Friedrich Saemisch couldn’t move.Well, actually, he could. It’s just that he didn’t want to.
But he had to.
His opponent, Aron Nimzowitsch, had just pushed a pawn—the one farthest to his left—one square up from its original spot. Innocuous enough, so it seemed, taking the weakest piece on the board in the weakest position on the board and advancing it the smallest increment on the board. But it had the result, the devastating result, the humiliating result of putting Saemisch into the chess equivalent of a rear-naked chokehold.
Saemisch, playing white, had plenty of pieces and plenty of options available. In fact, he held a slight material advantage over Nimzowitsch, a world-renowned grandmaster when this match was played in 1923. That wasn’t his problem. This was his problem: exercising any of those options—each of the 20-something moves Saemisch could make—would at best cost him a big chunk of that material.
And at worst, it would decimate his position to the point he could never recover.
The best action was inaction. Hence being in the zugzwang, which is German for having to act when you’d rather do nothing.
Which in English is being up “Sh—’s Creek” without a paddle.
So Saemisch resigned, falling on his own sword rather than giving Nimzowitsch the satisfaction of ripping it from his clutches and using it to slice him to ribbons.
In business, as in chess, we sometimes find ourselves in Saemisch’s shoes. Could be a salary negotiation. Could be a sales pitch. Could be a strategic partnership. Could be just about anything where you’re better off checking your option—poker parlance for doing nothing—than trying to turn initiative into advantage. But in business, unlike in chess, there are no rules that say whose turn it is. We can’t get zugzwanged in the literal sense of the word because we can’t be compelled to move.
Instead, do these don’ts…
Don’t Go First
You don’t need to attend a seminar by Chester Karrass—oh yeah, the guy that advertises in all the airline magazines!—to know this rule of thumb. In chess, white has an inherent advantage because it moves first, forcing black to counter and defend; however, in the business world, such an edge is no edge at all. You want to be black, to be the reactor, rather than the actor.
Let’s say you’re up for a new job, or even a promotion. When the talk turns to money, shut up and listen. If asked, “What salary were you thinking about?” answer with something like, “Well, what do you think this job is worth for someone of my qualifications?” Otherwise, dance around and yell, “Show me the money!” to get your point across.
Well, maybe not. Anyway, when you’re in this confrontation—and make no mistake, that’s what this is—you may have to blunt two, three, even four attempts from the other side to elicit an offer from you, but whatever you do, don’t do it.
Don’t Negotiate Against Yourself
OK, so you won the game of chicken and got the other side to move first. And then, like anyone that remembers Alicia Silverstone’s dad in the movie Clueless, you summarily, albeit politely, rejected this offer, no matter how fair or generous it was.
Because that’s just what he’d do. (And he had enough scratch to buy his brat princess daughter a new Jeep Wrangler and all the clothes she could stuff into her oversized closet in his oversized Beverly Hills mansion, so he must know what he’s talking about.)
When you counter, be prepared to wait for a response. Even if days turn into a week or two, don’t succumb to the tepid temptation to call back and lower your own offer. This is the weakest move possible (the chess equivalent of Pawn to Queen’s Bishop 3), and must be avoided at all costs. Or it will do just that: Cost you. Remember that all valuations are ambiguous to a degree, and you can’t negotiate against yourself just because you can’t handle a little awkward silence.
Don’t Move Until You Have To
Chess, like basketball and football, has a shot clock. Not only must players take their turn, they must take all of their turns in a specified amount of aggregate time. But business is more like baseball or cricket; there’s no display counting down the seconds until you must take action… or take the consequences of inaction.
And you want to keep it that way. When it’s your turn in a negotiation, chew as much of that clock as the other side allows. More time means more information, more opportunity for something better to come along, more time to evaluate alternatives. You never want to move until the last possible second; besides, going radio silent may entice the other side to increase its offer, a desperate display of negotiating against itself.
Of course, when you’re the one proposing—or counter-proposing—it’s the opposite. You’ve got to take this topsy-turvy. You can’t let the people on the other end of this deal take all day to evaluate, deliberate, or ruminate. Start the clock. Any offer you make should have a sunset, a deadline to respond. That will let them know you mean business and that you know your own value.
And that’s how you become the zugzwanger rather than the zugzwangee.