Is there a word, phrase or allusion which represents the opposite of a Pyrrhic Victory: a tactical defeat which led to a strategic victory, either accidental or intended? After all, there must be one for almost every Pyrrhic victory.

  • I don't think there's an idiom, it's just an easy win or easy victory.
    – Barmar
    Apr 17, 2015 at 19:22
  • The finishing blow? A decisive battle? The turning point? Apr 17, 2015 at 19:23
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    In the case I'm thinking of, a separatist political party has just lost an independence referendum, but which garnered such support that it upset the national balance of power, meaning they may be able to dictate terms nationally. If this is the case, clearly the non-separatists had a Pyrrhic victory in the referendum. But what of the separatists? What have they experienced? I clearly has a different character to a mere easy victory.
    – Dan
    Apr 17, 2015 at 19:28
  • Sorry, I was confused in my last comment. I was thinking of a victory that's the opposite of Pyrrhic, not a description of the loss that occurred on the other side of the Pyrrhic victory. So it's a technical loss, but where you didn't really suffer much.
    – Barmar
    Apr 17, 2015 at 19:32
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    @DanSheppard: "In the case I'm thinking of, a separatist political party has just lost an independence referendum, but which garnered such support that it upset the national balance of power..." LOL, I wonder if I can suss out who you mean (waves to Nicola). ;-) And it really, really does seem like we should have an idiom for this, along the lines of a "happy accident." Apr 18, 2015 at 16:05

8 Answers 8


If the victory was so costly it led to defeat, then its opposite would be a loss that was so advantageous it led to victory:


2(In chess) an opening move in which a player makes a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage:

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    That's a good one, ScotM. It does imply guile rather than accident, but that's fair enough.
    – Dan
    Apr 17, 2015 at 19:37
  • Is a "gambit" known to have been successful, or is it synonymous with "risky bet" (which might yet cause a big loss)?
    – ChrisW
    Apr 18, 2015 at 21:51
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    A gambit is a calculated loss in exchange for a greater advantage. If your opponent understands the nature of your gambit, he may find a way to diminish your success. The connection to gamble seems to be an illusion.
    – ScotM
    Apr 19, 2015 at 1:10
  • No. Every other definition of 'gambit' I've seen makes it clear that a gambit is a clever calculated risk. OP asks for a definite strategic victory. And in fact Lexico's first example sentence is '‘[H]e tried the dubious Budapest gambit’'. May 8, 2022 at 14:45

Pyrrhic Defeat Theory suggest increasing power by increasing the cost of a battle:

the idea that those with the power to change a system, benefit from the way it currently works.


In criminology, pyrrhic defeat theory is a way of looking at criminal justice policy. It suggests that the criminal justice system’s intentions are the very opposite of common expectations; it functions the way it does in order to create a specific image of crime: one in which it is actually a threat from the poor. However, to justify the truth of the idea there must be some substance to back it up. The system needs to fight crime, to some extent at least, but to an amount only to control it and ensure it stays in a prominent position in the public eye, not enough to eliminate it.

en.wikipedia.org emphasis mine

Attrition warfare employs the notion of pyrrhic defeat.

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    +1 for attrition warfare. If you have more resources than your enemy, all you need to do to win is make sure he looses at least as much as you do. Ronald Reagan ran up the national debt, but won the cold war with the Soviet Union by economic attrition.
    – Good A.M.
    Apr 17, 2015 at 21:06
  • Thanks for two interesting answers. I've accepted the other one because it's a more direct response, but this had a lot of interesting stuff in it, too.
    – Dan
    Apr 17, 2015 at 22:54

"Lost the battle but won the war" is the closest phrase I can think of that matches what you describe.


History records a number of heroic defenses that resulted in short-term defeat or even disaster, but that either wore down or delayed the enemy—and inspired allies fighting in the same cause—and thus contributed to subsequent victory in the larger war. Of these some have become bywords for what might be called "Pyrrhic defeats": "a Thermopylae," "an Alamo," "a Bataan."

However, some such defeats don't yield the later payoff—for example, (from a Southern Confederate perspective) "a Vicksburg," or (from a French perspective) "a Dien Bien Phu." A contemporaneous commentary following the battle of Verdun—"The End of an Illusion," from the New York Tribune, reprinted in The Bulletin (August 1916) is instructive in this regard:

This is what Lloyd George means, this is what Allied diplomacy and statesmanship mean. This is the voice of England, of Russia, and, above all, the voice of heroic France, which has borne so far a wholly disproportionate burden of the losses and the suffering, but has borne it with a heroism that will remain forever memorable and with an endurance unshaken after nearly two years. Verdun will yet rank as a second Thermopylae in the history of our civilization, a Thermopylae which surpasses the ancient in the single fact that it was a victory, and not a defeat, since the Barbarians did not pass.

Today it's difficult to think of the carnage of World War I as anything but a pointless slaughter of soldiers and civilians from every nation concerned. I doubt that anyone looks at Verdun and says "Pyrrhus would have loved the effect that battle ultimately had on the outcome of the war."


The opposite of a Pyrrhic victory is an Irenic victory. Pyrrhic is about victory at all or every cost. An Irenic victory is not so much about victory but resolution for both sides. It strives NOT to have winners or losers. Irenic comes from the Greek word for peace.


You might say it was a suicide mission, or that that group made a sacrifice for a more critically important success; they were sacrificial lambs. In the muzzle-loading rifle days you might call your doomed first wave assaulters the forlorn hope. A more aggressive suicide mission might be described as a kamikaze attack.


I think what you have in mind is not the "Pyrrhic Defeat". Pyrrhus scored a victory against the other side by sacrificing too much, almost losing. What the losing side is experiencing is the feeling "we lost but we almost took them down with us". The example you give with the separatist party seems more like an unwitting victory to me (obviously referring to the influence gained and not the referendum).


You could, perhaps, borrow a term from the world of commerce and say "The battle of xxx was a loss leader", or "xxx was a loss-leading battle".

From the OED [paywalled]:

loss leader n. Commerce
an article put on sale at a non-profit-making price in order to attract potential buyers of other articles;

(Interestingly, to me at least, I assumed this was a fairly modern phrase, but the OED's earliest citation is from 1922).

This would primarily cover the intentional aspect of the original question (a well-managed company shouldn't accidentally offer goods at below the break-even price), but I can envisage the phrase also being used for the accidental case ("We didn't know it at the time, but the "no" vote in the referendum turned out to be a loss leader.").

  • OP asks "Is there ...", in line with ELU's aim to have answers that have reasonable currency. Free combinations are not good answers. May 8, 2022 at 14:59

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