Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (26)

by ChessBase
3/18/2008 – This latest selection from Chess Notes provides a stark warning against gullible quotation of alleged remarks of the old masters, including Alekhine, Nimzowitsch and Tartakower. There may be no area of chess literature with more dark corners or where the risk of error is greater. Many familiar quotes are, at best, dubious and, at present, lack authentification. Can readers help?

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Unsolved Chess Mysteries (26)

By Edward Winter

Page 114 of the 2/2008 New in Chess contains this exchange with Fabiano Caruana:

What is the best chess truth you ever heard?
“The threat is mightier than the execution” – Aaron Nimzowitsch.’

We shall return to that saying at the end of the present article, but first some general remarks, from C.N. 3514, on how the entire subject of chess quotes is fraught with inaccuracy and mystery.

Who stated what?

No reliable anthology of chess quotations exists in any language; to date there has been just the occasional brief throw-together of alleged bons mots, all of them sourceless. Nothing stamps a writer as untrustworthy more swiftly than an expectation that what he writes should be taken on trust.

There is something carefree and almost random about how the chess world attributes many writings and sayings to persons (Tartakower is a safe bet) and nations (‘Old Russian proverb’), and this often makes it impossible for the reader to determine what is genuine, erroneous or bogus. Our recommendation is to dispense with any publication or website which offers ‘chess quotes’ without indicating where and when the statements in question were purportedly made.

On page 279 of The Chess Companion (New York, 1968) Irving Chernev attributed the following to Tartakower:

‘The great master places a knight at K5; checkmate follows by itself.’

As was pointed out in C.N. 2194 (see pages 338-339 of A Chess Omnibus), Tartakower merely quoted an onlooker at a game won by O. Bernstein in Paris in 1933. On page 426 of L’Echiquier, 17 February 1934 Tartakower wrote:

‘“Ces grands-maîtres placent leur[s] Cavaliers à é5 et après les mats découlent d’eux-mêmes!” dit en voyant cette catastrophe un spectateur grincheux.’

Savielly Tartakower

A similar remark appeared on page 111 of Chernev’s The Bright Side of Chess (various editions, except the New York, 1961 version, which mysteriously omitted the Epigrams chapter):

‘Once get a knight firmly posted at king 6 and you may go to sleep. Your game will then play itself.’

This is attributed to Anderssen, whereas on page 174 of CHESS, 8 January 1955 Steinitz was said to have declared:

‘Let me establish an unassailable knight on K6 and I can go to sleep for the rest of the game.’

Can a reader provide a respectable nineteenth-century source relating to Anderssen, Steinitz or anybody else?

‘The gymnasium of the mind’

C.N. 2987 mentioned that a BBC television programme had attributed to Lenin the remark about chess being the gymnasium of the mind, which in fact dates back to Studies of Chess by P. Pratt (London, 1803). For the record C.N. 3626 reproduced the exact text in that book (page iii):

‘Chess is distinguished from other games, by having long had the suffrages of contemplative men in its favor; the countenance of illustrious characters of the most opposite professions. Generals have directed engagements on its little portable field; philosophers have traced consequences through its range of combinations; divines have exercised contemplation in its vicissitudes. Teeming, through its varied progress and turns, with excitements to thinking, it is, in its essential tendency, a gymnasium of the mind.’

On a number of webpages which pluck ‘chess quotes’ out of thin air and list them without any attributions or qualms the ‘gymnasium of the mind’ phrase is ascribed to Blaise Pascal, although we have yet to see an (alleged) original French version of the remark. That may be because according to the Robert dictionary the word gymnase is not recorded in the French language (with the meaning in question) until 1704, whereas Pascal died in 1662. Moreover, Georges Renaud wrote on page 28 of issue 17 of Les Cahiers de l’Echiquier Français (1928) that there was ‘aucune allusion directe aux échecs dans l’oeuvre de Pascal ’.

All kinds of chess remarks are put into the mouths or pens of everyone from Confucius to Kasparov, but there is one that is unlikely to be found listed on those awful ‘chess quotes’ webpages: an observation by Fischer during the fourth press conference in Sveti Stefan on 21 September 1992, as transcribed on page 117 of No Regrets by Y. Seirawan and G. Stefanović (Seattle, 1992):

‘– Are you more interested in women now than you were in 1972, when you said that chess was much more interesting?

