Three on a match (also known as third on a match or unlucky third light) is a purported superstition among soldiers during the Crimean War to World War II. The superstition goes that if three soldiers lit their cigarettes from the same match, one of the three would be killed or that the man who was third on the match would be shot. Since then, it has been considered bad luck for three people to share a light from the same match. This superstition has become part of popular Western culture in films, novels and other art forms.

The putative basis of the superstition

The belief was that when the first soldier lit his cigarette, the enemy would see the light; when the second soldier lit his cigarette from the same match, the enemy would take aim at the target; and when the third soldier lit his cigarette from the match, the enemy would fire, and that soldier would be shot.

Possible origins

First World War theory

No references have been found to the superstition during the First World War,[1] though its first known appearance in the United States was a year after the end of the war. An editorial in the Grand Rapids Leader, 17 December 1919, muses, "Why should we be superstitious? Three on a match, or a black cat crossing the road in front of us, or looking [at] the moon over the left shoulder, have not altered results in anyone's case."[2] A cartoon two years later portrayed an insect attempting to climb on to a floating match already occupied by two beetles. The caption reads, "Get off of here! Don't you know that three on a match is unlucky?"[3]

The "Ivar Kreuger" theory

The superstition is popularly alleged[by whom?] to have been invented in the mid- to late 1920s by the Swedish match tycoon Ivar Kreuger in an attempt to get people to use more matches, but it appears he merely made very shrewd use of the already existing belief, which may date to the Boer War.[citation needed]

Russian funeral rite theory

In the 1916 novel The Wonderful Year, the following explanation is given: "It arises out of the Russian funeral ritual in which the three altar candles are lit by the same taper. To apply the same method of illumination to three worldly things, like cigars or cigarettes, is regarded as an act of impiety and hence as unlucky."[4]

Mexican superstition theory

An article by John G. Bourke, January 5, 1894, describes the superstition among the Mexican population of the Rio Grande region in the southern United States near Fort Ringgold, Texas: "Numbers—If three men light their cigarillos from the same match, bad luck will surely overtake one of them soon. (Alberto Leal.)"[5]

Usage in popular media

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See also


  1. ^ Brasch, Rudolph (1966). How Did It Begin? Customs, Superstitions, and Their Romantic Origins. David McKay Co.
  2. ^ William F. Huffman, We Are Still Here, Grand Rapids Leader, December 17, 1919, page 2
  3. ^ Artist unknown, Looking at the Bright Side of Life, 21st Century Press, published in the Boston Globe, February 27, 1921, Color and Comic Section, page 3
  4. ^ William J. Locke, The Wonderful Year, John Lane Company
  5. ^ John G. Bourke (1894-01-05). "Popular medicine, customs, and superstitions of the Rio Grande". Journal of American Folklore. 7–8: 138.
  6. ^ The Match King (1932) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  7. ^ "Red in the Face". Mad Men. Season 1. Episode 7. 2007-08-30. AMC.
  8. ^ Radford, Mona; Radford, Edwin (1949). Encyclopedia of Superstitions (1st ed.). Kensington: Kensington Publishing Corporation. ISBN 0806536241.