Chess and the English Language

Edward Winter

language chess

In the January 1981 BCM (page 4) G.H. Diggle wrote that Staunton would have cut his throat before penning the hideous expression ‘grandmaster norm’. We seek other examples of linguistic barbarisms. One such is the remark about playing in several ‘Swisses’.


From page 248 of the January 1983 CHESS:

‘England’s players out-Elo’d their opponents.’

W.H. Cozens (Ilminster, England) writes:

‘The verb to sac is with us; the participle sacing still gives one a jolt.’


J. Speelman and J. Tisdall’s Moscow Marathon (London, 1985), which is about the world championship match before last, was a relatively long time in production, although the English is of such low quality that it seems unlikely that the co-authors were the ones who held things up. The personal pronoun ‘I’ is often used, with no indication as to whether it is J.S. or J.T. who is writing, so they must take equal blame for such horrors as ‘Kasparov ... was playing slower and slower’ (page 20) and ‘Match officials were bemoaning the cost of running the event and these are truly staggering’ (page 164). Due to for owing to, trivial is misused, and participles, past and present, are left to dangle:

‘Caught in a quandary of his own design, his bids for counterplay only hastened his downfall.’ (Page 16)
‘Perhaps being a born sceptic, the position on the board did not look so clear to me.’ (Page 188)

Given that neither J.S. nor J.T. is famed for correct use of language, it is a pity that no-one at Unwin Paperbacks took on the kind of editing described by Clive James on page 33 of Falling Towards England (London, 1985):

‘... sorting out tenses, expunging solecisms and re-allocating misplaced clauses to the stump from which they had been torn loose by the sort of non-writing writer for whom grammar is not even a mystery, merely an irrelevance.’


The Crowood Press has produced two titles. Winning Endgames by Tony Kosten (Ramsbury, 1987) is a rather slight work, parts of which are written in ahead-of-the-dictionaries English. Page 17: ‘A lot of chessplayers are under the impression that pawn endings are trivial because of the absence of other pieces.’ Or page 117: ‘White makes a trivial draw.’ Page 56 talks of ‘Black’s hopes of a perpetual’, a neologism which appears three times more on pages 92-93. Page 69 has a sentence that could have been penned by Jon Speelman: ‘Botvinnik was probably the finest protagonist of the white side of the Nimzo-Indian ever.’ The other Crowood Press book, Chess Openings by Mike Basman (Ramsbury, 1987), is more substantial and escapes from the treadmill that usually afflicts such beginners’ works, for Basman is good at giving original touches to routine matters. But at page 163 we all but yelped in pain: ‘The above diagram shows that Black is almost back rank mated ...’


Regarding ‘a perpetual’, an old sighting of the abbreviated Americanism ‘a perp’ may be noted: ‘Since perpetual check or “a perp”, as it is commonly called, occurs often enough during the course of play, it is definitely a worthwhile subject for study.’ That was written by I.A. Horowitz on page 87 of Chess Review, March 1954. A caption on the same page began ‘A Perp at Need’.

From page 113 of Horowitz’s How to Win in the Middle Game of Chess (New York, 1955):

‘Most perpetual checks are of the short variety; for in no time flat a player can see that there is no way out. Occasionally, however, the “perp” is long and arduous.’

Another occurrence is in the heading of an article by Horowitz on page 183 of the June 1951 Chess Review: ‘Two pawns versus a “perp”.’

An entry in the glossary on page 130 of Playing Computer Chess by A. Lawrence and L. Alburt (New York, 1998):

‘Pup: Slang for perpetual check (a.k.a. “perp”).’

From John Roycroft (London):

‘I should like to make a point arising out of C.N. 1405. My complaint about ungrammatical English or poor style in new books by young British players is directed more at the publisher than the author: don’t publishers have standards any more? However, I am less strict than you, for I would accept Tony Kosten’s unambiguous phraseologies as quoted if only they had been oral instead of written. But why does the publisher allow young chess writers to get away with careless oral speech when it isn’t oral at all? Is it only we stick-in-the-muds (h’m – not, I think, sticks-in-the-mud) who claim there is any difference?’

