Benjamin Franklin on Swindling

Two weeks ago I put forth the proposition that, in chess, it was “imperative” to swindle when presented the opportunity, as long as this is done with legal moves on the board and, in general, within the rules of the game. To be clear to our most impressionable readers, I am not saying that swindling is OK in everyday life. Although Alekhine’s reputed swindling his way out of a Russian firing squad is understandable, in most situations in life swindling (gaining something by deceit) is, at best, ill-mannered and, at worst, a crime against society. So, don’t do what these guys did and then say, as they take you off in handcuffs, in protest to anyone who’ll listen: “It’s not my fault; they trained me to swindle in Chess.”

American founding father, diplomat, scientist and chess player Benjamin Franklin, although not using the specific word ‘swindle,’ nonetheless had plenty to say about the subject in his famous essay “The Morals of Chess,” Columbian Magazine, December 1786. He is quoted here in part, saying that Chess teaches us to persevere in discouraging circumstances:

“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 favourable 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 getting a stalemate by the negligence of our adversary . . .”

Eloquently stated, that sounds very much like playing on in the hope of a swindle! Franklin continues:

“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, not 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 anything 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.”

Nowadays such behavior is formally against tournament rules, falling into the category of “annoying behavior.” But I have to admit, I’ve been put off by a couple of opponents in this way. One “amusing” incident escalated to a sort of kicking match beneath the table – suffice it to say that, in the end, I secured my rightful share of space long enough to mate my opponent in 16 moves.

Finally, Franklin addresses a particular kind of swindle that has nothing to do with moves at the board:

“You ought not to endeavour to amuse and deceive your adversary, by pretending to have made bad moves, and saying that 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.”