nov. 1,1997

    The front line was made of innocents, said QRF [Quick Reaction Force] Col. Jim Campbell: "We are facing a particularly callous and cunning enemy who uses women and children as pawns."
    – Scott Peterson, Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda

    [In divorce:] Before you say or do anything mean or vindictive, look at your children. Think about how your comment or action will impact them. Don't use your children as pawns to get back at your ex-spouse.
    – Jan Blackstone-Ford, The Custody Solutions Sourcebook
 
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The Spanish version is peón.

Pronounced more like "pay-OWN" than "pee-ahn"
 
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checkmatenoun: utter defeat. verb: to defeat completely
[chess: a threatened immediate capture of the opponent's king (that is, a check) in which that capture cannot be averted. verb: to make such a check]
[from Persian shat mat "the king is dead"]
Correction by edit: That should be shah mat, rather than shat mat.]
    By all precedents the Poles, in extremis, should have yielded once they found that they faced both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The Germans had them checked; now they were in checkmate. It was time to quit.
    - William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940
Bonus term:
in extremis
- at the point of death

[Note: many dictionaries wrongly state that, in chess, 'checkmate' means a check that the attacked king cannot "escape". But escape implies flight, while in chess an attack can be averted by moving the attacked piece (fleeing) or by shielding it from the attack or by capturing the attacker. A "checkmate" requires that none of these counters be available.]

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gambit – 1. an action or remark calculated to gain an advantage; a maneuver or ploy 2. a remark made to open a conversation

Today's word, in ordinary usage, has changed quite a bit from its original chess meaning. In chess, a gambit [from Ital. gambetto ‘tripping up’] is play in which a player sacrifices material early in the game, in order to gain a strategic positional advantage. But the ordinary non-chess sense, a gambit is any ploy or maneuver: it need not be early (except the conversational gambit) or involve a sacrifices, and it may seek immediate (tactical) pay-off. See for example our final quotation: "final gambit".
    Male funnel-web spiders seem to be wafting some kind of knockout gas toward the females they court--a tricky gambit since a laboratory test shows the substance can also knock out the male. Since there's a fine line between a female's next mate and her next meal, spider courtship requires precise diplomacy. The funnel-web spider sidesteps this problem. During courtship, the female curls into a harmless cataleptic state for at least several hours, sometimes days, enabling a male to mate without being eaten.
    –S.M Stirling, Funnel-web males send knockouts in air, Science News, Aug. 11, 2001

    In the magazine world, finding new readers can be hard work. One gambit is to pair up with a major retailer. Time Inc. launched its All You magazine exclusively at Wal-Marts, to zero in on a huge market while avoiding some of the expenses associated with launching a new title.
    – James Bandler and Jeffrey A Trachtenberg, So Much to Read, So Few Readers, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 22, 2004 (today)

    Block the Vote: As a Final Gambit, Parties Are Trying to Damp Turnout
    – headline of front-page article, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27, 2004
 
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stalemate – a deadlock; a situation of opposing parties in which neither side can make further progress or take any further worthwhile action. verb: bring to stalemate.
    The US can afford to go it alone, but Britain is not a superpower. Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules. Yet tonight the international partnerships most important to us are weakened: the European Union is divided; the Security Council is in stalemate. … I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war. … I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the Government.
    – Robin Cook, resignation speech, 17th March 2003
This word too has strayed from the concept of its chess meaning. Chess does present situations where neither side can make any progress. Such games are considered a draw – but a stalemate is a different sort of drawn game.

stalemate (chess): the position where the player to move is not in check (but every available move would leave him in check).
[contrast checkmate: the position where the player to move is in check (and every available move will leave him in check)]
 
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...and then there is Zugzwang, which might be considered the opposite of stalemate. In Zugzwang there is only one legal move possible, and no matter how unfavorable the consequences, that's what must be done. There is no other choice; the move is forced.
 
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Zugzwang :- great word, hadn't heard it before. A nice compound in German. From Zug 'move (in a boardgame)' (lit. 'train, pull, drag, draw') plus Zwang 'coercion, constraint, enforcement'.
 
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The press gives a good definition of our final term from chess.

Zugzwang is the well-known phenomenon in chess in which the player with the move would be just as happy to pass. The position on the board may hold no particular danger, but any move the player in zugzwang makes invariably makes things worse. (German for "compulsion to move")
– David R. Sands, Zugzwang: Moving ordeal, The Washington Times, June 21, 2003

"Well-known" phenomenon? The word is rarely used outside of chess, but you'll find it in the recent press in The Guardian, and also here:
    Indeed, the mere mention of elections sketches the perfect zugzwang into which Mr Bush had landed himself. ... Consider. Mr Bush has no choice other than to hold those elections on schedule, in January. Otherwise, al Sistani, the canny religious leader of Iraq's majority Shiites, has signalled powerfully that he will turn against the Occupation. Yet those elections are going to be boycotted by most Sunnis, which means that (a) they will be perceived internationally as being illegitimate and (b) the stage will then be fully set for civil war.
    – Wayne Brown, The battle for Falluja, Jamaica Observer, November 21, 2004
Note: In chess, how does zugswang differ from stalemate? A stalemated player is not under threat of immediate capture of his king (though capture may be close at hand), but he has only moves that expose him to that immediate loss. A player in zugzwang, however, has a tenable position, but has only moves that worsen it – leading perhaps to ultimate loss, but not to immediate capture of his king.
 
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quote:
Originally posted by wordcrafter:
checkmate ... [from Persian shat mat "the king is dead]
Er, make that [from Persian shah mat "the king is dead"].
Thanks, Bill!
 
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I haven't been posting lately, but I've really been enjoying the Chess words. Zugzwang is not an official chess position, just a term to describe a particular situation.

In Modern chess, stalemate results in a draw, though a couple of hundred years ago it was a victory for the side not stalemated, reasoning that if you had the other side trapped, that was as good as checkmate. I don't remember exactly where the rule changed.

Zugzwang is fairly rare in its pure state, that is, no matter what move is made, the position moves to a lost won. It occurs most often in an end game, with locked up pawns and no other pieces. The first side to move must move the king, allowing the opponents king to swoop in and capture his opponents pawns.
 
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haven't been posting lately

We've noticed, and we've missed you!
 
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"It occurs most often in an end game, with locked up pawns and no other pieces. The first side to move must move the king, allowing the opponents king to swoop in and capture his opponents pawns."

Are you thinking of kings in "opposition", Seanahan? I've never thought of that as a zugzwang, but now that you mention it, it certainly is one.
 
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