In C.N. 1405 we had ‘back rank mated’; we now note on page 220 of the algebraic edition of Keres’ Practical Chess Endings (translated for Batsford by John Littlewood): ‘White is himself zugzwanged after 1 Bd4+ ...’ Next somebody will be zwischenzuged.

[That word was subsequently seen in a book: ‘... while 16...Bxd4 17 Bxd4 Rfd8 is zwischenzuged with 18 Bf6.’ Page 76 of Strategic Chess. Mastering the Closed Game by Edmar Mednis (Los Angeles, 1993).]

In any discussion of linguistic barbarism the name of Jon Speelman rarely remains in the background. Batsford have just issued a reprint of Réti’s Masters of the Chess Board (which, a silly blurb pretends, is ‘the only collection of the best games of all the world’s leading pre-war players from Anderssen to Alekhine’). Speelman provides a Foreword, from which we quote the first paragraph in full:

‘I was very pleased when Batsford asked me to write a new introduction to this book, the more so since, as I freely admit, I have never read it before! Of course, I knew of Masters of the Chess Board as one of the classics. But there are so many chess books and chess tournaments nowadays ... one could, now, justifiably retort not nearly so much chess literature to which genre (if such exists) this most definitely belongs.’


In Réti’s day such gibberish as that last sentence would have been unmercifully expunged by a member of the editorial staff.

Recent issues of the British Chess Federation’s Newsflash have also been a cat’s concert. A sentence from the lead story (‘Short Coasts Home in Iceland’) in the 27 March 1987 issue illustrates how an outright factual inaccuracy can flow from grammatical incapacity:

‘Having won at least once against Kasparov recently (in the London Docklands Speed Chess Challenge), only the Soviet trio of Yusupov, Sokolov, and Karpov can realistically be considered competitors to Nigel in becoming a genuine contender for Kasparov’s title of World Champion.’


In C.N. 1441 John Roycroft referred to the difference between oral and written style. A complication occurs when books aim to reproduce masters’ own words as broadcast by radio or television, as is shown by Chequers’ recent book The Brussels Encounter, produced with the assistance of the BBC. (Or, as page 3 puts it: ‘Using the “voice-over” techniques made popular by the old Master Game programmes, viewers are given an opportunity to eavesdrop on the grandmasters’ thoughts.’) The question to be resolved is the extent to which conversational slackness should be edited out of the grandmasters’ thoughts. Nobody will want starchy disquisitions, but surely there must be some revision of ungainly colloquialisms (regardless of whether the speaker is of English mother tongue). For instance, Nigel Short says on page 49: ‘... this whole ending ought to have been trivially winning for me ...’

Kasparov’s declarations frequently begin with ‘Okay’, a routine example being ‘Okay, he played Rf1’ (page 103). On page 116 we are even given: ‘Okay, now I think I’m okay’, with several further uses of the word in the rest of the game, which he loses.

In fact, though, contributors of written annotations do not always perform better. Page 13: ‘Short’s 8...a6!? needs further testing as a possibly viable antidote to Kasparov’s favourite line.’ What do the words ‘possibly viable’ add? Another example of this curious construction is on page 45: ‘This is the type of game which encourages Nigel’s supporters to regard him as the possibly leading Western contender to challenge for the world title.’

The book has frequent printing errors (e.g. ‘Ronih’ on page 30 and ‘lessor mortals’ and ‘en pris’ on page 167), but although our review has concentrated on the irritating editing defects, there is no denying that the actual chess content of The Brussels Encounter is highly instructive.


Several recent C.N. paragraphs have referred to some unlovely words and turns of phrase of the 1980s. It has been something of a surprise to come across this relatively old one:

‘The simultanee should keep an eye on the rate of progress of the single player ...’

Source: BCM, April 1943, page 74.


From page 66 of Playing to Win by James Plaskett (London, 1988):

‘For the next half-dozen moves a cardinal consideration is the efficacy of possible “sacs-back” on d5.’


Citations of chess neologisms are always welcomed, especially if readers can offer first sightings. On page 10 of Modern Art of Attack by Ken Smith and John Hall (Dallas, 1988) we came across a word that was new to us:

‘We witness a case of the player with an uncastleable King being attacked by an opponent whose King had already forfeited its right to castle.’


As noted on page 265 of Chess Explorations, the writings of George Koltanowski play havoc with the English language. On page 139 of With the Chess Masters (San Francisco, 1972) he annotated a move as follows:

‘Now White has a strong positional position.’

