‘Life’s too short for chess’

Edward Winter


From CHESS, 14 December 1937, page 116, in a feature concerning Sir John Simon:

‘Elsewhere in this issue we give the score of a game recently played by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. All chess players will remember with pleasure his brilliant opening of last year’s [sic] Margate congress. Deputizing for Sir John at the Sheffield Cutlers’ Feast recently, Dr Burgin, Minister of Transport, referred to the Chancellor’s partiality to chess and added, “Of chess it has been said that life is not long enough for it – but that is the fault of life, not of chess”.’

The quote has often been attributed to Irving Chernev, who gave it (without attribution) on page 108 of The Bright Side of Chess (Philadelphia, 1948).


C.N. 2556 added, by way of example, that Chernev was ascribed the remark on page 77 of The Chess Scene by D. Levy and S. Reuben (London, 1974).

A footnote on page 270 of A Chess Omnibus:

The phrase ‘Life’s too short for chess’ originated in the play Our Boys (1880) by Henry James Byron. Page 29 of Chess Pieces by N. Knight (London, 1949) noted this and gave, without attribution, the possible addition ‘That is the fault of life, not chess’. A variant is to be found on page 4 of The Two-Move Chess Problem, an 1890 book by B.G. Laws: ‘… it may be remarked that if “Life is too short for chess”, as some indifferent players assert in reference to the game, it is a fortiori far too short for the game and problems too.’

On page 234 of Treasure Chess by Bruce Pandolfini (New York, 2007) the remark about life being too short for chess is ascribed to both Lord Byron (1788-1824) and Henry James (1843-1916), instead of Henry James Byron (1835-1884).



Concerning the remark about chess by a character (Talbot) in the ‘original modern comedy’ Our Boys by Henry James Byron, the full passage is reproduced below, from Act I:


In book form we have various editions of the play, which received its premičre at London’s Vaudeville Theatre on 16 January 1875, ran until 18 April 1879 and was promoted as ‘the most successful comedy ever produced’. None of the nineteenth-century volumes in our collection is dated. When mentioning Our Boys in a footnote on page 270 of A Chess Omnibus we gave ‘1880’, that being the British Library catalogue’s earliest date for any published edition of the play.


For background information on Byron, as well as the complete text of Our Boys, a valuable book is Plays by H.J. Byron edited by Jim Davis (Cambridge, 1984). The Introduction (page 1) mentions that Byron was ‘the most prolific playwright of the mid-Victorian period’, that he invented the pantomime characters of Buttons and Widow Twankay and that the four-year run of Our Boys broke all known records.


From page 1 of Lessons in Chess, Lessons in Life by Jose A. Fadul (Morrisville and London, 2008):

‘Somebody complained that life is too short to be wasted in trivial games such as chess. But William Napier did retort that such is the fault of life, and not of chess.’

The retort is indeed sometimes attributed to Napier (for example, in a piece which appeared under Frank Elley’s name on page 30 of Chess Life, March 1986), but we do not recall seeing it in Napier’s writings.

Regarding page 108 of The Bright Side of Chess by Irving Chernev (Philadelphia, 1948) it will be seen that the book’s layout created the false impression that Chernev was ascribing the remark to Napier.


Another case of confusion arising from the layout of quotes in that section of The Bright Side of Chess is the ‘conferred sight’ remark attributed to Capablanca (see C.N. 4209).

On page 313 of the October 1969 BCM D.J. Morgan listed ‘Life is too short for chess, but that is the fault of life, not chess’ as an unnamed reader’s entry in a ‘Views on Chess’ competition. It was published on page 30 of the Observer of 31 October 1937.


C.N. 7148 gave the exact quote from the competition entry published in the Observer:

‘“Life is too short for chess, but that is the fault of life, not chess.” (H.W.O.)’

The remark was incorrectly attributed to Napier on page 8 of Chess Quotations from the Masters by H. Hunvald (Mount Vernon, 1972).

From page 353 of the 1861 Chess Player’s Chronicle:


Latest update: 15 April 2016.

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