Tuesday, January 9, 2007

You Could Look It Up

This month's letter bag is empty.* So I guess I'll have to print one of my own.

A few years ago, William Safire wrote a piece on the origins of the word "patsy" in one of his On Language columns in The New York Times. I was disappointed that he made no mention of the word "patzer" (instead, concentrating on the Italian word "pazzo" for "fool"), especially so since Safire has shown in the past that he is pretty knowledgeable about chess.

For example, he has written in his On Language column concerning such expressions as "zugzwang" and "sandbagging". And, on more than one occasion, he has discussed the political ramifications of the Kasparov-Karpov matches in his Op-Ed column.

So I did what I have been urging you readers to do all along! I sat down and wrote a letter. Although it never made Safire's column in the Sunday Times magazine section, my letter was included in a recent volume entitled You Could Look It Up [Times Books, 1988], containing the best of the On Language columns.

Not bad, getting your name listed in an index with the likes of Mark Twain, Casey Stengel, and George Bernard Shaw!

The letter goes as follows: "You neglected the chess epithet "patzer". One definition of a patzer (sometimes pronounced PATS-er, sometimes POTS-er) is a player whose moves are so transparent that his opponent sees through his every intention. It is not uncommon to roam the corridors at chess tournaments and see a chessplayer (yes, even occasionally a master) with palm to his forehead, bemoaning the fact that he is playing 'like a patz'. It is often used in conjunction with its pejorative cousin 'fish' to form the ultimate chess put-down: 'patzer fish' (roughly the equivalent of calling a baseball player 'ya bum')."

While we are on the subject of fools and ultimate chess put-downs, here is an apochryphal story about Alekhine that I once heard a chessplayer telling to someone. How true it is I don't know, since I've never seen it in any book.

First, for a brief On Language course of our own. The word that the French people use to describe the piece which we call "bishop" is the same as their word for "fool" (as in "court jester").

The story goes that Alekhine once reached a minor-piece ending plus pawns, in which his opponent had the two bishops, while Alekhine had the two knights. Nevertheless, Alekhine proceeded to win the game anyway. Afterwards, someone asked Alekhine in French how he had been able to win this endgame, despite his theoretical disadvantage.

Alekhine is said to have replied, "Two fools often win, but seldom three!"

*{This article originally appeared in Atlantic Chess News in 1988}