Benjamin Franklin and Chess

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Among Benjamin Franklin’s many attributes, inventions, and accomplishments, he deserves to be remembered as the first American author on the subject of chess.  Chess was a game to which author Carl Van Doren writes that Franklin was “addicted.”  His Morals of Chess, which is herein printed in its entirety, appeared in many languages and became a minor classic of the game that he so loved.

While Franklin was a great lover of the game, it has not been said that he was one of its best practitioners.  Professor George Allen recalled that “this clever Yankee [Franklin], so economical of time in all other respects, had a perfect passion for playing Chess; and he gives no hint of ever being at a loss for Philadelphians to play with – in site of the various attempts of a certain Chess editor to make it out otherwise – is a fair inference from the fact, that he found his match in an English woman, and had to accept the Knight from a French woman; and some of his antagonists were strong players, who beat him soundly and easily.”  However, Allen writes, his fame as an inventor and politician became such that he received an unmerited credit for being a great chess player, such that “he has come to have nearly as good a chance for immortality as Philidor himself.”

Franklin’s mentions of chess are sporadic.  In 1752 he bemoans the fact that David Martin, “my principal Antagonist at Chess, is dead, and the few remaining Players here are very indifferent.”  In his autobiography, he writes, “I had begun in 1733 to study languages; I soon made myself so much a master of the French as to be able to read the books with ease.  I then undertook the Italian.  An acquaintance, who was also learning it, us’d often to tempt me to play chess with him.  Finding this took up too much of the time I had to spare for study, I at length refus’d to play any more, unless on this condition, that the victor in every game should have a right to impose a task, either in parts of the grammar to be got by heart, or in translations, etc., which tasks the vanquish’d was to perform upon honour, before our next meeting.  As we play’d pretty equally, we thus beat one another into that language.  I afterward with a little painstaking, acquir’d as much of the Spanish as to read their books also.”  I should try this with my son – a half of hour of Latin for each half hour of Gameboy!

On one instance, Chess was used as the subterfuge for diplomacy, albeit a failed diplomacy.  “Being at the Royal Society,” Franklin wrote, “one of our members, told me there was a certain lady who had a desire of playing with me at chess, fancying she could beat me, and had requested him to bring me to her; it was, he said, a lady with whose acquaintance he was sure I should be pleased, a sister of Lord Howe’s, and he hoped I would not refuse the challenge.  I said I had been long out of practice, but would wait upon the lady when he and she should think fit.  He told me where her house was, and would have me call soon and without farther introduction, which I undertook to do…”  In fact, as Van Dorn wrote, “[t]here was politics behind the chess, reaching at least to the Secretary of State for America.”  Franklin had been recently insulted by the British, so they were concerned that any attempt at conciliation would be met with anger.  Thus the chess match created to hide the true import of the meeting.

The most famous chess anecdote comes from Franklin’s time in French with the coquettish Madame Brillon, of whom Franklin was infatuated.  The story, once blown up into HBO dimensions in its John Adams series – a show that also accuses Franklin of cheating on his wife at a time that his wife was actually deceased – shows Franklin and the French lady in a bathtub together, playing chess.  Not so.  The true story is that he and his friend were playing in the same room in which Madame Brillon was bathing, in a tub that included a cover.  “I’m afraid that we may have made you very uncomfortable by keeping you so long in the bath,” he later wrote her.  “Never again will I consent to start a chess game with the neighbor in your bathing room.  Can you forgive this indiscretion?”  She probably was more willing to forgive this indiscretion than his other Chess indiscretion, which was that of repeatedly beating her soundly.  Writing of herself in the third person, she wrote that “She is still a little miffed about the six games of chess he won so inhumanely and she warns him she will spare nothing to get her revenge.”

Once in Paris Franklin won great acclaim by putting his King into a check position.  “Ah, we do not take kings so,” his opponent said.  “We do in America,” he replied.

Finally – and most enticingly – we have the memories of a John French who quotes Thomas Jefferson as saying, “I played with Dr. Franklin at chess, and was equal to him at the game.”  Ahh, to be a fly on that wall!

What follows is Franklin’s own classic comments on the game he loved.  Enjoy:

Franklin’s Morals of Chess

 Sir,

Playing at Chess, is the most ancient and the most universal game known among men; for its original is beyond the memory of history, and it has, for numberless ages, been the amusement of all the civilized nations of Asia, the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese. Europe has had it above 1000 years; the Spaniards have spread it over their part of America, and it begins lately to make its appearance in these northern states. It is so interesting in itself, as not to need the view of gain to induce engaging in it; and thence it is never played for money. Those, therefore, who have leisure for such diversions, cannot find one that is more innocent; and the following piece, written with a view to correct (among a few young friends) some little improprieties in the practice of it, shows at the same time, that it may, in its effects on the mind, be not merely innocent, but advantageous, to the vanquished as well as to the victor.

