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The following fascinating position recently arose in Round 5 of the ongoing Tata Steel tournament.

[Title "Ju Wenjun - Alireza Firouzja, Tata Steel, 2024"]
[FEN "8/2pk4/6p1/2P4p/3PR2P/3r2P1/5K2/8 w - - 0 1"]

Live commentary by Jovanka Houska and Robert Hess explained that, according to the engines, this position is a mutual Zugzwang or reciprocal Zugzwang (although Houska and Hess did not use that terminology). That is, if it is Black to play (which was the case in real life) then White wins; however, if it is White to play (which could have been the case had the players played slightly differently a few moves earlier), then Black draws. In other words, neither side has a waiting move available; both White and Black would prefer that the opponent move first.

Mutual Zugzwang positions are not uncommon in pawn endings, and can also be found in endgame tablebases, but I find it rather amazing that in a position such as the one above, in which both players (superficially, at least) appear to have considerable freedom of movement, neither side has a move that improves their position or even maintains the status quo. Another way to phrase it is that (given that it is Black to move) if Black's pawn were on g7 rather than g6, then 1…g6 would draw, but as the position stands, Black is lost.

My question is, are there other examples of mutual Zugzwang positions that have arisen in a high-level game, in which both sides have as much apparent freedom of movement (and in particular, have at least one piece in addition to their pawns) as in this position? My instinct is that this sort of thing is very rare in practical play, but maybe I am just uninformed.

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  • It may be rare, but endgame theory is so full of mutual zugzwangs that it happened often. Offhand I immediately recall Aljechin-Yates: youtube.com/watch?v=Lql6ONGZVZ4 This is a pure pawn endgame, though, with not much freedom. Jan 20 at 20:54
  • @HaukeReddmann Yes, as I said, mutual Zugzwang is not uncommon in pawn endings. But in the introduction to John Nunn's Secrets of Rook Endings, he said he did an informal straw poll of grandmasters, asking them how many mutual Zugzwang positions they thought there were among R+P v R endings, and the answers he got were in the 5-25 range. The true answer is 209, but that is still a tiny fraction of all R+P v R positions, so I'm not sure that rook endings are "full of mutual Zugzwangs." Zugzwangs for sure, but mutual Zugzwangs? Before Nunn, I don't think they were recognized as important. Jan 20 at 23:34
  • As a mathematician, 208 I see as "very many" :-) As a trainer, I am on your side, it probably suffice to say "exists", and sort the examples where they belong otherwise. In this Wiki link, you find a very "natural" example (dia 1, high level), unsurprisingly with a knight pawn: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Jan 21 at 9:03
  • @HaukeReddmann Thanks; that's a good "near miss" (though not a true example since the position did not actually arise on the board). Jan 21 at 13:21

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