The Immorals of Chess

Many know the story of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) writing an essay called The Morals of Chess. The essay, or bagatelle as it was called, is in the medieval and Renaissance tradition of chess moralities.  None of his earlier copies seem to have survived.

It appeared in the American publication Columbian Magazine or Monthly Miscellany in December 1786 (volume 1, No. 4, pages 159-161).  It was then printed in Chess by Richard Twiss (1747-1821), pages 141-148.  The book was published in London by G.C. & J. Robinson in 1787.  Twiss credited Sir Herbert Croft (1751-1816) for use of the essay. In 1791, the Morals of Chess appeared in the first chess-related book to appear in Russia (Pravila dlia Shasechnoi Igry - Rules for the Game of Chess).

The Morals of Chess can be found at:

And here is Batgirl's article on Franklin

What you may not know is that Franklin showed his essay to one of his best friends, Dr. Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg (1709-1799), who wrote a counterpoint to Franklin's Morals of Chess essay.  Dr. Dubourg was a famous French physcican, botanist, writer, translater and publisher.  He was a member of the Royal Society of Medicine in Paris, the Medical Society of London, and the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.

Franklin was a checkers (draughts) player before he was a chess player.   He mentions that he played checkers in his "Journal of Occurrences in my Voyages to Philadelphia" in 1726, when he was 20 years old.  In his autobiography, he states that he began to play chess in 1733 while studying Italian with a friend.  He was not the first to mention chess in America.  That may have been done by Reverend Lewis Rou (1684-1750), who wrote a manuscript on chess in 1734 and a poem about chess players in New York in 1735.  Rou was a Huguenot minister in New York City.

In 1752, Franklin wrote a letter to a friend and London bookseller, William Straham (1715-1785), canceling his order for a chess book .  In the letter, he mentioned that Franklin's main chess buddy, David Martin (1696-1751) had died.

In 1756, William Payne published An Introduction to the game of Draughts in London.  It was the first English book on draughts.  The book was dedicated by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) to William Henry, 4th Earl of Rochford (1717-1781).  The reason why this is important is that some of the words in the dedication are exactly the same as found in the Morals of Chess.  Franklin may have plagiarized the "morals of draughts" to write his "morals of chess."  Samuel Johnson wrote "...your Lordship will think nothing a trifle by which the mind in inured to caution, foresight, and circumspection."  The reference to caution, foresight, and circumspection as qualities which draughts might improve in a person's mind is similar to what Franklin wrote about chess.  Franklin wrote three paragraphs in his Morals of Chess starting out as 1. Foresight, 2. Circumspection, and 3. Caution.  What are the odds that Franklin comes up with the exact same three qualities in chess as in draughts?

Franklin lived in England from 1757 to 1762, and from 1764 to 1767.  He lived in France from 1776 to 1785.  He spent his recreational time playing chess, mostly in the evenings.  He was not a strong player.  Anecdotes have been written that he was a poor loser and impatient.  He would strum his fingers, as though playing the piano, when his opponent did not move right away.  When it was getting too dark to play, he would ask his opponent to get some candles, then move some of the pieces around on the chess board to give himself a favorable position.

In 1762, Dr. Dubourg started publishing many of Franklin's experiments in Dubourg's medical journal, Gazette d'Epidaure.  Soon Franklin and Dubourg were corresponding and becoming best of friends.  They met each other in 1777 when Franklin lived near Paris.

In 1779, Franklin, while on a trip to London, sent his essay of the Morals of Chess to Dr. Dubourg in Paris.  Dubourg wrote back to Franklin on June 28, 1779, saying he would publish his essay in Le Journal de Paris, but he wanted to write a companion piece, pointing out the adverse effects of chess.  He wrote to Franklin on July 29, 1779 about his own version.  This is what he wrote about chess:

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, is the least evil or the greatest good it can do.

The players of chess are nearly always restless, full of care, skittish, unapproachable, punctilious, disdainful; prosperity intoxicates them and singularly inflates them; adversity overwhelms them.  They do not pardon each other anything and are continually suspicious even of the spectators, when the boredom which they inspire does not suffice to disperse everything around them. 

It is a singular observation that the game of chess diminishes perspiration and increases the flow of urine, whereas the greater number of other games provoke more perspiration, which is more favorable to health.  But this is the least reproach one has to make about it; what I cannot pardon it, is that far from developing useful talents, it seems to stifle in the heart every seed of public virtue;  the sight of a chessboard fascinates so much an abundance of excellent minds that the father land only finds players in subjects fortunately enough born that it would have been thought possible to count them among her best citizens.

Do not chess lovers delude themselves, too much in imagining their favored game as the image of human life, and in deceiving themselves that the former will teach them how to know better and to fulfill better the duties of the latter?  How many disparities there are between  the one and the other!

1.        In the game of chess time is counted for nothing.  In the course of life, it is not a matter of indifference to know how to make up one’s mind promptly if need be; to know the value of time is one of the most important skills of man. 

2.       In the game of chess one is constantly grappling with individuals.  In the course of life, everybody often has to defend himself against several at once, and always has occasion also to be helped by several, and to help them in turn.

3.       In the game of chess, the difference is always precisely from loss to gain.  In human life one can make small or large losses, small or large profits, according to whether one conducts himself more or less well, and whether one finds himself in circumstances more or less favorable.

4.       The game of chess admits thousands of combinations, but all of the same kind, subordinated to a calculation only, and independent of fate.  In the course of life, fate influences more or less all events; wisdom and fortune join and recoil from each other in turn; mingle, separate and recombine themselves in so many ways that there results not only an infinity of gradations, but also an infinity of nuances.

Piquet is incomparably more lively, more social than chess, and more suited if not to form men, at least to shape them up.  But no game is made to teach us the business of life.  Their sole  usefulness is limited to filling innocently life’s few empty moments;  and the most fortunate of all mortals is the one to  whom fewest remain.


  • 5 years ago


    Interesting article!

    Fun that you show a text from someone not in love with the game of chess.

  • 5 years ago


    what openings did uncle ben play?

  • 5 years ago


    He didn't like chess obviously. Perhaps he preferred draughts.

  • 5 years ago


    From three centuries ago, very remarkable analysis of chess from the point of view of this doctor. At a high level, his observations could be applied to Fischer during the course of 72 world championship and his fights against tv camera's ;or to Korchnoï and his dark spectacles in Baguio during the match against Karpov. But Fischer had a lot of other qualities and was not only a paranoïd broken by his own intelligence. Mental disturbances seem to come mostly from uppersensitivity than by 'smartness' itself. Such games provoke a feeling of control on the environment and the very sexual feeling to be something else than a e-woodpusher, a sense of the impossible.Today, the supercomputers gave an end to those illusions. Curiously both Fischer and Korchnoï were born in March 43, during the second world war. Both suffered from the so-called 'cold' war.But who cares ? Thanks for your research.  

  • 5 years ago


    Shucks, when I saw "Immorals of Chess" and Ben Franklin's name attached I naturally assumed a different post.  My bad.  Laughing

  • 5 years ago


  • 5 years ago



    I think you are right.  Edward Winter also wrote about the possible hoax, but his poem on NY players was found in Scotland, so that is real.

    Here is my article on Rou

  • 5 years ago


    Wonderful article as usual.

    I have a question about Rou.  Didn't someone, I think it might have been John Keeble (?), assert that the Rou manuscript mentioned in the Book of the First American Congress was a hoax perpetrated by Willard Fiske himself?

  • 5 years ago


    Definately an interesting article! It appeals to me as a history buff Laughing

Back to Top

Post your reply: