Ben Franklin and the "Imorality" of Chess in the Nineteenth Century

Aug 13, 2014, 12:46 PM |

It is common for most historians of chess in the United States of America to start with Ben Franklin. Franklin was, after all, a noted devote of the game. In addition to mentioning his fondness for chess in his Autobiography (1791), twelve years earlier Franklin wrote an eloquent defense of chess as a rational amusement suitable for the citizens of the new nation entitled The Morals of Chess(1779). Given the relative unpopularity of chess first in the colonies and, later, the new nation, Franklin comes off in these narratives in his familiar role as an intellectual visionary. Of course, the reasoning goes, Franklin, the great man, inventor of the fire department and lending library, founder of the University of Pennsylvania, elder statesman of the founding fathers, would naturally gravitate towards chess. In such narratives, Franklin’s love of chess becomes united with his service to the nation as both Ralph Hagendorn and, more recently, David Shenk in The Immortal Game spend time covering the statesman’s use of chess as a convenient cover for meeting with sympathetic diplomats to plead the colonies’ cause on the eve of the revolutionary war.[1] Here, the unpopularity of the game with the larger American, as opposed to British, public becomes indicative of provincialism and lingering religious injunctions against frivolous amusements. Such a narrative would seem to be confirmed by Franklin himself in his oft-cited 1752 letter to English bookseller William Strahan: “Honest David Martin, Rector of our Academy, my principal Antagonist at Chess, is dead, and the few remaining Players here are very indifferent, so that I have now no need of Stamma’s 12s. Pamphlet, and am glad you did not send it.”[2] The primary problem Franklin had with chess in colonial America, it seems, is that there was no one with which to play the game. 


The problem with such an account of Benjamin Franklin’s engagement with chess is two-fold. On the one hand, given that most of these accounts are to be found within histories of chess, as opposed to histories of Franklin or Colonial Philadelphia or nineteenth-century games, they assume a privileged place for the game of chess. As opposed to one of many possible amusements available to Franklin and the burgeoning middle classes whom he represents, chess is invested with a cultural capital which elevates it beyond the status of games such as poker and whist, and certainly less reputable pastimes such as the attendance of boxing matches or horse races, both subjects of the sporting magazines which typically covered chess in the nineteenth century. 


On the other hand they also assume that Franklin was an unapologetic advocate for chess and its wider adoption throughout US culture. But a closer look at Franklin’s writings on chess reveals his own ambivalence towards the wider cultural dissemination of chess. In both “The Morals of Chess” and elsewhere in Franklin’s writings, we see an author who was acutely aware of the troubled cultural space occupied by chess in the closing decades of the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth centuries. While, from a modern perspective chess may have seemed to be ideally suited to the leisure and ideological needs of the United States of America, for Franklin chess was a pastime full of dangerous cultural associations which needed to be purged in order for the game to gain wider acceptance throughout the new nation.


A view of the playing of chess as a potentially harmful and even dangerous activity deeply informs Franklin’s essay on “The Morals of Chess.” Although the essay was originally written in 1779 for the amusement of his neighbor and romantic interest Madame Brillon, Franklin published a revised version of the essay in the Columbian Magazine  for December 1786. The essay was included in Richard Twiss’s informal history of chess, Chess, published in London in 1787 and Franklin republished the essay in the Massachusetts Magazine of July 1791. In the nineteenth-century, the essay was frequently reprinted and was included in a number of chess manuals printed for the U.S. Market including Chess Made Easy (1802), the first chess manual published in the US and one which was frequently reprinted in the first half of the nineteenth century. Even today, the essay is frequently reproduced online, usually by sites run by and for chess enthusiasts, usually with the aim of demonstrating Franklin’s prescience or accuracy in discussing the relevance of chess to American society.


Franklin’s initial concern in “The Morals of Chess” is to purge the game of its association with gambling. After noting the ancient pedigree of the game, Franklin immediately asserts that chess 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.”[3] The problem with this statement is that both at the time he was writing and well into the nineteenth century chess was frequently played for money. Franklin himself seems to have played chess for cash stakes earlier in his career. In his Journal of a Voyage,1726, Franklin seems to speak from experience when he notes that players of chess, “who would play well, ought not much to regard the consequence of the game. . . I will venture to lay it down for an infallible rule, that, if two persons equal in judgement play for a considerable sum, he that loves money most shall lose.”[4] Chess’s status as a gambling game in the eighteenth and nineteenth century is further attested to by the widespread practice of giving odds in chess. In this practice two players would negotiate a handicap for the stronger player prior to playing. Handicaps might range from having the stronger player forfeit a pawn and the first or first and second move up to playing without rook or even a queen. The 1802 manual Chess Made Easy even concludes with a section on the giving of appropriate odds to stronger players and they way in which various odds should effect a player’s strategy.[5] The determining of proper odds between players, a practice rare in contemporary chess practice, was of such importance at this time because chess was so often played for money. At the highest levels of play this practice continued well into the nineteenth century in the form of requiring prominent players such as Howard Staunton or Paul Morphy to supply a cash stake (usually raised by backers or friends) to serve as a prize for high-profile matches. 


