What's the word in the phrase

winning by _____

To describe the scenario when one enters a form of competition and their entry or performance, whatever it may be, happens to be fairly below par but they still win because by happenstance the rest of the competitors were miraculously all worse?

It isn't

winning by default

Because it describes the scenario of winning because the rest of the competitors happened to not show or were disqualified.

  • 2
    You win by default when you are the only valid competitor (because others were disqualified/absent); not when other valid competitors performed worse than you.
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:34
  • Not the answer but hopefully will lead to an answer: "playing without a handicap"? Actually, do you know of such a word but just can't think of it?
    – Mitch
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:39
  • 4
    I could be winning by being " the least worst" isntead of being the best
    – P. O.
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:45
  • 2
    @LittleEva: More like "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 19, 2015 at 12:45
  • 1
    @LittleEva: Haha. Touché.
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:08

25 Answers 25


Actually, I think "win by default" IS often used to refer to this situation. Perhaps metaphorically: We didn't win because there was LITERALLY no competition, but because the competition that existed was so weak that it hardly counted. People will say "practically won by default" or "virtually won by default". But still, nothing in that phrase implies that you (or your team) was weak, just that the competition was very weak relative to you.

Barring that, I don't know of a phrase in that form that explicitly means, winning because the competition was so weak. I can't swear that there isn't one, but nothing comes to mind.

People say "it was an easy win" meaning you were much better than the competition. Again, though, doesn't necessarily indicate that your side was weak.

"The competition was weak".

That's all I can think of.

  • Not quite the walkover I would have expected for 'by default.'
    – Hugh
    Jun 19, 2015 at 16:07
  • This is really the best answer in my experience. Some people (like OP per his question) probably won't like this answer because they think of "winning by default" as "winning due to no competition" but "winning by default" is broader and means "winning without earning the win." When you "win by default," it essentially means nobody deserved to win today and so when it came time that somebody had to be declared the winner, that person was you. If nobody deserves to win somebody will "win by default." Jun 19, 2015 at 21:37
  • @MarkBalhoff 'the competition was weak' says what is meant for me, without the restriction on filling the arbitrary blank 'winning by ___'.
    – Mitch
    Jun 20, 2015 at 22:07

In Australia the phrase doing a Bradbury was born following Steven Bradbury's amazing Gold medal win in the speed skating at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

It denotes achieving an improbable victory through circumstances beyond one's control.

You can watch here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAADWfJO2qM Basically, he was in last position for the whole race, except for the last quarter lap when all four skaters ahead of him fell, allowing him to coast through to the gold medal.

  • 3
    If you could say what the sport was, (speed skating) and how he won the gold medal (everyone fell flat on their bums) that would make your answer clearer. I was just looking for that very same video on YouTube, and then I came back here to double check no one else had posted. Seriously, after 12 years who remembers the guy's name, unless you're an Aussie of course.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 20, 2015 at 18:44
  • 4
    Highly derivative. From Herald Scotland_23 Feb 2002 : 'Australian outsider Steven Bradbury did a Foinavon and won gold after ...' Jun 21, 2015 at 14:01
  • 1
    In the semi final 3 racers well over to allow him through the final. And he only made the semi-final due to another racer being eliminated in the quarter finals. Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – BenFreke
    Jun 21, 2015 at 23:16
  • It doesn't really fit here though, Bradbury had the opposite of weak competition, didn't he?
    – Twinkles
    Jun 22, 2015 at 8:48
  • Or as Matt Groening would have you call it, "Pulling a Homer".
    – Zibbobz
    Jun 22, 2015 at 15:11

Probably the Idiom: by chance. (TFD)

  • Without plan; accidentally: They met by chance on a plane.

  • Possibly; perchance: Is he, by chance, her brother?

    • without advance planning
    • Synonyms: accidentally, circumstantially, unexpectedly
    • through chance, "To sleep, perchance to dream.."


