A Unique Match between Ben Franklin and France’s Louis XVI
Ben Franklin was many things: among them, a chess player. His London residence at 36 Craven Street contained a gorgeous set made of fruitwood, along with multiple books on chess.
Franklin would also contribute his own literature on the subject; his essay ‘The Morals of Chess’ saw publication in London in June, 1779. However, his most pivotal chess moment had occurred three years earlier, when he faced France’s King Louis XVI.
The American colonies had just revolted against Great Britain. Franklin had been dispatched to Paris to solicit the support of France. As Seymour Morris Jr.’s American History Revised explains, meeting Louis was a “difficult assignment”, in that Franklin was “trying to get a king to help a group of anti-royal reactionaries overthrow another king”.
Before making up his mind about such colossal affairs, the French king invited Franklin to play a game of chess. The American obliged. As he prepared to launch his opening move, Franklin weighed his options. Then he made a rather startling choice: he removed the two king pieces from the chessboard. “In America we have no kings”, he told the monarch.
Playing against a king is special. Playing a game with no kings against a king is likely a one-of-a-kind irony in the course of chess history. Though it has proven difficult to learn who actually won the match, it is clear that Franklin’s visit was ultimately a triumph, as he was able to solicit the French support, which played such a crucial role in the ensuing war.
Along with helping establish the United States, Franklin was among the nation’s earliest prominent avid players. With the exception of an obscure 1744 poem about New York chess players, he was America’s earliest writer on the subject of the Royal Game.
Franklin’s philosophy was that “life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with”. Relating strategy to war, he viewed each move as symbolic of a battle decision, in which you “must abide by all the consequences of your rashness”.
At the board, Franklin went to war with another American legend: Thomas Jefferson. According to Jefferson, the two were equal adversaries. Considering Jefferson’s intelligence, one would be tempted to assume that being his equal meant master status. However, it is reported that while at a Parisian chess club Jefferson was so decisively beaten by several Frenchmen that he skulked away and “never went back”.
As for Franklin’s shortcomings, it was said that he was a poor loser, who ‘would strum his fingers’ while awaiting his opponent’s next move in a seemingly unfavourable match. One wonders if such misbehaviour was curtailed in the presence of the French King.
More than 220 years after the Louis XVI match, Franklin’s legacy added one more distinction, as in 1999 he was inducted into the United States Chess Hall of Fame.
Video below from: Benjamin Franklin House