Two players were playing a chess game. One play voiced "it looks ominous" after playing a move that he thought was brilliant. The other player responded "riffing".

What does the verb, to riff, or the adjective, riffing, mean in this context ?

Was it used more similar to "gloating", "babbling" or something else ? Or was it a typo ?

Merriam-Webster only has the following two definitions for the verb to riff, and neither seems fitting in this context.

1.to perform, deliver, or make use of a riff

2.to riffle, skim

  • Are you sure they said "riffing"? Were you listening to something, or reading something? – ColleenV Jul 5 '19 at 18:27
  • reading, not listening – B Chen Jul 5 '19 at 18:39
  • 2
    Where did you read this? We might be able to better help if we understood more about the context. – ColleenV Jul 5 '19 at 18:40

Riffing means improvising.

Riffing, or to riff, comes from music, specifically:

riff (verb) 1: an ostinato phrase (as in jazz) typically supporting a solo improvisation

also : a piece based on such a phrase

2: a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring

especially : one that is part of a comic performance

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

In the example, the second speaker is contrasting the first (saying the opposite):

“That wasn’t a brilliant strategic play, that was improvising.”

Another example outside of music would be the phrase:

Robin Williams riffed with Steve Martin on stage.

See examples of this usage on Open Culture, the New Yorker, The Christian Science Monitor, and many others.

Robin Williams was a famous American comedian who was famous for his improvising, and there are tons of articles online about him riffing with other comedians or at live events.


The online version of MW has this additional definition of riff, which may be of some use to you:

a succinct usually witty comment

This was likely said in response to "it looks ominous." I would need more context, but I suspect that the comment "riffing" was said sarcastically. So the conversation might read more like:

"It looks ominous."

"Gee, what a witty comment that was."

This is not a particularly common phrase and I would expect many native English speakers to trip over this usage.

  • You shouldn’t assume everyone knows what “MW” means. Why not include a link to where you found that definition? – ColleenV Aug 7 '19 at 13:52

A "riff" is often associated with music.

A riff is thematic. It serves as the main musical idea for a (section of a) song. Often it's repeated and developed, sometimes with variations, sometimes in different keys, but always recognizable as the same main musical idea. Because a riff is a main theme for a song, it often becomes inextricably associated with that song---if you heard the riff out of context (say, someone trying out guitars in Guitar Center), you'd associate it with the song


So given that context, I have no idea what it might mean to chess players. It may be slang, or it may be associated with a famous chess player, or it may just be someone didn't understand the meaning of "riff" and applied it to making a smart chess move.


In this context, riffing doesn't just mean improvising - it means to use an existing idea as a starting point for something new.

The term 'riffing' originates in music, but has a slightly different meaning in other contexts.

In music, a 'riff' is a repeated musical phrase, although in many styles of music which involve improvisation (Jazz, for example) it is common to vary the phrase rather than stick to it rigidly. There is also the expression "riffing around a scale", which means to play improvisationally but within the constraints of a number of notes, so more often than not it does resemble a true phrase or motif.

So, in music a 'riff' is a repeated phrase while 'riffing' is to improvise but within set parameters.

Beyond music, 'riffing' means to take an idea and then create new material around it. The idea could be an original one, an idea borrowed from somewhere else, or a 'found' idea such as an observation. It doesn't necessarily involve improvisation, although it can.

For example, a stand-up comedian may make an observation and then write several 'jokes' on that subject. You could then say that he was "riffing on an idea". As those jokes may be scripted before they are performed you would not necessarily say that he was improvising.

In your specific example of a chess game, "riffing" means using a known or documented strategy. Many chess strategies exist, but they cannot be played formulaically because it has to be adjusted to account for the other players moves. It is presented as an idea contrary to "brilliance" which would mean a truly original, genius move. The implication is that if the strategy is known rather than being thought up the spot it is "riffing", or using a variation of an existing strategy rather than creating something new. In this specific context I would have to agree there is some "improvisation", as the strategy is being adjusted on the spot to account for the other player's moves.

  • Well, ok, but in Jazz, "improvising" means exactly what you said: starting with a known idea, as a starting point for something new. – whiskeychief Jan 5 at 19:39

I think you are on track with your first suggestion: "to perform, deliver, or make use of a [musical] riff."

My first thought was, "it's a typo." But not being able to imagine what it could be a typo for, I'm going to go with the music option:

The first player makes his brilliant move and says, "It looks ominous."

The second player has two choices:

1) tip the board over by "accident"


2) respond with good humor and a comical rendition of an "ominous" musical riff ... something like, for example, the "Jaws" music, ... or that theme from LvB's 5th symphony ("duh-duh-du -- DUH !", which, after all, is supposed to symbolize "V for Victory" in Morse code.)

  • on (2), if correct, what are the synonyms to indicate the rendition of an ominous musical riff. Online thesaurus was not very helpful in providing synonyms for "riffing" or "to riff" – B Chen Jul 5 '19 at 23:16
  • The Merriam-Webster definition of "riff" the verb uses "riff" the noun. The M-W definition of the noun boils down (I think) to "a short musical phrase that repeats within a longer piece." Longman's and MacMillan's definitions are easier to understand: "a repeated series of notes in popular or jazz music" & "a short series of notes in jazz or popular music that is repeated often throughout a piece", respectively. When somedody hums or sings a significant little snippet of music which might be appropriate to the circumstance, I think you could call it "riffing". .... – Lorel C. Jul 6 '19 at 0:11
  • Example: something so coincidental it is almost spooky happens. Somebody says , "oooh, that was so weird!". Somebody else starts to sing the theme song from "The Twilight Zone" (spooky TV show about the supernatural) "dee-dee-DEE-dee, dee-dee-DEE-dee" ...Ha ha. That would be "riffing". Musical clowning around. – Lorel C. Jul 6 '19 at 0:31
  • Thanks, Lorel, for further clarification. While I understand the definition (2) in Merriam-Webster, I was curious if there are synonyms others would use for the described context. From your answer, it feels like there is no good synonym ? – B Chen Jul 6 '19 at 6:11
  • I do not agree with this interpretation of the word “riffing”. There is no indication that the speaker is making a “comical rendition of a musical riff”. If so, it might be in parentheses, as in stage directions. The passage states that the speaker said the word “riffing,” as in “the player is riffing.” – whiskeychief Aug 7 '19 at 11:37

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