Benjamin Franklin’s “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 and 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. (The Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1787, p. 590)

So begins Benjamin Franklin’s “The Morals of Chess,” a short essay in which the author argues that chess is not only a game, but a lesson in character.

Franklin at the chessboard (losing to Lady Howe) in an 1867 painting by Edward Harrison May.

Franklin opens by outlining four valuable traits that chess-playing teaches alongside strategic skill: foresight, circumspection, caution, and perseverance. By learning the rules of chess, he argues, a player learns how to better evaluate possible outcomes of any situation, to make decisions carefully and rationally, and to maintain hope of success despite setbacks.

SLU’s copy of Benjamin Franklin’s “The Morals of Chess” consists of two yellowed pages of a periodical bound in brown buckram. (Spec Coll Rare Bks AP 3 .G3 v.57 pt.2 1787)

Franklin then makes it his business to promote this “beneficial amusement” by proposing rules of behavior that will make any match agreeable, increasing the odds that both participants will want to play again. His guidelines range from agreeing upon the rules of play and sticking to them equitably (no free passes for either party!) to winning with grace. (For Franklin, graceful victory entails not only abstaining from gloating, but encouraging your opponent and easing their embarrassment by praising what they did well.) Much of the essay outlines unacceptably rude behaviors, as in a section about patience that advises players not to “express uneasiness” during an opponent’s turn by “looking at your watch,” “taking up a book to read,” or “tapping with your … fingers on the table” (591). This list of faux pas was, perhaps, meant as much to remind the author of proper decorum as it was to guide others, for according to Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont (Parisian ally to the cause for American independence and Franklin’s friend), Franklin was a notorious finger-tapper despite his lofty philosophy.

The title page to the November 1787 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine, the first European periodical to reprint Franklin’s essay on chess.

Whether or not “The Morals of Chess” succeeded in mending the manners of Franklin’s eighteenth-century chess-playing cohorts, it was certainly well received. The article is thought to have been written sometime before 1779 and printed on Franklin’s own press in Passy (though no copies of a Passy edition survive), but it wasn’t published until 1786, when it appeared in the Philadelphia-based Columbian Magazine. By the end of the eighteenth century, it had been translated, reprinted, and distributed in numerous other publications in the U.S. and Europe. SLU’s copy of “The Morals of Chess,” published in the July 1787 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine, represents the essay’s formal European debut.

Chess was a running theme in The Gentleman’s Magazine, a London monthly that, from 1731 until 1922, set out to gather news stories, information, and literature of interest to the learned public. The editors presented chess as a respectable, erudite pastime, publishing stories about the history of the game, reviews of chess-focused books, and recaps of prominent games.

“The Morals of Chess” appeared during a particularly exciting time for chess, when speculation about “the Turk,” an automaton chess player, was at its height. The Turk, which toured Europe in the 1780s, defeating numerous high-profile opponents (including, in 1783, Benjamin Franklin himself), first popped up in The Gentleman’s Magazine in a November 1784 review of Philip Thicknesse’s The Speaking Figure and the Automaton Chess Player, Exposed and Detected. The anonymous reviewer summarized Thicknesse’s theory of how another prominent automaton of the time was actually human-operated, but completely dismissed Thicknesse’s explanation of the Turk, writing only that “we … do not acquiesce in his explanation, and therefore we shall say no more of it” (The Gentleman’s Magazine, Nov. 1784, p. 848). While the Turk was, indeed, a hoax, operated by a series of skilled human chess players, its workings wouldn’t be revealed until the nineteenth century, and when “The Morals of Chess” was published, it was still widely believed to be genuine.

A copper engraving of the Turk, from Karl Gottlieb von Windisch, Briefe über den Schachspieler des Hrn. von Kempelen, nebst drei Kupferstichen die diese berühmte Maschine vorstellen (1783).

The publication of Franklin’s essay at the height of the Turk’s fame may be purely coincidental, but it seems significant that, in the face of this artificially intelligent chess master, Franklin calls attention to the distinctly human – and humanizing – worth of chess. To win the game, all that is needed is the pure logic of which a machine is capable. Yet, Franklin argues, strategy in chess should – as in life – be tempered with moral judgment, and the consequences of our actions should be weighed wearing human faces. While a general leading troops to war must consider the lives of his men (surely a poignant comparison for new Americans fresh from their war for independence), the chess player must consider the feelings of his opponent and the relationships that might be gained or lost as a result of his comportment. Even in losing, Franklin argues, there is a certain victory, for you may win “what is better”: your opponent’s “esteem,… respect, and… affection” (591).

Jess Touchette

About Jess Touchette

Jess Touchette is a former staff member in the Rare Books unit.

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