As chess was domesticated and professionalized over the course of the nineteenth century this practice became much less common. The practice still persists today, though, in the figure of the “chess hustlers” who play for cash in public parks, most notably Washington Square Park in New York City and Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. Gambling in chess still persists, it has just been marginalized, confined to areas outside the official boundaries of the sport. But at the moment Franklin was writing, the association of chess with gambling remained a hurdle to its wider adoption in American culture. 


So if Franklin wants to break the association between chess and gambling, and, by extension, sporting culture, what new cultural values can he ascribe to the game? The answer lies with the category of “rational amusements” which were taking shape in the United States during the closing decades of the eighteenth and opening decades of the nineteenth centuries. A part of the larger US project of self-culture — embodied in mechanics’ institutes, museums, panoramas, and, later in the nineteenth-century, in the rise of the lyceum movement — rational amusements refigured the increased leisure time afforded to the rising middle classes not as idleness, but as opportunities for moral and intellectual growth. Accordingly, Franklin asserts in “The Morals of Chess” that, “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.” Here, chess is no idle amusement, suitable for the idle rich or the morally dissolute, rather, it is a opportunity to sharpen “valuable qualities of the mind.” In this vein, Franklin goes on to praise the ability of chess to teach its players the values of 1. Foresight, 2. Circumspection, 3. Caution, and, lastly, “the habit of not being discouraged by present appearances . . . and that of persevering in the search of resources.”[6] In Franklin’s “The Morals of Chess,” the titular game becomes a self-improvement project familiar to later readers of the author’s Autobiography. 


At the same time, the second half of Franklin’s “Morals” still contains vestiges of the game’s status not as a rational amusement, but as an aristocratic pastime. In these concluding paragraphs, Franklin instructs his readers on the appropriate behavior to exhibit while playing chess. Advice in this section includes not “whistling” or “drumming your fingers” if your opponent is slow; no deceiving your opponent by “pretending to have made bad moves;” not “triumphing” over or using insulting language towards your opponent when you win; and, finally: “if you are a spectator while others play, observe the most perfect silence.” While Franklin was not writing a chess manual, it is telling nonetheless that all of his advice in this portion of his essay focuses on conforming to the social expectations of the game as played in polite and, more particularly, upper class society. Even today there remains a sharp distinction between the behaviour expected by chess players at a formal event such as a tournament and during informal, “skittles” games in informal settings such as bars and public parks. While Franklin’s stated aim in “Morals” is the positioning of chess as a rational amusement suitable for colonial America, his accompanying project to bring the behaviour of new players into accordance with the conventions of the game as played in polite society points to the stubbornness with which Chess’s aristocratic pedigree would cling to the game. 


By the end of his life in 1790, Franklin seems to have given-up on the dream of chess’s broader acceptance throughout US culture (to be fair, the poor state of communication networks in the new nation made chess’s wider cultural dissemination at this time highly unlikely). Even earlier, in the same year in which he wrote “The Morals of Chess,” Franklin had playfully attacked his own preference for chess over healthier activities in his “Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout” (1780): “What is you practice after dinner? Walking in the beautiful gardens of those friends with whom you have dined would be the choice of men of sense; yours is to be fixed down to chess where you are to be found engaged for two and three hours!” Here, Franklin positions chess as a distraction, an “idle amusement,” which keeps him from healthy social intercourse. And four years before his death, Franklin seems to have traded chess for that staple of British and American drawing room entertainments, cards. In a letter to Mary Hewson written in 1786, Franklin recounts how he spends his evenings: “Cards we sometimes play here, in long winter evenings, but it is as they play at chess, not for money, but for honor, or the pleasure of beating one another.”[7] 


In line with accounts which tie chess to Franklin’s status as a Founding Father and public scientist / intellectual, Hagendorn ascribes Franklin’s turn from chess to the paucity of players in the U.S.: “After his return to America, Franklin seems to have given up chess for cards, perhaps because of the lack of competent players in this country” (Hagendorn 40). While the use of “perhaps” somewhat qualifies his conclusions, as a chess historian Hagendorn seems willing to ascribe Franklin’s decision to a shortcoming of eighteenth-century U.S. Culture, as opposed to the array of cultural values attendant upon chess which would make its broader acceptance in U.S. Culture difficult well into the nineteenth century. For now, for large swaths of the American population, chess remained “The Game of Kings”: noble, distant, and unapproachable. 

[1]Ralph Karl Hagedorn, Benjamin Franklin and Chess in Early America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958); David Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess (New York: Doubleday, 2006).

[2]Benjamin Franklin to William Strahan, Philadelphia, 20 June 1753, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, CT: Yale University / Packard Humanities Institute),

[3]Franklin, “The Morals of Chess

[4]Franklin, Journal of a Voyage, 1726, 29 July 1726(New Haven, CT: Yale University / Packard Humanities Institute),

[5]James Humphreys, Chess Made Easy (Philadelphia: James Humphreys, 1802), 122.

[6]Franklin, “The Morals of Chess

[7]Benjamin Franklin to Mary Hewson, Philadelphia, 6 May 1786, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, CT: Yale University / Packard Humanities Institute),