Thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to learn to play chess. Unfortunately, some of the barriers to learning remain, and will do no matter how much technology advances. One of these is the number of complicated seeming foreign terms in chess. Many of these French, German and Italian terms stem from the first heyday of chess, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unfortunately, there’s no option but to learn them, but this simple guide should make everything clear.
An easy one to start with. Tempo comes from the Latin for “time”, and is familiar from music. In chess it has a slightly different meaning: it means an advantage in time, measured in individual turns. So if you do something in two moves instead of one, you’ve “lost a tempo”. If you do something which makes your opponent waste a turn, you’ve “gained a tempo”. It’s a simple concept, but the ramifications go right to the heart of chess.
Another Italian term, fianchetto means “little flank” and is the name for a particular fortress-like development of the bishop. The knight’s pawn is advanced one square, and the bishop slots in behind it. This is a well-protected position, and the bishop is aggressively situated on the long diagonal, often bearing down on the opponent’s king.
A French term this time. En passant means “in passing” and is the name for the special move where a pawn captures another pawn that’s moved two squares as though it moved one. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s important that you know about it or you could get a nasty surprise!
Onto the German words! Luft just means “air” and it’s used to describe moving a pawn in front of your king to give him room to escape the back rank. This is known as “making luft” and is a good way to avoid the dreaded back rank mate. It can often be combined with chasing off an encroaching enemy bishop.
A mouthful of a term for a simple enough concept. A zwischenzug is an “in-between move”, or an unexpected deviation from an apparently forced combination. This most usually occurs during exchanges; instead of recapturing immediately, an unexpected move will be played elsewhere on the board. Always be on the lookout for moves like this. Even seemingly forced responses should be given a few seconds thought to see if there might be something stronger to play.
This is a more complicated concept. A zugzwang is a position where you don’t want to move. The player in zugzwang has a good position, often with everything protected. Unfortunately, if it’s your turn, you have to move! In a zugzwang, any move will make the position worse. If it’s a mutual zugzwang, both players want the other to move, and whoever has to play is often doomed.