Threads November 2023 Chess

Jack Orchard

The Threads series aims to explore the rich topical connections that can be made across the items in the collection of c. 80,000 letters and to illustrate the range of diverse perspectives that can be found on topics of all kinds. The series will be curated by Jack Orchard, Content Editor of Electronic Enlightenment and will aim to commission and promptly post pieces by guest contributors and users of the site. If you are interested in submitting a blog of this kind and talking through an idea, please get in touch with

With the winter settling in, the nights growing longer, and the air getting colder, I thought I'd take the opportunity with this threads post to look at one of the examples of leisure activities with which the correspondents in Electronic Enlightenment amused themselves, namely the game of chess, which occurs over 100 times in our collection, in a wide variety of contexts and with many different associations.

The period covered by the Electronic Enlightenment collection represents a significant era in the history of chess as a game, between the 17th and the 19th centuries the game expanded both in terms of its geographical and social reach, and in the level of commentary and analysis on the game which made it into print. Works like John Barbier's The Famouse Game of Chesse-Play (1614), which describes the rules and allegorical significance of the pieces (and included John Locke among its readers), but does not discuss explicit or formal strategy, have given way to texts like l'Analyse du jeu des Échecs (1744) by the mid-century. This work, by musician and early chess master François-André Danican Philidor (1726–1795), not only made its author a household name by its second edition of 1777, but outlined a range of strategic moves, focussed on the use of pawns in the early game, to which his name is attached to this day. By the end of the 18th century, the evolution of the 'Romantic' movement in the history of Chess, with a focus on playing stylishly and elegantly, had begun, and we can get early glimpses of these trends in letters across the collection.

The first and most unusual theme that emerges from discussions of Chess in Electronic Enlightenment is the fact that it frequently seems to have been a minor spectator sport. It sometimes commanded the attention of select groups, like the attendees at the supper organised by Pitt the Younger, which Jeremy Bentham describes in 1781:

The Whist table is just broke up: supper is announced, the game at chess between Ld. Chatham and Miss Vernon is drawing near to a conclusion, and while the rest of the people are hovering round them waiting for the event, I have taken french leave of them all, and stolen up here, that I may be a good boy tomorrow and rise betimes.

Jeremy Bentham to George Wilson: between 17 & 24 September 1781

There were a few notable occasions, however, when the celebrity of a player turned a simple game into a public spectacle. This is the case in the following anecdote about Benjamin Franklin reported by the Scottish reformer and socialist activist Frances D'Arusmont to Jeremy Bentham:

When Franklin was negotiating in Paris he sometimes went into a caffe to play at chess; a crowd usually assembled, of course to see the man rather than the play. Upon one occasion Franklin lost in the middle of the game; when composedly taking the King from the board he put him in his pocket and continued to move. The antagonist looked up — the face of Franklin was so grave and his gesture so much in earnest that he began with an expostulatory 'Sir!' — 'Yes, Sir, continue;' said Franklin 'and we shall soon see that the party without a King will win the contest.

Frances D'Arusmont to Jeremy Bentham: between 19 & 23 September 1821

Sometimes the public performance of one's skill at chess could verge on arrogance, however, as was the case in the philosopher D'Holbach's circulation of a rumour about his rival Jean Jacques Rousseau, making a spectacle of himself in Paris.

Few chess players seem to have had their games more observed and commented on, however, than Voltaire, for whom both his skill at the game, and his apparent soreness as a loser, are a matter of historical record. At least two members of his circle felt the urge to portray him playing chess, Jean Huber in his painting 'Voltaire at the Chess Table' (1770–1775), and Henry Temple, 2nd Viscount Palmerston, sketching him in 1763/1764:

It is very incorrect, because it was done in a hurry by Candlelight and thro’ all the diabolic Faces which he never fails to make when he knows anybody is drawing his Picture, but I think I have hit off his general Character, which is the most essential.

Henry Temple, 2nd Viscount Palmerston to [unknown]: 1763/1764

The ‘diabolic Faces’ which Palmerston observed may have also owed to a competitive streak in Voltaire's approach to chess, which was also noted by Politician Paul Claude Moultou and commented on by Princess Yekatarina Dashkova, describing his tendency to sulk after losing games against none other than Jean Huber, his portraitist:

Voltaire was very much afraid of him, as Hubert well knew his peculiarities, and represented circumstances on canvas in which Voltaire recognised several of his own weaknesses of character. They used to be frequent combatants at chess. Voltaire was almost always the loser, and on those occasions he never failed to be put out of humour.

A visit to Voltaire in May 1771 by Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Dashkova: between 1804 & 1805

Voltaire is not the only major thinker we find losing at Chess in EE, Madame de Graffigny also seems to have lost her fair share of games, although she treats the process with idle amusement, writing self-deprecatingly to her lifelong friend and correspondent Francois Antoine Devaux that she is 'Je vais perdre quelques parties d’echec pour passer le tems' when signing off a letter of the 25th of February 1746, although she could also report the occasional victory, such as the one against Pierre Valleré described in her letter two days later:

Et quelques parties d’echecs joué: j’en ai enfin gagné une. Je crois que Doudou dormoit, car cela est trop extraordinaire. Croirois-tu qu’en me gagnant sans relache, il me donne un fou et un cavallier? Jamais, tu le sais, je n’ai pu arranger ce jeux-la dans ma tete. J’ai bien l’esprit de suitte pour une chose, mais il en faut trop avoir là. Je ne puis y sufire; je ne le saurai jamais.

