Zugzwang: What chess can teach us about making better decisions

Chess is having a bit of a moment. Bolstered by Netflix’s new hit series The Queen’s Gambit, which follows the life of a chess prodigy as she grows up and manages addiction. In the three weeks after the show premiered, unit sales of chess sets jumped 87 per cent. Downloads for’s iPhone app are now at the top of the charts for the first time. This surge of popularity has also resulted in renewed interest in the classic strategies and theories of the game.

While there is a lot to learn from chess, one of its most useful concepts is zugzwang. It describes a situation in a game where it is a player’s turn, but every move available will result in a worse outcome. There is no "pass" or "skip” in chess, so if you are in this position the game is basically done.

Zugzwang captures that exact moment when the game is effectively over before it ended.

That feeling of zugzwang might feel familiar to anyone who has embarked on a new strategy or launched an innovative project and hit a wall when considering a large technology investment. Or when a project team is spinning its wheels and can’t make a decision. One of the fundamental strategies in chess is to avoid this state—to always have a variety of options available. Technology work is the same, it’s inherently uncertain so steering clear of zugzwang is important, but how can leaders avoid it?

The answer can be partially found by inverting the question. Reframed this way, the question becomes: how can companies increase the number of good options available? This is more approachable because it is forward thinking rather than looking through a rear-view mirror. There are the two key questions that you can ask when evaluating different options.

Question 1: Which of these options, rationally considered, will allow us the most flexibility in the future?

While this might seem obvious in theory, it’s a lot harder in practice. This is because optimizing for flexibility often results in two things: increased uncertainty and unclear costs. It’s basic human psychology to avoid these states. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right path to take. (It’s usually quite the opposite.)

Let’s consider a simple example. Implementing an off-the-shelf CRM will likely be cheaper in the short run. You will have clarity on cost and timelines. The other option, customizing an open-source CRM that directly matches the needs of your sales team will give you more flexibility in the future, but it will result in an unclear budget and timeline. The right answer to this scenario is understandably murky. This is why its important to add the next question to your evaluation.

Question 2: What does the version of this idea look like if we had to condense it into six weeks?

By reducing an idea into a more bite-sized chunk, you are able to proceed with less risk while still testing the idea. This results in a positive sum “loop” that can quickly evolve:

  1. Smaller bets lead to more action.
  2. Actions yield information.
  3. Information increases the “hit rate” of bets.

Try this next time you are discussing an idea with a team. You will be amazed at how just clarifying an idea can distill things down to their essence. Going back to our CRM example, a team could consider what the six-week version of a CRM would look like. Could we do this in Google Sheets? What about a “no-code” app like Airtable? What could we do by stringing our systems together with Zapier?

By applying these two questions, you can take concrete steps to expand your available options. But the first step is always the same: take action. When I was discussing the concept of zugzwang with a colleague he brought up an interesting statistic from the popular strategy game Starcraft. In the game, players compete against each other with limited resources. The top players all share a common trait. Abnormally high “actions per minute” or APM. They simply move faster than less skilled opponents. Even the slowest professional players have triple the APM of the average player. The same rings true in any competitive environment. No matter how great your strategy is, if you are not executing at a high rate of speed you lack information. You may win with the right strategy some of the time, but most advantages will quickly get competed away. Today’s connected environment requires constant iteration.

So what’s the key to avoiding zugzwang? Place smaller bets in the right order; action yields information.