Fischer: A lot of these quotes about me are not correct. Quotes of things I said.’

That documented remark of Fischer’s will, of course, be ignored, whereas unsubstantiated or invented quotes will continue to be propagated ad infinitum.

Bobby Fischer

In the feature article Historical Havoc we observed:

‘It is as though all writers, no matter how unenlightened about the game’s past, feel licensed – compelled, even – to indulge in historical name-dropping, under the delusion that their output will gain prestige from occasional references, however shallow or fallacious, to the old-timers.’

Always lucky

Many writers ascribe to Capablanca the axiom ‘Good players are always lucky’. C.N. 5448 asked how far back the remark can be traced, attributed to the Cuban or to anyone else.

‘Never miss a check’

C.N. 2306 (see page 342 of A Chess Omnibus) discussed who originated the aphorism, ‘Never miss a check, it might be mate’. The earliest documented reference known to us is the Liverpool Weekly Mercury of 8 November 1890, quoting from the Birmingham [Daily] Gazette. The remark was attributed to Blackburne, at a simultaneous exhibition in Birmingham in 1890.

The comment ‘Never miss a check’ (without the other four words) appeared in the notes about a Blackburne position on page 25 of the Chess Monthly, September 1882:

L.-J.H. Blackburne, London, 20 October 1880 (Played at Simpson’s, with Blackburne giving the odds of two knights.)

1…Be7 2 Bxe5+ (‘Of course White cannot resist the temptation, and why should he? “Never miss a check.”’) 2…Qxe5 3 Nxe5 Rxg2+ 4 Kxg2 Rg6+ 5 Kh3 Bg2 mate.

By the time of his death, the remark ‘Never miss a check, it might be mate’ was routinely being ascribed to Blackburne (e.g. the BCM, October 1924, page 401).

Joseph Henry Blackburne

Alekhine and vanity

C.N. 3225 recalled that the observation ‘Chess is vanity’ is widely attributed to Alekhine and asked whether he ever used those words. We drew attention to the following passage on page 19 of the January 1929 BCM:

‘Alexander Alekhine, interviewed in Paris by the Eclaireur de Nice on 24 November, said with regard to his victory over Capablanca at Buenos Aires: “Psychology is the most important factor in chess. My success was due solely to my superiority in the sense of psychology. Capablanca played almost entirely by a marvellous gift of intuition, but he lacked the psychological sense.”

From the commencement of the game, the champion continued, a player must know his opponent. “Then the game becomes a question of nerves, personality and vanity. Vanity plays a great part in deciding the result of a game.”

We are indebted to the Central News for the above item of information.’

C.N. 3522 added what appeared in the quotes chapter of The Joys of Chess by F. Reinfeld (New York, 1961), page 286:

‘“Chess is a matter of vanity.”
– Alexander Alekhine, Chess Review, 1934.’

However, this proves to be a non-source, for Reinfeld did not make it clear that the item in question was merely an article by Barnie F. Winkelman entitled ‘Vanity and Chess’ on pages 156-157 of the September 1934 Chess Review. The quotation introduced Winkelman’s article, as follows:

‘“Chess is a matter of vanity …”

Dr Alexander Alekhine
(From a reported interview.)’

That is all.

The last two paragraphs of Winkelman’s article discussed the ‘reported’ Alekhine quote (whose authenticity has yet to be established):

‘All this, no doubt, Dr Alekhine had in mind when he emphasized the importance of vanity in match or tournament. But let him not be misunderstood. For in no field is blind conceit more speedily punished, and mere front of so little value.

Well may Alekhine be pardoned the apparent exaggeration of his quotation. For he above and beyond any of our champions builded his own success solidly upon a foundation of native ability, hard work and sheer love of the game – and least of all, upon vanity.’

Alexander Alekhine

Another statement by Alekhine?

C.N. 3896 quoted from page 19 of Catastrophe in the Opening by James Plaskett (London, 2005):

‘Alexander Alekhine once said that to wrest a point from him an opponent would have to beat him three times: once in the opening, once in the middlegame and once in the ending.’

