Saturday, January 17, 2009

Benjamin Franklin: Using Chess to learn Italian

Happy Birthday to Benjamin Franklin today, January 17th

"The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strenghtened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have points to gain, and competition or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or want of it. By playing at Chess then, we may learn:

First, Foresight...

Second, Circumspection...

Third, Caution...

And lastly, 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 favorable 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 ones 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 giving a stale mate, by the negligence of our adversary." Benjamin Franklin, The Morals of Chess.

That final paragraph is inspiring to read, even 300 years later.

Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17th, 1706. Today is his 303rd birthday. He grew up in Boston. He was the youngest son, and had nine brothers and seven sisters. He loved to learn – to read and write. He liked the game of chess and a game called "Magic Squares" -

He trained to be a printer, traveling to England for two years as a teenager to learn the trade.

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin wrote "The Morals of Chess" about the game he had been playing for decades.

The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it.

Most importantly, though, from a productivity games perspective, is that in 1733, as he was learning languages, he had finished with French and was learning Italian. He found a friend who was also learning Italian, and enjoyed chess. As with the video gamer today who plays Halo late into the night at the expense of homework, Franklin realized that the time he spent playing chess was taking away from his progress on learning Italian. He and his friend decided that they would use the game as a way to drive their linguistics progress:

" I had begun in 1733 to study languages. I soon made myself so much a master of the French as to be able to read the Books with ease. I then undertook the Italian. An acquaintance who was also learning it, 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, either in parts of the Grammar to be got by heart, or in Translation, &c, which task the vanquish'd was to perform upon honor before our next Meeting. As we played pretty equally we thus beat one another into that Language." (1, p.30)

Franklin's use of chess to drive him to learn the Italian language shares many of the characteristics of successful productivity games. Italian was a volunteer or "citizenship" behavior for Franklin – he was a printer, and learning the language was a way to EXPAND his skills, not part of his regular job. The game appealed to both player vs. player (he and his chess partner), player vs. self (the present Franklin vs. his future "fluent-in-Italian" self) – and player vs. environment (Franklin vs. the challenging language). The games were short in duration – each game of chess resulted in the loser performing a lesson, and then a new game would commence. Just as with productivity games, the goal was to keep playing (keep the chess games going as a way to motivate the Italian studies. The game was a diversion to keep him diligent in the task of learning a challenging language. Franklin's use of chess to learn Italian in the late 18th century shares many of the characteristics of successful productivity game deployment today.


And whoever considers, what in chess he often sees instances of, that particular pieces of success are apt to produce presumption, and its consequent, inattention, by which more is afterwards lost than was gained by the preceding advantage; while misfortunes produce more care and attention, by which the loss may be recovered, will learn not to be too much discouraged by the present success of his adversary, nor to despair of final good fortune, upon every little check he receives in the pursuit of it. – The Morals of Chess.

Games like chess can not only teach great life lessons, but can be incorporated in deliberate, planned, and consistent work towards goals, whether in the workplace or in life.

Note: Thanks to Thiru for his interest in Franklin…