Benjamin Franklin and Chess

by Bill Wall


Benjamin Franklin was born on Jan 17, 1706 or Jan 6, 1706 old style.


Franklin wrote about checkers (draughts) when he sailed to and from England in 1726.


In 1727, Franklin established the Junto club for mutual improvement


In 1730, Franklin started writing his Commonplace book.  He wrote this from 1830 to 1738.  It included a sketchy outline of ideas


In June 1732, Franklin listed a set of queries and outline to be asked at the Junto club, including a discussion on chess.


Franklin began to play chess in 1733 to study languages.  Did he write Morals of Chess in 1732 or 1733 and not publish it?  Morals of Chess was based on an essay he had drafted in 1732 for his Philadelphia Junto.


Franklin attributed chess being introduced in America by the Spaniards.


In a Tory journal, the Craftsman (1726-1752), No. 376, Sep 15, 1733, there was a short essay on the game of chess.  This may have been written by Lord Henry St. John Bolignbroke (1678-1751), but he did not play chess.  It was later printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine.


A reply was written from Slaughter’s coffee house on Sep 21, 1733 by Lord John Hervey (1696-1743), called A Letter to the Craftsman on the game of chess.


In 1734, Lewis Rou wrote a manuscript on chess in America.  Was it the first chess text from America?  It was 24 pages, prepared for the press; 17 chapters; dedicated to NY governor William Cosby (1690-1736).


On Dec 13, 173, critical remarks upon the letter to the Craftsman by Rev Lewis Rou (1684-1750), pastor of the Huguenot Church in NY (now lost) was published, the oldest reference to chess in the New World.


In 1734, Franklin played the first reported chess game in America at age 28 in Philadelphia.  He played with a friend and both were learning Italian.


In 1735, Rou wrote a short poem in Latin about chess players at the New York City coffee houses he frequented.  It was published in 1744.  It mentioned eight other early chess players in New York.  The long-lost publication was discovered in the Library of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2003.  The title was “A Prospect of Chess-Play and Chess-Players, at the Coffeehouse, New York.”  The poem is contained in the appendix to a Scottish manuscript of Poems on Several Occasions by Archibald Home (1705-1744).


In 1750, Chess Made Easy, an English edition of Greco’s work, was published.


In 1750, Lewis Rou died.


Franklin, in a letter to William Strahan (1715-1785) on June 20, 1752, wrote that David Martin (1696-1751), Rector of the Academy, Franklin’s principal antagonist in chess, was dead.  Strahan was a printer and patron of literature.


In 1756, a book on draughts, An Introduction to the game of Draughts, was published in London by William Payne that was similar to the Morals of Chess.  The book’s dedication was to William Henry,  4th Earl of Rochford (1717-1781).  Dedication was by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).  This was the first book in English on the game of chess.


Franklin lived in England from 1757 to 1762, and from 1764 to 1767.


Franklin purchased a very nice chess set while in London in 1757.  It was made of fruitwood and French in origin.  It was a Regency design set.  He lived at 36 Craven St in London.


In 1757, he wrote a letter in which he noted that he had 2 or 3 books on chess.


1759 is the earliest reference to chess in Canada.  General Sir John Hale and General Wolfe played chess during the taking of Quebec in 1759.


Franklin played John Bartram (1699-1777).  In 1762, Franklin delivered a Regency set to Bartram, which Franklin ordered while in London.  Bartram is the father of American botany.


Bartram played chess with Sir John Pringle (1707-1782), physician (father of military medicine) and his best friend, witnessed by James Boswell (1740-1795).


In a letter from John Foxcroft on Jan 14, 1771, Bartram noted that his brother would like to travel with Franklin because they played chess.


In a letter from Katherine French to Franklin on June 17, 1771, Franklin dined with the Bishop of St. Asaph’s (Dr. Jonathan Shipley).    “She (Katherine French) has provided chess players for each day (Wednesday and Thursday).”


Franklin played chess with Caroline Howe (1721-1814) in Dec 4, 1774 in London.  He played two games.  The 2nd game was on Dec 4, 1774.  She was the sister of Admiral Viscount Howe, whom Franklin met.


Colonel Rall died in Trenton in the Battle of Trenton on Dec 26, 1776.  He may have playing chess when George Washington surprised him with a dawn attack.


Franklin (1707-1790) amused himself playing chess with his fashionable friends (including Madam Brillon while she bathed in her tub).  She was 33.


Madame Anne-Louise d’Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy (Dec 13, 1744-Dec 5, 1824) was a  French musician (harpsichord) and composer.  She lived in Passy.


Franklin arrived in Paris on Dec 21, 1776.  He lived in the Paris suburb of Passy from 1776 to 1785.