Did Alekhine ‘once’ make such a claim? As noted in C.N. 2104 (see page 230 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves), the introduction by Larry Evans to the eighth game in Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games began:

‘Alekhine said, in his prime, that to wrest a point from him it was necessary to win the same game three times: once at the beginning, once in the middle, once at the end.’

However, the only such remark that we have managed to find was by Tartakower (CHESS, 14 March 1939, page 241), in a discussion of his victory over Alekhine at the Folkestone Olympiad in 1933:

‘As usual against “Alexander the Great”, one had to beat him three times over to score a single point against him.’

Incidentally, the phrase ‘Alekhine said, in his prime, that ...’ defeated the translators of at least two editions of Fischer’s book:

  • ‘Alékhine disait, au début de sa carrière, que ...’
  • ‘En su juventud, Alekhine dijo que ...’

In C.N. 3898 Christian Sánchez (Rosario, Argentina) pointed out the following observations by Euwe on page 15 of the January 1966 BCM:

‘In former times, once having lost the first phase of the game, the amateur made some more weak moves and then went down to defeat. That is no longer the case. In general, one mistake is not sufficient to lose a game of chess; it takes two mistakes to decide the issue. That is why the very strong players so seldom lose a game. Certainly they make mistakes from time to time, but they restrict them to one per game. And now it appears that the amateur also knows that he need not despair after his first error – provided, of course, that this error is not too serious. He can still fight, and his master opponent has to make things so complicated that the amateur falters a second time. Chess has become twice as difficult: to score one point, you have to win twice.’

‘Checkers is for tramps’ (attributed to Morphy)

Paul Morphy

C.N. 4425 quoted from page 14 of R.D. Yates Checker Player by W.T. Call (New York, 1905):

‘Paul Morphy, the chess genius, sought to obtain a glimpse into the scientific depths of checkers without too much trouble, but never succeeded in getting within sight of anything under the surface of the game. When he went to England he asked Thomas Lear, who played both checkers and chess, to explain to him “wherein the beauty of draughts playing lay”. On another occasion, half in jest, half in earnest, the great chess master said to a New York player, “Checkers is for tramps”.’

Wanted: substantiation of the purported remark by Morphy.


Now, something truly dreadful. Print-on-demand/vanity books tend to be expensive and expendable, but few descend to the level of a work discussed in C.N. 4716. The quotes section (pages 155-169) of Check Mate and Word Games by Carlos Tortoza (Denver, 2006) contains such treasures as the following:

  • W. Steinitz: ‘My first goal was not to win the portion to sacrifice but a figure. – the young.’
  • M. Taimanov: ‘I did not produce envy, there me the Chess players as a musician and the musicians as a Chess player regarded.’
  • R.J. Fischer: ‘As I eleven became simply good, became I.’
  • J.R. Capablanca: ‘It gave very close to times in my life, there to the fact I was to be believed that I could also not lose only one game of Chess.’
  • A. Nimzowitsch: ‘One works against the wrong view, as if each course has to carry direct out; also rating and quiescent courses have its right of existence.’
  • Em. Lasker: ‘Who wants to instill itself the ability in Chess independently to think, which everything must avoid, which is live less: thought out theories, on very few examples and a quantity the brain support themselves.’

  • M. Tal: ‘In lightning it is to be attacked more simply with a figure less, than defending itself with a multi-figure.’
  • P. Keres: ‘The older I will to estimate the more white I farmers.’
  • R.J. Fischer: ‘I know humans, the all will of the World to possess and nevertheless Chess not play can.’
  • R.J. Fischer: ‘I love the moment, if I break the Ego of mine opposite.’
  • A. Nimzowitsch: ‘Around itself against the danger of a cold to protect, ensure the move-merry king in time for an useful hiding place.’
  • G. Kasparov: ‘Chess is war, in chess goes it around testosteron hormon.’

    Aron Nimzowitsch

In conclusion, we return to that famous quote ‘The threat is mightier [or stronger] than the execution’ (‘Eine Drohung ist stärker als eine Ausführung’). Although sometimes attributed to Tarrasch and Tartakower rather than Nimzowitsch, it can, our feature article A Nimzowitsch Story showed, be traced back to both James Mason and Karl Eisenbach in the nineteenth century.

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All articles by Edward Winter

aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then nearly 5,500 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

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