Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (16)

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2/5/2009 – Graceful acknowledgement of defeat was not always the proudest trait of nineteenth-century chess, and the Editor of Chess Notes looks back at ‘the heyday of self-exculpation’. There were players who deployed an imaginative panoply of excuses which included headaches, indigestion, travel, heat, bad light and creaking doors. For writers of the time it all provided rich material for satire.

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Chess Explorations (16)

By Edward Winter

Excuses for losing

C.N. 5884 quoted from page 52 of Better Chess by William Hartston (London, 1997):

‘One of the best excuses I ever heard was from a man who had just lost to a female opponent. “She completely disrupted my thought processes”, he complained. “Every time I tried to calculate something, I’d begin: ‘I go here, he goes there’, and then I’d have to correct myself: ‘No, it’s I go here, she goes there’.”’

G.H. Diggle related another memorable explanation of defeat, concerning ‘the Lincoln bottom board of 1922, who complained that he had “lost his queen about the third move and couldn’t seem to get going after that”.’ The reminiscence appeared in an article by Diggle in the August 1979 issue of Newsflash, reprinted on page 50 of Chess Characters (Geneva, 1984). On page 66 of Chess Characters Diggle reported a comment which he had overheard in a league match: ‘Fancy losing to YOU!’

In the present article, though, we shall be looking at the heyday of self-exculpation: the nineteenth century. A familiar quote was mentioned in C.N. 2051 (see pages 322-323 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves). John Nunn asked which player originally commented that he had never beaten a healthy opponent, and some readers subsequently drew attention to the following assertion by B.H. Wood in the 1949 Illustrated London News which was anthologized on page 10 of The Treasury of Chess Lore by Fred Reinfeld (New York, 1951):

‘It was old Burn, veteran British master of the ’90s, who was heard to remark plaintively towards the end of his long life that he had never had the satisfaction of beating a perfectly healthy opponent.’

The same passage (with a repetition of the word ‘never’) was reproduced by Wood on page 78 of CHESS, January 1952, but it has not been possible to find any link between the quote and Amos Burn. In C.N. 4189, though, we noted that page 2 of Chess Pie, 1936 had an article entitled ‘Humours of Chess’ by E.B. Osborn (‘Literary Editor of the Morning Post’). It concerned H.E. Bird (‘most lovable of all the old masters’), with whom he was personally acquainted. Osborn remarked:

‘Dear Old Bird would say that he had hardly ever beaten a healthy player.’

The question, therefore, is whether B.H. Wood, writing over a decade later, had the Osborn article in mind but mistakenly referred to Burn instead of Bird.

Henry Edward Bird

C.N. 2118 quoted Charles Tomlinson from pages 54-55 of the February 1891 BCM:

‘Few men will admit the superiority of an opponent, and he who loses finds generally something in himself to account for defeat; or, as Löwenthal once remarked to me, “He always has a doctor’s certificate in his pocket!”’

A standard primer on the subject is the chapter ‘Excuses for Losing Games’ on pages 191-200 of Chess Life-Pictures by G.A. MacDonnell (London, 1883). The full text was cited in C.N. 4036, and some extracts are given here:

  • ‘The excuses made by chessplayers for making bad moves and losing games are of wonderful diversity. Sometimes they are ingenious and even rise to the height of considerable imaginative power.

    First let me notice the pre-prandial and post-prandial excuses. At one time it is, “I cannot play because I have not had my dinner”; and at another time, “I cannot play because I have had my dinner.” I have never yet had the good or the ill fortune to engage one of these gentlemen at the particular time when his chess powers were in real working order; and as all time must either precede or follow dinner, I am at a loss to conceive when such a player can conduct his game in a manner satisfactory to himself.’ (page 191)

  • ‘I am happy to say the old headache excuse has long since been worn to shreds; so much so that no player, in London at all events, has the shamelessness to put it forward. But I do sometimes hear a man say when losing, “I can’t play today. I didn’t get to bed last night until 12”; or, “No wonder I make such blunders; I was travelling by rail for two hours yesterday.”’ (page 193)

  • ‘In my young days I sometimes played an old gentleman to whom I gave large odds and generally a beating. He never would resign until he was checkmated, nor would he accept your resignation until the final coup was administered. His excuse – his constant excuse was that he could not play because people would open the door so often, and creak its hinges. One day, I remember well, it thundered, and on that occasion only did he vary his excuse, charging the atmosphere with his misfortunes.’ (pages 194-195)

  • ‘“I cannot play with the black men, and so no wonder I have lost.” Now this excuse in itself is childish, because a practical, not to say a good, player ought not to let his skill be affected by the colour of the pieces he manipulates.’ (page 196)

  • ‘A funny, but by no means stupid, excuse for playing badly was lately made by a young provincial friend of mine. He visited a club where I happened to be present, and sat down to encounter a fifth-class player. After the fight had lasted some time, I sauntered up to the board and asked my young friend how he was getting on. “Oh”, said he, “very badly. I cannot play with these pieces, they are so unlike those to which I am accustomed; they are horrible.” “What”, enquired I, “is the matter with them?” “Well”, replied he, “several of the pieces, especially the kings and queens, are too like one another; they are not sufficiently distinguished.” “True”, I rejoined, “but they are quite as distinguished as the players.”’ (pages 197-198)

  • ‘Some persons fairly attribute their bad moves to the light. They cannot play if they happen to have the sun in their eyes. Others cannot play with their backs to the light. Some persons are injuriously affected by gas, and I know at least one first-class player who can play about a pawn and move stronger when he has the sunlight. I know several players who find it impossible to do justice to their powers if they have to play in a room ill-ventilated or over-heated.’ (page 199)

George Alcock MacDonnell

This brief selection of quotes concludes with a slice of magisterial sarcasm in a letter from Thomas Beeby to Hugh Alexander Kennedy dated 23 September 1848 and published in the Morning Post of 30 September 1848. The letter included an offer by Beeby to put up funds for a match of 25 games between Kennedy and Edward Lowe …

‘… such games to be published without note or comment, but upon the express understanding that, whatever may be the result, we hear nothing of indigestion, headache, indisposition, want of preparation, rust, or any other excuse, however ingenious, as palliative of defeat.’

Source: An Account of the Late Chess Match Between Mr Howard Staunton and Mr Lowe by T. Beeby (London, 1848), page 10.

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All articles by Edward Winter

Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then nearly 6,000 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).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center. Signed copies of Edward Winter's publications are currently available.



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