Excuses for Losing at Chess

Edward Winter

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 (frontispiece to his book Chess History and Reminiscences)

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:


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.


The above article originally appeared at ChessBase.com.

From page 87 of the Chess Player’s Chronicle, 3 May 1899:

‘Another story of an excuse – same man. He had been cogitating some time and at length played. Notwithstanding his ruminations, however, he overlooked a slip mate on the board. “Ah!”, he exclaimed, “I was only looking for checks!”’


Latest update: 1 October 2016.

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