Chess, Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) and Go all highly value the tempo/initiative.

The Chinese saying "宁失一子,不失一先" literally means

It is better to lose material/piece, than a tempo/initiative.

(宁=prefer; 失=lose; 一=one; 子=piece (e.g. pawn, rook, knight); 不=not; 先=initiative, tempo, momentum)

I understand the principle/tactic, but I don't know how to express it idiomatically. Is there an English maxim for it?

If there hasn't been an established proverb in English, we may invent some.

For example,


"Damn the material, full speed ahead!"


"Speed over greed"

Pros: rhythm.

Cons: The saying emphasizes to accept your own pieces' loss; while "greed" is about taking your opponent's pieces.

  • 4
    These answers are good, but I think if you asked this over at English Language Learners or English Language & Usage you might get better ones. Or then again, maybe not. – Fivesideddice Jun 7 '20 at 4:56
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    1 I'm an English learner, and I frequently visit "English Language Learners". 2 Only those who actually play Chess can understand and answer. @Fivesideddice – Zhang Jian Jun 7 '20 at 5:07
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    "Mind over matter"? ;-) – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jun 8 '20 at 9:25
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    Damn the expense! – Aww_Geez Jun 8 '20 at 15:13

12 Answers 12


Excellent question. Translation is always a tricky business.

There isn't an established chess saying, although Patrick McElhaney's answer "Time is money" comes closest in meaning, and is an idiom in English.

So I would simply invent another phrase with the same meaning, if you want to convey the idea and keep the catchiness that it has in Mandarin. I propose "Speed over greed", which rhymes and is relatively self-explanatory.

  • Pros: rhythm. Cons: The saying emphasizes to accept your own pieces' loss; while "greed" is about taking your opponent's pieces. – Zhang Jian Jun 8 '20 at 13:29
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    @ZhangJian Greed can also be about stubbornly holding on to your pieces when it would be better to give them up, not just the the literal meaning of 贪子。 – Remellion Jun 8 '20 at 13:39
  • Thanks for your explanation, which expands my knowledge. You can speak Chinese, don't you? – Zhang Jian Jun 8 '20 at 13:47
  • Yes. Now I recall the other word I was trying to remember, 恋子。As a bonus, yes I play xiangqi and western chess, among other types of chess. – Remellion Jun 8 '20 at 13:58
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    "lose the batlte to win the war" does seem to be the most idiomatic translation. Its ok to lose some pieces , as long as you win the game. – Shayne Jun 8 '20 at 15:25

I might not understand the Chinese idiom correctly, but to me it sounds like--

"Lose the battle but win the war"

--which has the meaning of, it is better to sacrifice some small thing for the bigger picture (to me, that sounds like the crux of the Chinese idiom you shared).

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    This does remind me of the technique I worked out playing the old chess software packages back in the 80s. The AI in those really just worked by looking at all the possible moves about 2 deep and then evaluating the possibility of capturing various pieces vs losing them by assigning a number value to each piece with the pawn being the lowest value and the king the highest. So the trick was to basically mesmerise the software by dangling a queen just out of reach or sacrificing it, while your low value pices snuck in the back door to checkmate the king. Worked every time. Not so much on humans. – Shayne Jun 8 '20 at 15:23

I am not aware of an idiomatic way of saying it. However, I would express it as "seizing the moment".

For example, there is a book by Ivan Sokolov, "Sacrifice and Initiative in Chess: Seize the Moment to Get the Advantage," which I think talks exactly about the importance of the initiative vs material that you mean in your question.


Time is money.

It’s an idiom not typically used in the context of chess, but I think the meaning would be clear in context to a native English speaker. You’re losing “money” (a piece) in order to gain “time” (a tempo). You expect to gain an advantage because the latter is more valuable.

In more formal economics lingo, there’s opportunity cost. For example, your opponent offers a trade by taking a piece that is guarded. You choose not to take the piece back because the opportunity cost of losing a tempo (or two) is higher than the cost of being down a piece.


It sounds like you want to keep up the pressure. You might be taking a loss of material, but a coherent, rapid, intimidating overall strategy maintains your tempo.


One fiery saying that might work is this one.

"Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

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    Heh, I was thinking this, but with "Damn the material, full speed ahead!" ;-) – T.J. Crowder Jun 8 '20 at 8:24
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    "Damn the material, full speed ahead!" sounds brilliant. @T.J.Crowder, you're making English literature history. – Zhang Jian Jun 8 '20 at 13:03

"You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs"

This is a good English idiom for accepting losses/sacrifices to achieve your goal. It doesn't express anything about keeping up the tempo/pressure though.


When I used to play chess, I would say something like "I sacrificed pieces to gain/maintain tempo".


Not exactly equivalent to the Chinese saying, but sacrificing material for initiative is also known as "playing like Tal". Tal was well-known as the greatest attacking player the world had ever seen, who's produced many magical, sacrificial combinations.


Looking at this slightly obliquely:

A stitch in time saves nine

In other words, spending a small amount of effort to do a small thing (e.g. sew a stitch into a piece of fabric that has started to tear or fray) before it gets worse (i.e. "in time") prevents you from having to spend far more effort later ("nine" - literally meaning needing to do nine times as many stitches later)

On a similar note - but, I think, far less related to your own idiom - there is

More haste, less speed

which means "if you try to rush something now, and have to redo it properly later, then it will take more time in total"


This is about sacrificing one thing for the other. I'm not a linguist myself, but I imagine there are lots of expressions that say something about sacrificing for speed, initiative, continuity etc.

Also the word meatshield comes to mind where you intentionally sacrifice a piece to protect something (eg. you can proceed as planned).


Here are a few sayings that have potential to be such maxims

1) "Who dares wins."

2) "Fortune favours the brave."

3) "The early bird catches the worm"

4) "c4 is explosive."

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    FIrst two of those are armed forces slogans (SAS and Marines respectively), #3 is probably regularly shouted by drill seargents (with the word "MAGGOTS" appended to the end) and the last one might well be the final words of a shocked (..is explosive?!) but strangely incompetent soldier! – Shayne Jun 8 '20 at 15:28
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    @Shayne Before your explanation (C4 is an explosive), I though "C4" is C2 pawn moves to C4 square. – Zhang Jian Jun 9 '20 at 1:46
  • Well I suppose it could be both! Depending on how knowledgable your opponent is about the english opening, that is. – Shayne Dec 7 '20 at 1:37

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