The MORALS of CHESS.

The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it. By playing at chess, then, we may learn:

  1. Foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action: for it is continually occurring to the player, “If I move this piece, what will be the advantages9 of my new situation? What use can my adversary make of it to annoy me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?
  2. Circumspection, which surveys the whole chess-board, or scene of action, the relations of the several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to, the several possibilities of their aiding each other; the probabilities that the adversary may make this or that move, and attack this or the other piece; and what different means can be used to avoid his stroke, or turn its consequences against him.
  3. Caution, not to make our moves too hastily. This habit is best acquired by observing strictly the laws of the game, such as, if you touch a piece, you must move it somewhere; if you set it down, you must let it stand. And it is therefore best that these rules should be observed, as the game thereby becomes more the image of human life, and particularly of war; in which, if you have incautiously put yourself into a bad and dangerous position, you cannot obtain your enemy’s leave to withdraw your troops, and place them more securely; but you must abide all the consequences of your rashness.

And, lastly, we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged1 by present bad appearences in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources. The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it, the fortune of it is so subject to sudden vicissitudes, and one so frequently, after long contemplation, discovers the means of extricating one’s self from a supposed insurmountable difficulty, that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of victory by our own skill, or, at least, of giving a stale mate,2 by the negligence of our adversary. And whoever considers, what in chess he often sees instances of, that particular pieces of3 success are apt to produce presumption, and its consequent, inattention, by which more is afterwards lost than was gained by the preceding advantage; while misfortunes produce more care and attention, by which the loss may be recovered, will learn not to be too much discouraged by the present success of his adversary, nor to despair of final good fortune, upon every little check he receives in the pursuit of it.

That we may, therefore, be induced more frequently to chuse this beneficial amusement, in preference to others which are not attended with the same advantages, every circumstance, that may increase the pleasure of it, should be regarded; and every action or word that is unfair, disrespectful, or that in any way may give uneasiness, should be avoided, as contrary to the immediate intention of both the players,4 which is to pass the time agreeably.

Therefore, 1st. If it is agreed to play according to the strict rules, then those rules are to be exactly observed by both parties; and should not be insisted on for one side, while deviated from by the other: for this is not equitable.

  1. If it is agreed not to observe the rules exactly, but one party demands indulgencies, he should then be as willing to allow them to the other.
  2. No false move should ever be made to extricate yourself out of a difficulty, or to gain an advantage. There can be no pleasure in playing with a person once detected in such unfair practice.
  3. If your adversary is long in playing, you ought not to hurry him, or express any uneasiness at his delay. You should not sing, nor whistle, nor look at your watch, nor take up a book to read, nor make a tapping with your feet on the floor, or with your fingers on the table, nor do anything that may disturb his attention. For all these things displease. And they do not show your skill in playing, but your craftiness or your rudeness.
  4. You ought not to endeavour to amuse and deceive your adversary, by pretending to have made bad moves, and saying you have now lost the game, in order to make him secure and careless, and inattentive to your schemes; for this is fraud, and deceit, not skill in the game.
  5. You must not, when you have gained a victory, use any triumphing or insulting expression, nor show too much pleasure; but endeavour to console your adversary, and make him less dissatisfied with himself by every kind and civil expression, that may be used with truth, such as, You understand the game better than I, but you are a little inattentive; or, You play too fast; or, You had the best of the game but something happened to divert your thoughts, and that turned it in my favour.
  6. If you are a spectator, while others play, observe the most perfect silence. For if you give advice, you offend both parties; him, against whom you give it, because it may cause the loss of his game; him, in whose favour you give it, because, though it be good, and he follows it, he loses the pleasure he might have had, if you had permitted him to think till it occurred to himself. Even after a move or moves, you must not, by replacing the pieces, shew how it might have been played better: for that displeases, and may occasion disputes or doubts about their true situation. All talking to the players, lessens or diverts their attention, and is therefore unpleasing; nor should you give the least hint to either party, by any kind of noise or motion.— If you do, you are unworthy to be a spectator.— If you have a mind to exercise or show your judgments, do it in playing your own game when you have an opportunity, not in criticising or meddling with, or counselling, the play of others. Lastly. If the game is not to be played rigorously, according to the rules above mentioned, then moderate your desire of victory over your adversary, and be pleased with one over yourself. Snatch not eagerly at every advantage offered by his unskilfulness or inattention; but point out to him kindly that by such a move he places or leaves a piece in danger and unsupported; that by another he will put his king in a dangerous situation, &c. By this generous civility (so opposite to the unfairness above forbidden) you may indeed happen to lose the game to your opponent, but you will win what is better, his esteem, his respect, and his affection; together with the silent approbation and good will of impartial spectators.”

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