Françoise Paule Huguet de Graffigny to François Antoine Devaux: Sunday, 27 February 1746

The idea that playing chess offered a unique insight into the opponent's character or intellectual processes is one which occurs multiple times across the Electronic Enlightenment collection. We've just seen Palmerston and Huber watching Voltaire play chess to gain an insight into his personality, but the value of playing chess as parallel to an intense conversation occurs as early as 1638, when Descartes compared his debate with conservative theologian Libert Froidmont to a friendly game of chess. The author Antoine Bret explicitly asserts that 'peut-être porte-t-il quelque clarté sur un caractère difficile à saisir', when describing a game against Rousseau in 1771:

Les courses du matin me conduisoient quelquefois au caffé de la Régence où je trouvois Mr. Rousseau prez de qui je me plaçois sans affectation; comme il y attendoit L'occasion de faire une partie d'Echecs il me la proposoit Et je l'acceptois avec plaisir. Cependant beaucoup plus fort que moi il me Gagnoit avec une facilité qui me fit craindre un jour qu'il ne s'amusât pas. Je le lui dis En le laissant maitre de la pièce qu'il me donneroit pour mettre nos forces Respectives dans une Egalité plus Grande, mais cette Balance ne fut pas de son Gout. Etes vous blessé de perdre, me dit il. Oh non, répondis-je, c'est un Résultat nécessaire dez qu'il y a une différence aussi marquée dans les moyens de déffence. Eh bien En ce cas reprit il naïvement, ne changeons rien a nôtre maniére de jouer, j'aime à gagner. Ce mot Est peu de chose sans doute mais peut-être porte-t-il quelque clarté sur un caractère difficile à saisir.

Souvenirs d'Antoine Bret by Antoine Bret: 1771

Perhaps the most famous meeting of two minds over the chessboard in the eighteenth-century, however, was the game of correspondence chess conducted between Voltaire and Frederic the Great in the late 1750s. The two played over several years, interweaving political and philosophical discussion into their chess moves. This is evocatively illustrated by a letter from July 1759, in which Frederick compares his military maneuvers against the Austrian Field Marshal Leopold von Daun (1705–1766) in terms of setting up a chess board for an ideal future play:

L'homme à toque et à épée papales est placé sur les confins de la Saxe et de la Bohême. Je me suis mis dans une position à tout sens avantageuse vis à vis de lui. Nous en sommes à présent à ces coups d'échecs qui préparent la partie. Vous qui jouez si bien ce jeu, vous savez que tout dépend de la manière dont on a entablé. Je ne saurais vous dire encore à quoi ceci mènera. Les Russes sont pendus au croc. Dohna n'a pas dit: sta, sol, comme Josué3 de défunte mémoire, mais sta, ursus; et l'ours s'est arrêté.

Another theme which emerges from the discussions of Chess in Electronic Enlightenment is the way the game gets drawn into wider Enlightenment debates about the definition of reason. Graffigny's correspondent, Devaux, for example, reports on his experience playing chess against a 'fou', an agoraphobic savant who did not leave his room. The most famous example of chess intersecting with Enlightenment theories of mind, however, was the famous 'Mechanical Turk'. Created in 1770 by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804), the Turk purported to be an automaton capable of autonomously playing a game of chess. The truth was less revolutionary, but no less interesting - the 'automaton' was in fact controlled by an operator hidden inside the chess table attached to the automaton's body, who was fed information about the movements of the chess pieces on the board via a set of strings and manipulated the arms via a set of pulleys. The automaton became a cause celebré in the 1770s and early 1780s, touring Europe on several occasions. It finds its way into Electronic Enlightenment as a novelty reported on by Jeremy Bentham, alongside another of Kempelen's automatons, which sang, but had no pretentions to sentience:

I dare say you know by reputation M. de Kempelen,7 Conseiller au Gouvernment in Hungaria, or rather the famous Automaton Chess-player: he is arrived in London, where he will stay several months: He has also brought with him a figure that speaks, or to say better the figure is not made yet, but it speaks. The Chess-player is not to be seen yet, he not having got yet a house where to unpack him: but I have heard the speaking automaton, of whose contrivance he makes no secret in so far that you can see that it is play'd like an organ, uttering articulations instead of simple sounds. I think nobody ever brought it so far, and I can assure you that M. de Kempelen is a gentleman of very great ingenuity and worth your knowing him

Jeremy Bentham to Jeremiah Bentham: Monday, 6 October 1783

While chess or eighteenth-century games in general are not one of the focuses of the EE collection, this smattering of quotes and ideas represents just a fragment of the engagements with the topic across the collection as a whole. Chosen more or less at random, this thread offered us insight into games as public spectacle, the relationship between play, debate, and conversation, and the way in which chess intersected with some of the big ideas about political and philosophical structures which passed through the Republic of Letters.

If you would like to propose a topic for the next piece in our ongoing Threads series, then please get in touch with Jack Orchard at — we would love to hear what unusual topics you have been able to trace through our collection.

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