  • 1
    The idiom I had in mind was similar: luck of the draw.
    – jxh
    Jun 19, 2015 at 17:57
  • Ah!...care to put it as an anwer.
    – Misti
    Jun 19, 2015 at 18:17
  • 1
    I also had a similar idiom in mind: by sheer blind luck. But these all mean about the same thing, and don't quite capture the spirit of the question.
    – neminem
    Jun 19, 2015 at 21:44

Winning by dearth [of competition]:


A scarcity or lack of something: there is a dearth of evidence

Dearth would not normally be used to describe the mediocre performance of the winner, leaving the implication of scarce competition in the fore:

In the pitiful National League East the Mets are winning by dearth.

  • 1
    oh-oh, Scot's in da house! (that -1 wasn't me).
    – user98990
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:11
  • 1
    I've been pursuing other linguistic interests, @LittleEva, but thought it would be nice to come back to my first love: single-word requests :-) I got a good chuckle from that divine intervention answer. God screwed up the competition so we could win?
    – ScotM
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:31
  • 1
    .......... Yup.
    – user98990
    Jun 19, 2015 at 14:04
  • Those dv's come with the territory! Have uv on me :-)
    – ScotM
    Jun 22, 2015 at 12:18

When the OP asks users to complete the phrase “winning by _____”, while explicitly rejecting “default” as an acceptable answer (“It isn't winning by default”), the unavoidable implication is that the OP has some idea of what they are looking for, something similar to “happenstance” (“they still win because by happenstance the rest of the competitors were miraculously all worse”), i.e., an unexpected and rationally inexplicable turn of events: accident, chance, fluke, fortuity.

"divine intervention" is a fitting phrase (even if it's tongue in cheek) to account for an otherwise unexpected, and rationally inexplicable, turn of events.

divine intervention : 3. The belief that a heavenly being will interfere in human situations so bad that nothing but an act of God could change the outcome for the better.

"Now, the Browns winning the SuperBowl - that would take some serious divine intervention." See, the Urban Dictionary

Sorry Cleveland, don't mean to kick you when you're down.

But, for the serious secularist, perhaps the noun “anomaly,” or its adjective form “anomalous,” would be a preferable term to account for what is totally unexpected and otherwise inexplicable, i.e., "winning by anomaly."

anomaly noun; anomalies plural noun: 1. something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected. "there are a number of anomalies in the present system"

synonyms: oddity, peculiarity, abnormality, irregularity, inconsistency, incongruity, aberration, quirk, rarity. See, Google

  • 1
    +1. But it should be noted that divine intervention works both ways :)
    – Tushar Raj
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:09
  • I imagine, if everyone believes in god, a divine intervention will be in favor of both competitors
    – Yohann V.
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:17
  • @YohannV. Assuming that God is an intelligent being, he wouldn't favor and assist all competitors who believe in him. He'd favor and assist those whose victory furthered his long-term goals. His goals presumably include doing nice things for his followers, but surely God has bigger goals in mind than doling out easy, unearned wins in baseball games. :-)
    – Jay
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:24
  • But isn't everything a game? And depending of the God(s), they may not be omnipotent.
    – Yohann V.
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:27
  • 1
    It seems God's purpose for Cleveland is to pursue major sports championships with eternal futility ;-)
    – ScotM
    Jun 19, 2015 at 17:23

As cleverly alluded to by @Hugh in a comment above, closely related to “winning by default” is “winning by/in/with a walkover,” which according to Wikipedia is a term having its origins in the “Sport of Kings” to describe a race where the winning horse need only “walk over” the finish line to be officially declared the victor of a race “because there are no other [horses], or because the other [horses] have been disqualified or have forfeited.”

Quoting further from Wikipedia (emphasis added):

The word is used more generally by extension, particularly in politics, for a contest in which the winner, although not the only participant, has little or no competition.

For a phrase that I think goes well either alone or with “winning in/with/by a walkover” (and with “winning by default,” for that matter), and which doesn’t require extension of the literal meaning or modification of either of those terms (with “virtually,” for example) there is “winning by just (or simply) showing up”:

They won [in a walkover] by just showing up.

This is not the expression as it is used in this “Evolation Yoga Blog” in the sense of winning a moral victory or as part of a philosophical observation or pep talk (like Woody Allen’s “Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up”); but rather as it’s used in a scenario as you describe, where the level of quality of the competitor(s) makes it possible for someone/some team to win (or not, in the case of the Penguins mentioned in this ‘Trib Live’ report) by just showing up.