Our feature article The Australian Nimzowitsch quotes C.J.S. Purdy on page 32 of Chess World, 1 February 1950:

‘Black could have “unbackwarded” his KP with ...P-K4, but then 16 P-B4 would help to open the game for the bishops.’

On page 22 of the 1 January 1950 issue of Chess World there appeared a feature entitled ‘The Zugzwanger Zugzwanged’.

We note an increasing tendency for ‘writers’ to end sentences, or pseudo-sentences, with a question mark rather than a full stop, e.g. in cases where the opening words are ‘I wonder if’, ‘I thought that’, ‘He asked whether’, ‘Perhaps’, ‘Maybe’, ‘Possibly’ and ‘Surely’.

See too C.N. 9887.

‘After having finished high school his mother presented him a royal gift.’

Source: page 11 of Chess Comet Charousek by Victor A. Charuchin (Unterhaching, 1997).

Chess news reports indicate a growing belief that prose is somehow enlivened if the plainest words are avoided. When a player wins first prize in a tournament, the verb ‘wins’ commonly loses out to ‘bags’, ‘claims’, ‘collects’, ‘grabs’, ‘picks up’, ‘scoops’, ‘takes home’, etc.

Another addition to the musings on chess and the English language concerns the use, particularly in the United States, of ‘would’ in historical narratives. For instance, ‘Alekhine died in 1946, and two years later Botvinnik would become world champion’, instead of simply ‘became world champion’.

The following examples come from the first page of the article about Henry Chadwick in Lasker & His Contemporaries which was referred to in Chess and Baseball:

‘A native of England, Chadwick came to the United States with his family in 1837, settled in Brooklyn, became a journalist and would be recognized as the first significant sports writer in the United States. ... As Mac Souders, writing in the Baseball Research Journal for 1986, would describe it, Chadwick would become “a one-man press association for baseball in the New York City area”. Chadwick would report on sports and recreational activities for decades ... And he would author and edit numerous baseball books and pamphlets ... He would receive the title “Father of Baseball” early in his career ...’


To lapse into journalese, Carlsen and Anand are ‘set’ to play a ‘revenge match’. Use of that latter term (instead of  ‘return match’ or ‘re-match’) is not new, and the oldest instance that we recall is on page 169 of CHESS, March 1947: a reference to ‘the Alekhine-Euwe revenge match’. The writer was Botvinnik (see Interregnum), and ‘матч-реванш’ is a common term in Russian, just as‘Revanche’ occurs in the equivalent German and French phrases.

kasparov karpov

Whether ‘revenge match’ is good English is debatable, but it was used by Fred Reinfeld (‘a prompt revenge match’ between Euwe and Alekhine in 1937) on page 213 of The Great Chess Masters and Their Games (New York, 1952).

Another question left for readers to ponder is the best term in case of a series of matches between two players (e.g. how to describe Kasparov v Karpov, New York and Lyons, 1990).


The front cover of Learn Chess Quick by Brian Byfield and Alan Orpin (London, 2010):

byfield orpin

The back cover jokes that Byfield ‘first picked up the game when he knocked over his father’s board at the age of two’. The lad done good.

‘Would’ can be strange, and C.N. 8632 (see above) mentioned its unnecessary inclusion in historical narratives (‘Alekhine died in 1946, and two years later Botvinnik would become world champion’, instead of simply ‘became world champion’). Another quirk, favoured by presenters of history programmes on television, is recourse to ‘would have’ to disguise speculation or mind-reading: ‘It is in this room that he would have decided to ...’ Then there is all the prolixity in quizzes. ‘Would you be ready?’ is answered not by ‘Yes’ but by ‘I would indeed’, and later we may hear, ‘I wouldn’t have a clue’ or the frightful excuse for ignorance of something uncontemporary: ‘that would be before my time’. Asked in a chess quiz to identify the player who was nicknamed ‘the Black Death’, a contestant could well use four words instead of one: ‘that would be Blackburne’. A more challenging question is: which chess writer used the pseudonym ‘Eze’? That would be Telling.


In his column on page 31 of the Observer, 3 September 1972 Clive James remarked that in sports broadcasts Frank Bough ...