He served as US representative at the court of France from 1777 to 1785.


Franklin was introduced to Madame Brillon in early 1777.  She was 33.  He played her 6 games.


A letter written by Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) described Franklin’s chess playing in Paris.


John Adams complained in his diary (May 27, 1778) about Franklin.  “He dined out almost every night and afterward, played chess.”


In 1778, there was a note that 2 persons “were taking chess lessons to be worthier opponents” for Franklin.


Franklin blamed his gout from too much sitting playing chess and not enough exercise.


Franklin sometimes met the Duchess of Bourbon, first cousin of Louis XVI.  She was a chess player.  She once had her king attacked and said “Ah, we do not take kings so.”  He replied “We do in America.”


In his chess games, Franklin was watched by the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790).


Devoted to chess, eager to try his skill with some of the expert players of Paris, Jefferson found his way to a chess club (perhaps the Salon d’echecs), but was so decisively beaten in several games that he never went back.


In June, 1779, Franklin published  The Morals of Chess while in London.


In 1780, Franklin met Sir William Jones, who wrote Caissa.


In Oct 1780, he wrote a letter to Georgiana Shipley, daughter of the Bishop of St. Asaph, and sister-in-law to Sir William Jones.


Franklin visited the Café de la Regence in 1781 with the intention of having Philidor autograph his copy of Philidor’s book on chess.  The café proprietor was Jacques Labar.


Franklin’s grandson, William Franklin (1730-1813), said chess was Benjamin Franklin’s favorite amusement, and one of his best papers is written on that subject.  He was pleased with his performance of the Automaton.



Around 1781, Franklin played Sir John Pringle.

In 1782, the wife of the Count de Segur (1753-1830), Antoinette Elisabeth d’Aguesseau (1756-1828),  often played chess with Franklin.


Wolfgang von Kempelen wrote to Franklin on Dec 24, 1782.  He was in Paris in 1783.


Hans Moritz von Bruehl (1746-1811), wrote to Franklin and discussed chess.


Franklin visited the Café de la Regence several times while visiting Paris.


Franklin was US Ambassador to France.


On May 28, 1783, von Kempelen wrote to Franklin inviting him to play his automaton, the Turk.


Franklin played the Turk in Paris in 1783 at the Café de la Regence and lost.


Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1785, bringing him a chess table and fruitwood chess set.


Franklin published his Morals of Chess in Columbian Magazine in December, 1786.  He dedicated his essay to Mme. Brillon.


Franklin gave the manuscript to Dr. Dubourg to read.  Dubourg prepared a companion piece.  He prepared a companion, pointing out the adverse effects of the game of chess. 


Franklin published the Morals of Chess in 1787 in Twiss (Chess, vol 1).  Twiss credited H. Croft, the author of Life of Dr. Young, for use of the essay.


Franklin died on April 17, 1790.  His chess table descended to his granddaughter, Deborah, who married William Daune.  The chess table was sold by the auctioneers, Stan V. Henkels and Son on July 16, 1924.


In 1791, the Morals of Chess appeared in the first chess-related book ever to appear in Russia.


Jefferson wrote a letter to Robert Welsh on Dec 4, 1818, mentioning Franklin and chess.


Jefferson said that he played Franklin at chess and they were equal.


Thomas Paine (1737-1809) played chess regularly.


Jefferson lost 5 of 7 games to Thomas Lee Shippen.


Jefferson played chess with John Randolph, Virginia Congressmen.


Donatien Le Ray Chaumont’s grandson, Vincent, said that Franklin had a passion for late night games and was checked only by his supply of candles. 


Once, in the house of a French minister, Franklin refused to receive an important dispatch from Congress until after a match was finished with a diplomat.


Franklin was a poor loser.  Impatient and would strum with his fingers, as though playing the piano, when his opponent did not move immediately.


Franklin’s chess table was last seen in the Loan Exhibit of the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 1963, loaned by its last known owner, Mrs. Benjamin R. Hoffman (Margaret Clawson).  It may have been sold at Freeman’s auction in Philadelphia in 1973, following the death of Mrs. Hoffman.


In 1976, Morris Duane, a Franklin descendent and member of the American Philosophical Society presented Franklin’s chess pieces to the society.


In 1999, Franklin was inducted in the Chess Hall of Fame.


The Other Morals of Chess by Dr. Dubourg


The game of chess is less an amusement than a vain occupation, a laborious frivolity, which does not exercise the body, which tires the mind instead of refreshing it, which dries up and hardens the soul.  It is neither a social game, nor an occasion of friendship; it is the simulacrum of war, of that cruel game to which necessity alone can serve as an excuse, because to nourish the pride of one and to mortify the egoism of the other.