Finally, again borrowing from terminology used in the “Sport of Kings, the notion of “running in/winning a maiden race” could describe your scenario, where a “maiden race,” as “confirmed” by Wikipedia is a race where none of the horses have ever won a race.

This LA Times article describing the 1987 Kentucky Derby describes well the [un]importance of “winning a maiden race” as follows in paragraph 12:

Winning a maiden race [at Turfway Park, the racing equivalent of the old Three-I League,] is not enough to make an owner think he will some day see his colt's name in gold on the clapboard walls of Churchill Downs.

Just in case you’re still looking for other options, the 1987 Kentucky Derby, judging from the article’s interesting description of it, greatly resembled your scenario, and the author used several colorful terms & expressions that you might find helpful, including:

“[it wasn’t so much won, as it was “inherited”] (winning by inheritance?);

“[winning] in/among a field of nobodies”;

“[winning] by surviving it/survival”;

“[winning] by being the most sober waterfront bar patron at closing time”;

“[winning] by being the best dancer in _____”; and

“[winning] by being the best skier in _____.”

(the last two being of an offensive nature, in my opinion, you’ll need to read the article to see how the article’s author filled in the blanks).

  • +1. Precisely the phrase that immediately popped into my mind, too. Jun 21, 2015 at 9:06

this means it was not a likely win, but by a fortuitous set of circumstances it happened anyway.

  • I think this accurately describes the situation, but is not specific enough. That is, winning because everyone else miraculoulsly happened to suck more is one kind of fluke, but there are many other kinds, such as the no-show and disqualification examples. Another form of fluke might be that I performed far above my usual skill level for some reason.
    – Don Hatch
    Jun 25, 2015 at 8:41

You won by sucking less. This seems to be quite a common and useful phrase, particularly concerning software quality and national pride.

  • 1
    @Edwin: I dunno, it's actually a phrase I both heard and used. This answer is winning by sucking less.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 5:56
  • Google "suck less" (with quotes) for 528,000 results and "sucks less" for 84,000, and enjoy the "America Sucks Less" video on youtube.
    – Don Hatch
    Jun 21, 2015 at 6:30
  • 1
    @MishaRosnach: actually I think this answer sucks a lot less than the others-- in fact I think it's pretty good! But It sure doesn't seem to be winning :-( 1 upvote vs 17 for the leader. What's up with that?? But maybe it will pull ahead now that I added the google statistics confirming this answer's true lack of suckiness.
    – Don Hatch
    Jun 21, 2015 at 6:38
  • @DonHatch: I meant that this answer is winning in my world. In my world it racked up a sweet 18 points and counting. 19. Goddam.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 7:02
  • 1
    @Don Hatch The fact that 'suck/s less' has quite a few hits doesn't make 'won by sucking less' a world-beater. Jun 21, 2015 at 13:59

... winning by the luck of the draw.

This idiom means anyone could have won, but you happened to be the one to draw the winning ticket.

the luck of the draw

if something is the luck of the draw, it is the result of chance and you have no control over it

Usage notes: A draw is a competition in which you win if the number on your ticket is chosen.

You can't choose who you play against. It's just the luck of the draw.
The Free Dictionary by FARLEX

"The winning ticket" in this case is that all your competitors happened to be worse than you.

  • This one seems rather a stretch. If this phrase applies to the case when I performed sub-par, then doesn't it still apply, in much the same sense, to the case when I performed above par? I.e. the "winning ticket" in that case is that I happened to be better than everyone else. So it seems to me this way of framing it doesn't do a good job of differentiating between the cases.
    – Don Hatch
    Jun 24, 2015 at 12:17
  • In the case of performing above par, winning would be better credited towards personal effort rather than luck.
    – jxh
    Jun 24, 2015 at 13:27
  • There's a tangle of cause and effect here that makes this rather confusing for me to think about. But I think you're right; that is, winning when performing below par requires more luck (in the form of getting competitors who perform even worse) than winning when performing above par. On the other hand, might my own sub-par performance be attributed to luck as well? In which case this framing seems to fall apart again...
    – Don Hatch
    Jun 25, 2015 at 8:33
  • You are over thinking the idiom. It's used to indicate a situation beyond your control. You can always choose to perform worse than your best. The sample usage from the definition speaks directly to the other competitors, which is how I normally hear the idiom used.
    – jxh
    Jun 25, 2015 at 11:31

"Victory by least incompetence" might be a good way to say it.

