When Great Players Lose

by Jon R. Edwards

Great players make great excuses.

It must be tough, arguably, to be the second best chess player in the world. Such was the lot of the Russian, Yefem Bogolyubov, in the early 1920s. He believed that he could defeat any player at any time.

"When I play White," he once said, "I win because I have the first move. When I play black, I win because I am Bogolyubov."

But here he was in the early 1920s in New York City to fight in a great New York tournament. After five early losses, a reporter approached him.

"Bogolyubov, what is happening to you in this tournament?"

"Well, is a tragic story," replied the great Bogolyubov. "Before the first round, my wife and I had a horrible fight. I simply could not concentrate.

"Before the second round, my wife and I made up, and she cooked me the most fantastic meal. But it sat in my stomach like a rock.

"The night before the third round, there was a terrible commotion on the street outside our hotel room. I simply got no sleep.

"And during the fourth round, my opponent arrived wearing a leather jacket. Imagine! Every time he made a move, it made a terrible sound. I could not focus."

There was a short pause, and the reporter asked in curiosity: "So, what happened in round 5?"

With disdain for the question and a flourish of his hand, Bogolyubov replied: "Well, a great player can lose one game!"

Postcript: I told this story to Fred Wilson who reminded me that the story must be apocryphal for at least three reasons. First, Fred was pretty sure that Bogulyubov never married. Second, he was only in New York for the great tournament of 1924 where he played quite well. And third, because Bogolubov apparently knew only one word of English: "Beer."