‘puts the emphasis on his prepositions and breaks into a shout when you LEAST expect it ...’

Since then, emphasis on prepositions has been increasingly noticeable, and we have even heard a television news presenter welcoming an interviewee down the line with ‘Good afternoon to you’. On Internet chess broadcasts there is now an epidemic. For example:

‘Let’s have a look at that game.’ ‘A nice move by him.’ ‘Things went really well for him.’ ‘He is now in the lead.’


Another quirk of certain commentators, and particularly inferior ones, is the excessive use of ‘just’, almost as much as in television cookery programmes (‘White can just play Bc4 and then just castle and just centralize his rook’/‘Just put it in a frying pan and then just fry it off and just serve it up’). There is also a usage which recalls the days when Peter Jones (1920-2000) was the Chairman of the BBC radio programme Twenty Questions. If a panellist enquired whether the mystery object ‘is something like a giraffe’, he would ask, ‘what is like a giraffe?’ Chess broadcasts frequently contain phrases such as ‘If White just plays a move like Qb5 ...’, meaning ‘If White plays Qb5’. We note too (in chess broadcasts and in television news bulletins) the increasing recourse to ‘because’ as a multi-purpose conjunction: ‘This is the scene in the hall because shortly play will be starting.’ (Or, possibly, ‘will be starting’; it is not only prepositions that are emphasized erratically.) On a more positive note, we have yet to witness an Internet broadcaster employing a formulation favoured nowadays by television journalists when introducing filmed interviews: ‘This is what the Prime Minister had to say’ (rather than ‘said’).

During post-mortem interviews, the chess hosts must listen tolerantly to what the players have to say, even if they have to say it with the stream-of-consciousness approach heard in so many sports broadcasts: ‘OK, well, you know, I don’t know, you know, well, maybe he could just have tried to just, OK, maybe, I don’t know, you know.’ Yet at least these unburdenments illustrate the difficulty of chess even for the greatest masters, in contrast to all those atrociously written certainties which some Twitter-users dash off before dashing off to dash off something else.

From Olimpiu G. Urcan (Singapore):

‘On the subject of tweeting, which you mentioned in C.N. 9085, this is the kind of thing all too easily found:’

chess crowther


A knight is a knight’ (C.N. 9253) brings to mind the cliché ‘a pawn is a pawn’ (a phrase used in a brief sketch by ‘W.C.G.’ on page 131 of the April 1885 BCM). C.N.s 642 and 7673 mentioned ‘an interesting game in all its phases’ and ‘the rest is a matter of technique’, and two others are ‘this move is better than its reputation’ and ‘the pawns fall like ripe apples’.

Readers are invited to keep their eyes peeled for any recent annotational clichés which have been spreading like wildfire, left, right and centre.


Mike Salter (Sydney, Australia) expresses dislike of annotators’ unhelpful use of the single-word sentence ‘Desperation’ towards the end of games; he has counted 17 occurrences in Lessons from My Games by Reuben Fine (New York, 1958).

Fine also used the word frequently in Chess Marches On! (New York, 1945). One example is in C.N. 8353.


Among chess commentators ostensibly of English mother tongue, some of the worst prose is still being turned out by Mark Crowther. On 25 June 2015 he posted an obituary of Walter Browne, who, he says, died in ‘Navada’. (Another obvious misspelling: ‘visable’.) Uninterested in treating Browne with respect and unable to construct a basic sentence, Crowther writes that Browne was ‘numerous opens’ and was ‘five medals’. The heading even has ‘Watter’ Browne.

A 1988 citation above has ‘uncastleable’, in connection with the king. Another unusual, though older, word is ‘unqueenable’. A heading on page 88 of Easy Guide to Chess by B.H. Wood (Sutton Coldfield, 1942) was ‘That unqueenable rook’s pawn’, and the word was also used, within quotation marks, on page 110 of CHESS, February 1950.


The book mentioned in C.N. 3804, Doctor Goebbels His Life and Death (London, 1960), which Heinrich Fraenkel (‘Assiac’) co-wrote with Roger Manvell, had a curiously ambiguous phrase at the start of page 259:

‘At the beginning of the winter of 1944 France was lost to Germany ...’

Latest update: 19 August 2016.

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