The Best Swordsman in the World Doesn’t Need To Fear the Second Best Swordsman

Mark Twain? David Weber? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Achieving expert knowledge and abilities in a domain may require many years of hard work. Yet, expertise does not guarantee success. Here is a counterintuitive adage:

The best swordsman does not fear the second best. He fears the worst since there’s no telling what that idiot is going to do.

This statement has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain and the popular science fiction author David Weber. But I am having trouble locating a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1889 Mark Twain published “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. The book included an observation about the “best swordsman”, but the phrasing differed from the remark specified in the inquiry above. The following excerpt represents the thoughts of the book’s narrator. Bold face added by QI: 1

But don’t you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do: and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.

The viewpoint of the narrator of a novel may diverge from the author’s viewpoint; however, in this case, QI suspects that Twain would concur with the insight provided by the narrator.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1889 Copyright, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, Chapter 34: The Yankee and the King Sold as Slaves, Quote Page 330, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link