  • 1
    In the military I occasionally had used the phrase "we must strive to achieve mediocrity [as a unit]". Most military units are actually insanely horrible at what they do (sleep on watch, don't maintain weapons/gear/themselves, are missing half their gear (and the half they do have is broken), don't communicate, can't shoot, etc.) and there is a lot to know how to do. We win by basics (waking up on time, not being alcoholic, carrying functioning equipment, not losing stuff, simple communication, basic marksmanship, etc), not by being amazing, Spartan-style, movie-worthy heroes.
    – zxq9
    Jun 21, 2015 at 22:06

I can't think of a single word that fits perfectly, but the phrase winning by lack of opposition seems to work.


If the OP had asked what is the term for an unexpected surprising winner in a competition. I would have answered:

dark horse

A dark horse is a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort or a contestant that seems unlikely to succeed

and then I would have provided some background information to explain its meaning.

The term began as horse racing parlance for a race horse that is not known to gamblers and thus is difficult to place betting odds on.


From The American Heritage®

An unexpected winner. In politics, a dark horse is a candidate for office considered unlikely to receive his or her party's nomination, but who might be nominated if party leaders cannot agree on a better candidate

From The Dictionary of American Slang

noun phrase
A person or team, esp in sports or politics, that seems very unlikely to win but might nevertheless do so

Alternatively, the competitor or team least likely to win is often called the underdog.

From The Guardian, dated Monday 18 February 2002, an article about Steven Bradbury, the luckiest winner in the history of the Olympic Games.

Americans unhappy as the last is placed first

Nevertheless, Bradbury, 28, may well be the luckiest Olympic champion ever in the games' 106-year history. He survived in the quarter-final after being promoted to third when the second-placed Canadian was disqualified for pushing. And in the semi-final, he was last with a lap to go, only for the other four skaters to trip one another and leave him as the winner.

Against incalculable odds, the final ran an identical course. Bradbury was tailing off last when, on the last corner of the last lap, 15 metres from the finish, the four other skaters cannoned into each other and crashed to the ice.

He was not implicated in the collision and was in what one commentator called a "unique vantage spot" to win.

19 May 2013 THE ROAR The significance of Steven Bradbury’s winter triumph, 11 years on

Steven Bradbury’s gold medal winning performance at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics was an iconic example of an underdog’s triumph. […]
But to recap, the same phenomenon occurred with all those before him crashing out. It produced the unlikeliest of victories and a first ever gold medal to a outhern hemispherian in the Winter Olympics. The culturally significant impact of the event was a newfound hope to all underdogs, undercats and underhumans to achieve their dreams with the right combination of homemade skates and a lucky break. Bradbury acknowledged his limitations, played his cards right and achieved the ultimate glory. In return, fate engrained him in Australian sporting folklore.

That is what I would have answered...

  • +1, wow, this answer certainly 'sucks less' than some of the other answers ;-) and that's not an example of British understatement. Now you're the 'dark horse' rising.
    – user98990
    Jun 22, 2015 at 5:41
  • @LittleEva Thanks for the vote of confidence. I think it's safe to say that the race was won a few days ago, while this dark horse was still in the stables. I just posted as a way to complement the "Do a Bradbury" answer. The jaw dropping win by the Australian speed skater, came to me a little late in the day... (see my comment). Come to think of it, that underdog answer has overtaken a few competitors, since it was edited. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 22, 2015 at 5:49
  • Oh! And the Bradbury link was way cool.
    – user98990
    Jun 22, 2015 at 5:57

Winning by the luck of the devil:

Extraordinarily good fortune, as in

You've the luck of the devil-that ball landed just on the line.

Wouldn't it be just like the devil, the archetype of all losers, to arrange for a full bracket of loosing teams, so that a looser could enjoy the pretense of winning. The flip side of the divine intervention motif.

In the pitiful National League East the Mets are winning by the luck of the devil.


It doesn't fill in the blank, but you're talking about a nominal winner, a winner in name only, someone whose performance was so weak that he or she won only because everyone else was worse.


