Monday, August 10, 2009

First American chess players and writers

BENJAMIN Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, was widely believed to be the earliest chess player in the future United States who can be identified by name. A passage in his autobiography seems to indicate that he was playing at least around 1733.

“I had begun in 1733 to study languages. I soon made myself so much a master of the French...I then undertook the Italian. An acquaintance…used often to tempt me to play Chess with him. Finding this took up too much of the Time I had to spare for study, I at length refused to play any more, unless on this condition, that the victor in every Game, should have the Right to impose a Task…”

Moreover, Franklin was recognized as being the first person in the New World to publish anything about chess, through his essay “The Morals of Chess,” which appeared in The Columbian Magazine in 1786.

The Morals of Chess” turned into one of the most famous pieces on chess ever published. It has been translated into a number of languages, and in 1791 it appeared in the first chess-related book ever to appear in Russia.

Incidentally, in late 1974 The Chess Connoisseur has read and copied by hand Franklin’s famous chess essay from “The Chess Reader: The Royal Game in World Literature” by Jerome Salzmann (New York: Greenberg, 1949), a hardbound book borrowed from a public library. A few weeks after returning the Salzmann book, he was ready to borrow it again but was shocked and disenchanted to discover that it was among the volumes withdrawn by the library to provide space for its new acquisitions. Available copies, if any, of “The Chess Reader,” itself a valuable tome of chess literature, are rare and could only be obtained, if you are lucky, from chess collectors or sellers of antique books usually at a stiff price.

A Huguenot minister in New York City by the name of Rev. Louis (or Lewis) Rou was also documented as playing chess around 1734. Since Franklin’s “acquaintance” with whom he played around 1733 was not named, Franklin and Rou are apparently the first chess players in the future United States who can be definitely identified by name.

In 2003 David Shields, Professor of English at the Citadel, discovered that Rev. Louis (or Lewis) Rou also published a poem about New York chess players in 1744. This long-lost publication was discovered in the Library of Edinburgh in Scotland. The discovery was subsequently published in Chess Life, the official publication of the US Chess Federation.

Through this discovery, it seems that Rev. Rou now has replaced Franklin with the distinction of having written the first American publication on chess. The Rou poem was apparently written around 1735, so Franklin and Rou retain the distinction of being the two earliest-named players in the future United States. Yet Benjamin Franklin has a well-documented and secure place as one the earliest known players and writers of chess in the future United States.

The Chess Connoisseur is yet to get a glimpse of the purported Rou poem.

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