Where have you gone, Joe Shlabotnik? (A rambling post about mostly nothing)

by admin on March 24, 2011

As long-time fans of the Peanuts comic strip know, Charlie Brown’s favorite baseball player is one Joe Shlabotnik, whose claim to fame is that he gets sent down to the minor leagues and bats .143 (which is really bad). He epitomizes the same sort of lovable loser that Charlie Brown himself is. At one point Charlie Brown buys 500 pieces of gum to try to get a Joe Shlabotnik bubblegum card, and fails. Then Lucy buys one piece of gum and gets a Joe Shlabotnik. After refusing to give Charlie the card because Shlabotnik is “cute,” Lucy then tosses the card in the trash. “He’s not as cute as I thought he was.”

So this got me thinking: If you were going to look for a Joe Shlabotnik of chess, who would it be?

I did a Google search for the term “last place chess,” and the number two hit was a page at the chessgames.com website, “The Chess Games of George Hatfeild Gossip.” This player’s name certainly qualifies him for Joe Shlabotnik status. As one of the wits at chessgames.com writes, “I don’t want to make fun of Gossip’s name — especially behind his back.” Surprisingly, I didn’t see any comments on Gossip’s rather odd middle name. No, that is not a typo… As everybody knows, “i” comes before “e” except after “c,” and when sounded as “a,” as in “neighbor” and “hatfeild.”

So what do we know about Mr. Hatfailed Gossip? This is from his very short biography at chessgames.com: 

In 1889, he took last place in the 5th British Chess Federation championship. In 1889, he took last place in the 6th German Chess Federation championship. In 1890, he took last place in the 6th British Chess Federation Congress. In 1892, he took last place in the 7th British Chess Federation Congress. In October 1893, he took last place in New York.

That is quite an awesome resume of non-success!

Why was Gossip such an epic failure in top-level tournaments? I’m hardly an expert, having played over only a few of his games, but I would say that some of his issues were: 1) He understood the concept of sacrificing material very well, but didn’t understand the concept of compensation quite as well; 2) He preferred knights to bishops; and 3) He never met a pawn push he didn’t like.

As it turns out, there is a much longer article about George Hatfeild Dingley Gossip at Wikipedia, written by Frederick S. Rhine, one of the co-founders of chessgames.com. In fact, it’s a Featured Article, which reflects an unusually high quality of research and writing. Less than one out of every thousand Wikipedia articles has been selected as a featured article, and only four of these have been about chess. They are the entries on Chess (It’s good to see that this one is featured!), First-move advantage in chess (also written by Rhine), The Turk, and the entry on Gossip. So Gossip finally has finished at the top in something!

But I digress. Rhine’s article leads me to conclude, regretfully, that Gossip lacked one of the two essential ingredients for a lovable loser. He wasn’t lovable. In fact, he sounds like a world-class jerk. He was criticized by the world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, for publishing a book (The Chess Player’s Manual) that contained several of Gossip’s victories over noted players in skittles (offhand) games, without mentioning the much greater number of games he lost to them. Another story is that Gossip moved to Australia in 1884 and challenged any Aussies to a match. A player named Frederick Esling accepted the challenge, won the first game of their match and had a superior position in the second game when it was adjourned. At that point Gossip forfeited the match, pleading illness.

Rhine digs up some great quotes about Gossip:

  • “well known for his exaggerated self-esteem” — Richard Forster
  • “his play was never quite up to his own estimation of it” — Philip Sergeant, A Century of British Chess
  • “Gossip, with his long, flowing beard, looks like one of the old-time monks. He has a good-shaped cranium, bald at the top, and is a little above the medium height. … He believes himself to be one of the greatest chessplayers in the world, and thinks that if everything had gone on to his liking he could have beaten all the champions at the tournament.” — New York Times, 1889. This article was written during what G. H. Diggle calls “the best performance of Gossip’s career,” a tournament where he tied for 17th place out of 20.

But the thing that really spoils Gossip as a lovable loser, for me, is that his one non-chess book was a novel that was full of anti-Semitism. Sorry, even Charlie Brown wouldn’t collect the bubblegum card of a loser like that.

Who else could be a lovable loser in chess? Do you have any ideas? Are there any modern players who always seem to end up near the bottom of the scoring tables, but nevertheless keep getting invited to grandmaster tournaments? Or is a grandmaster by definition too good to be a “loser”? I did hear someone joke, a couple years ago, that half of the losses by 2700+ players are by Loek van Wely — so the implication is that, at least among super-GM’s, he is sort of an also-ran. But I’ve seen Loek win too many tournaments against less exalted competition to ever be able to think of him as a loser.

This is really a non sequitur, but on the topic of chess names, I was intrigued to see that one of the top players at the recent Capelle-la-Grande tournament in France was a Croatian player named Alojzije Jankovic. Jankovic started the tournament 5-0 and was still one of the leaders going into the last round, but lost to the tournament winner, Grzegorz Gajewski of Poland. Why is that interesting? Well, a more old-fashioned way of translating Jankovic’s name would be “Yankovic.” And it just happens that there is a singer named “Weird Al” Yankovic who is well-known in America for his parodies of hit songs, like Eat It and Amish Paradise. If Alojzije Jankovic keeps doing well in international tournaments, I wonder if people will start calling him “Weird Al”?

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Frederick "Krakatoa" Rhine April 7, 2011 at 10:15 am

Lionel Kieseritzky, as far as I know, was a nice guy. I believe that he was also the first one to publish the Immortal Game, the extremely famous offhand game that he lost to Anderssen. We might never have known of this glorious game if not for Kieseritzky, since Anderssen wasn’t one to toot his own horn. As Soltis once noted, Kieseritzky is famous as a loser of brilliancies. If you just know him by his losses, as most of us do, you would probably assume that he was a weak player. He was actually quite strong; as I recall, he had close to an even score against Anderssen (you can check this at chessgames.com), generally considered to have been a de facto World Champion because of his victory at London 1851, the first significant chess tournament. A little known fact is that Kieseritzky played White in the Immortal Game, even though he moved second. At the time, the practice of White moving first wasn’t standardized, and the first player was often given his choice of color. See my Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_and_Black_in_chess for more details.


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