The Morals of Chess

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"The Morals of Chess" is an essay by the American philosopher Benjamin Franklin who in 1999 was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.[1] It is one of the first texts about chess that was published in the United States and appeared in the first chess-related book that was published in Russia in 1791. The essay originally appeared in The Columbian Magazine in December 1786.

Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, played chess from at least 1733. Evidence suggests that he was an above-average player, who, however, did not reach the top level. He outlined the essay around 1732, but did not publish it until 1786.

After a short prologue in which Franklin details the history of chess he gets to the main part of his essay. He compares chess to life and writes that foresight, circumspection and caution can be learnt from the game. After describing the effects chess can have on one's perception of life he describes a set of moral rules that a chess player should hold, including to not cheat and not disturb the opponent. Franklin suggests that the opponent is told about mistakes he makes, for example if he would lose a piece.

The essay still is widely reproduced, especially on the Internet.

Original text[edit]

Playing at Chess, is the most ancient and 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 1,000 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 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 advantages 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 opponent 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 discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable 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, by the negligence of our adversary. And whoever considers, what in chess he often sees instances of, that particular pieces of 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 choose this beneficial amusement, in preference to others which are not attended with the same advantages, every circumstance, that may encrease 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, 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 any thing 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 to fast; or, You had the best of the game, but something happened to divert your thoughts, and that turned it in my favour."

7. 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, tho' 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, show 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 judgment, 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.

Modern paraphrase[edit]

Playing Chess is the oldest and most universal game known to man; its origins well beyond the memory of history, and it has throughout the ages been the amusement of civilized nations such as Asia, the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese. Europe has had it for over 1,000 years; the Spaniards had spread it over their side of America, and just now it begins to make its appearance in these Northern States. The game is so interesting in itself that it doesn't need the incentive of a prize for people to be engrossed in it, and so it is never played for money. Therefore, people who have time available for such activities can't find a purer game. The following article, written to correct some improper conduct among a few young friends, also shows that its effects on the mind are not just innocent, but beneficial to both the person who lost and the winner.

The game of Chess is not just an idle amusement. There are several valuable qualities of the mind, useful in every aspect of life, that can be acquired or strengthened by it, which can become habits ready to be used in any occasion. For life is a kind of chess game where we often have points to gain, competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there are various good and bad events, that are to some degree, due to good judgment or the lack of it.

By playing at chess, then, we may learn:

1. Foresight, which looks a little into the future and considers the consequences of a certain action: For it occurs continually to the player, "If I move this piece, what will be the advantages of my new situation? How can my opponent use it against me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?"

2. Circumspection, which studies the whole chess board, or the scene of action, the relation between several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to, all the possibilities for helping each other, the probability that the opponent may make this or that move to attack this or other piece; and the different ways that can be used to avoid his attack or turn it 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 leave it there." So it is best that these rules should be observed as the game becomes the image of human life, particularly of war: If you carelessly have put yourself into a bad or dangerous position, you can't obtain the enemy's permission to withdraw your troops and place them in a more secure spot. You must allow all the consequences of your rash decision.

And lastly, we learn by playing chess the habit of not being discouraged by seemingly unfavorable circumstances, but the habit of hoping for a favorable change and persevering in the search of a solution. The game is so full of events, there are so many turns and twists, its development is subject to many sudden changes of fortune, so that a player frequently discovers, after long contemplation, the means of extricating himself from a supposedly insurmountable problem. In this way one is encouraged to continue playing to the very end, with hopes of victory by our own skill, or at least getting stale-mated through the negligence of our opponent. And consider, often seen in chess, that particular instances of success in a game are likely to produce presumption, and as a consequence, carelessness—by which more is lost than was gained with any previous advantage. Misfortune, on the other hand, produces more care and attention by which we may recover what was lost. So we learn not to be too discouraged by our opponent's current success, nor to worry about the final outcome on every little check he receives while pursuing it.

We should, therefore, choose this beneficial game over others that do not come with the same advantages, and should consider every opportunity to play and enjoy it. And every action or word that is unfair, disrespectful, or in any way causes uneasiness, should be avoided as the opposite of the immediate intention of both players, which is to have a good time.

Therefore, first, if it is agreed to play strictly by the rules, then those rules are to be observed exactly by both players; and the rules should not be insisted for one side while changing it for the other: This is not fair.

Second, if it is agreed not to observe the rules exactly, but one side demands some whims, he should be as willing to allow them to his opponent.

Third, no false move should ever be made to get your self out of trouble, or to gain an advantage. There can be no pleasure in playing with a person that gets caught cheating.

Fourth, If your opponent takes a long time to move, you should not rush him, or express any annoyance at his delay. You should not sing, nor whistle, nor look at your watch, nor pick up a book to read, nor start tapping your feet on the floor or your fingers on the table, nor do any thing that may disturb his concentration. All these things are unpleasant and do not show your skill in playing, but your slyness or your rudeness.

Fifth, you should not endeavor to distract and deceive your opponent by pretending to have made bad moves, and saying you have now lost the game, in order to make him overconfident and careless, and not pay attention to your schemes. This is fraud and deceit, not skill in the game.

Sixth, when you win a game you must not brag or use insulting expressions, nor display too much pleasure; but attempt to console your opponent and make him or her less disappointed by every kind and civil words that may be used sincerely. For example, "You understand the game better than me, but you were a little distracted.", or, "You play too fast", or, "You had the better game, but something happened to distract your thoughts, and that turned it in my favor."

Seventh, If you are a spectator while others play, be perfectly silent. If you give advice you will offend both parties: To the player against whom you give the advise because it may cause him to lose; and to the player you advised because, even though your suggestions may be good and he follows it, he loses the pleasure he might have had if you had permitted him to think until it occurred to him. Even after a move or series of moves, you must not, by touching the pieces, show how it might have been played better. That can be irritating and cause disputes about the actual situation. Any talking to the players distracts them and is therefore irritating. Nor you should give the smallest hints to either party, by any kind of noise or gesture. If you do, you are unworthy to be a spectator. If you have a mind to express your judgment, do it by playing your own game when you have the opportunity—Not criticizing, meddling, or counseling the play of others.

Lastly, if the game is not to be played strictly, according to the rules above, then curb your desire to beat your opponent and just be pleased with a win over yourself. Don't eagerly snatch every advantage caused by your opponent's bad moves or distraction, but point out to him or her, very nicely, that such a move places or leaves a piece in danger and unsupported. Or that by another bad move, the king may be placed in a dangerous situation, etc. By this great civility (in contrast to the unfairness forbidden above) you may indeed lose the game to your opponent, but you will win something better: His esteem, his respect, and his affection; together with the silent approval and good will of impartial spectators.

References[edit]

  1. ^ John McCrary: Chess and Benjamin Franklin—his pioneering contributions, including the full text of The Morals of Chess