Although I agree with others that "winning by default" might still be metaphorically apt, I'll offer three other options:

  1. Winning despite their efforts - although they didn't deserve to win, they won anyway.
  2. Failed to lose - suggests (possibly humorously) that the team was trying to lose, but didn't quite play poor enough
  3. Won despite themselves - similar to #1

I would say "winning by grace of a weak field," or some other way of saying that the field was weak.

American Heritage has

field n. 7a. The contestants or participants in a competition or athletic event, especially those other than the favorite or winner.

The expression "a weak field" is quite common in the US political context in presidential primary contests. For example "Romney stands tall amid weak Republican field for 2016".


It doesn't fit your phrasing, but I would call this best of a bad lot.

Free dictionary has this as a British/Australian saying and defines it as :

to be slightly less bad than other bad people or things in a group


If you like sports metaphors:

The term lightweight is often used metaphorically to mean below average [MW]

: a fighter who is in a class of boxers weighing from 125 to 132 pounds (57 to 60 kilograms)

: someone or something that does not weigh as much as others

: someone or something that has little importance or power

You could use it as a phrase with "win":

to win a lightweight division

to win against lightweights

This is, of course, unless you're actually talking in the context of a boxing competition where the term has a specific, non-metaphorical meaning

  • 2
    That welter-weight was a light-weight, wot!
    – user98990
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:45
  • This answer seems to completely ignore the question's requirements.
    – talrnu
    Jun 19, 2015 at 15:00
  • @blgt The question also asks for a single word to fill the blank, not a phrase.
    – talrnu
    Jun 19, 2015 at 16:15

"Being the best of a bad crowd" could have possible implications. PS. I also enjoy the alliteration. Just me.

  • This doesn't seem to answer the question. Jun 20, 2015 at 3:38
  • Why could it have possible implications? What are the implications it could have? Jun 25, 2015 at 9:08

I would refer to them as winning by being the best of a weak set of competitors, although that's both a bit of a mouthful and suggests that winner was acceptable, while I think you're trying to convey that the winner was actually bad, but still better than everybody else. In that case, I would rephrase this sentence as [X] won, despite a poor showing, because their competitors were much worse.


I would said that he won because in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.


I cannot think of any phrases that start with "winning by", but I can offer something you might consider:

My opponent bested himself.

It's pretty clear what the intention is. You're opponent continually made mistakes in the game and made it very easy for you to win.

You might also consider:

It was an easy win.


It was a gimme.


@Edwin Ashworth's reference to Foinavon led me to do a little more surfing, which in turn led me to this:

pulling off an upset win

While upset doesn't specifically convey that the rest of the field sucked worse than the winner, it does convey that the winner had been initially perceived as sucking worse than at least some of the competition...


I enjoyed the divine intervention from Eva but I though that you may like also :

Winning by being the lesser worst

As in The lesser of two evils

The lesser of two evils principle (or lesser evil principle) is the principle that when faced with selecting from two unpleasant options, the one which is least harmful should be chosen.

  • 1
    Lesser worst? Lesser worst? How could a German sausage help a incompetent competitor prevail?
    – user98990
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:26
  • 3
    No! But I have the internet!
    – user98990
    Jun 19, 2015 at 13:31
  • 1
    least worst is the phase I use and often hear, eg it's the least worst option
    – RemarkLima
    Jun 19, 2015 at 18:39
  • 1
    @RemarkLima: least bad is grammatical, least worst is not
    – Ben Voigt
    Jun 19, 2015 at 23:46
  • 1
    @ben be that as it may, least worst is a phrase in common use in the south East of England at least... I've never heard anyone say lesser worst
    – RemarkLima
    Jun 20, 2015 at 4:00

Win by a landslide: Win by a big margin usually in terms of votes where the winning party has an overwhelming majority over the opposition.

As opposed to

Win by a nose: (also. Win by a whisker) Win by a small margin usually used in terms of horseracing.

Another completely different phrase you could consider is win-win situation or win-win game where opposition has no probability of winning.

  • 2
    Hello, Jimmy. These do not mean 'winning because the competitors were miraculously all worse'. Jun 20, 2015 at 14:06

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