Presidents and Chess
by Bill Wall
George Washington (1732-1799) owned an ivory chess set that is now housed in the U.S. National Museum in Washington, D.C. During the Revolutionary War, he was dining one day at headquarters when Mrs. Washington asked him what entertainment he had recourse to. George responded, “I read, my lady, and write, and play chess….”
John Adams (1735-1826) may have been exposed to chess from Benjamin Franklin while in France. The Immortal Game by David Shenk mentions that John Adams played chess. However, John Adams, by David McCullough, writes that John Adams did not know chess, while Benjamin Franklin played chess with his fashionable friends, including Madame Brillon while she bathed in her tub. John Adams wrote in his autobiography that his evenings in France were devoted to music, cards, chess, and backgammon.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) played chess. It was one of his favorite games. He started playing in his 20s and owned at least six nice chess sets. Dr. William Small probably introduced chess to Jefferson around 1762. Dr. Small was a professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary who taught Jefferson. He usually played chess in the evenings with his friends. The earliest dated reference from Jefferson came from his diary on August 18, 1769, when he wrote "gave James Ogilvie to buy me a set of chessmen." Friends gave him chess sets or he gave them chess sets as presents. When he moved into Monticello, he was concerned about his ivory chess sets that had disappeared in the move. He collected chess books as well, and one of his favorites was Philidor's Analysis of Chess. He also had chess books by Greco and Stamma. Jefferson's hobby was book collecting and he had over 6,000 books in his library. His books later became part of the Library of Congress when the original Library of Congress was burned by the British in 1814. In his later years, he played Benjamin Franklin, also a keen player. He would write letters about Franklin and how popular he was in France because he played chess with beautiful or powerful women. Jefferson would tell friends that he and Franklin were equal in chess playing strength. He also told friends that he played four hour games of chess against James Madison. In 1784, Jefferson moved to Paris. Before leaving, he sold some of his chess books to James Monroe. When Jefferson was in Paris he joined the Salon des echecs chess club for 96 francs in 1786. He did not renew his dues in 1787, saying he was too busy. David McCullough, in his book on John Adams, says that Jefferson was so decisively beaten at the chess club that he never went back. Jefferson left Paris in 1789. Jefferson was elected President in 1801. His vice president was Aaron Burr, also an enthusiastic and strong chess player. They may have played chess together. Jefferson taught his grandchildren how to play chess at Monticello. Jefferson left two undated sheets of paper concerning chess. The sheets of paper were how to play an endgame with a Rook and Bishop against a Rook. The analysis came from Philidor's Analysis of Chess book. A letter of December 4, 1818 was his last writing on chess. It was about the recollection of Franklin and chess.
James Madison (1751-1836), was a chess player who played several games against Thomas Jefferson. James Madison by Jeremy Roberts mentions that Madison was fond of chess, and that he studied the moves carefully, considering every step before proceeding. James Madison: Builder, by Abbot Smith, mentions that Madison once attended a fancy ball in Washington D.C., but spent the evening playing chess with John Quincy Adams.
James Monroe (1758-1831) was a chess player and purchased chess books from Thomas Jefferson (including Philidor’s manual of chess) when Jefferson departed for France according to James Monroe, The Quest for National Unity, by Harry Ammon. He played chess against Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Monroe was an avid player in chess, checkers, poker, whist, and dominoes (The Last Founding Father: James Monroe by Harlow Unger). The James Monroe Museum in Virginia has a chess set that belonged to Monroe.
John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), was a chess player who collected chess sets. One of his chess sets is displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. He once purchased an ivory chess set and billiard table for his home in the White House. His political enemies (Andrew Jackson's democratic supporters) accused him of using public funds (it was Adams own money) to buy and install gaming furniture and gambling devices in the White House. It was part of a theme (negative campaigning) that may have cost Adams the election in 1828. John Quincy Adams said that chess was the best way to occupy time during long sea voyages. After a sea voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, he wrote that a game of chess surpassed all other resources for killing time at sea (James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams by William Stoddard). He may have learned chess from his father, John Adams, or Benjamin Franklin, who he stayed with while in France.
Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was a chess player. One source (Gerald Leavitt and Tom Standage) states that Andrew Jackson played chess against the Turk chess automaton. In The American Lion, by John Meacham, Jackson was described as an excellent chess player. He would sometimes observe his houseguests play chess and frequently directed the moves for one side or the other.
Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) may have played chess and taught his son. His son, John Van Buren (1810-1866), greeted Paul Morphy when Morphy returned from Europe to New York in 1859. On May 29, 1859, at the University of the City of New York, it was John Van Buren who first toasted Paul Morphy and ended a testimonial presentation by proclaiming Morphy as “The Chess Champion of the World” to 1,500 guests. It was the first time that expression had been used. John Van Buren later wrote that he could not understand why men wasted time and thought on chess, even though he did play it. He considered politics the greatest game in the world and open to all.
William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) perhaps not a chess player, but author David Whitney, who wrote The American Presidents, wrote on page 95-96, “Senator Clay…believed he could treat Harrison as a pawn.”
James K. Polk (1795-1849) may have played chess. In one of his correspondence letters to Samuel Laughlin on May 9th, 1844, he wrote: “From what Cave Johnson writes, I think the recent occurrances (sic), on the chess-board, have decidedly improved my prospects.” (Correspondence of James K. Polk, January-August 1844 by James K. Polk).
Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) may not have played chess, but one of his best friends, General Winfield Scott, was a chess player who once played Paul Morphy.
Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) played chess but did not encourage it with his son. In 1842, Millard Fillmore’s son wrote to his father about how pleasant it was playing chess after a long day of studying in school. Millard Fillmore wrote back to his son and told him he would rather see him doing something else than playing chess while studying. He thought chess was too sedentary and that sitting all day playing chess would make you crooked (Millard Fillmore by Robert Scarry). In one letter that he wrote while in Florida, Fillmore mentioned that he played chess. He wrote, “In the evening he [Major General Thomas Jesup] suggested we play chess, a game of which I am most fond, but I found my concentration somewhat disrupted by the Indians he repeatedly saw lurking in the bushes behind me, and lost three games in a row.” (The Remarkable Millard Fillmore by George Pendle)
Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) may not have been a chess player, but his rival general (they both teamed up to invade central Mexico), Winfield Scott, was a chess player who once played Paul Morphy. Winfield Scott ran for president against Franklin Pierce in the 1853. If Scott had been elected, he would have been a chess player that became president and who once played Paul Morphy.
James Buchanan (1791-1868) may not have been a chess player, but his rival candidate for the presidency was John C. Fremont, who was a chess player.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) played chess. One of his chess sets is displayed in the Smithsonian. He may have played an occasional game at the White House. Some years before becoming President, Lincoln was playing chess with Judge S. H. Treat, Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. Lincoln's son, Tad, was sent by his mother to say dinner was ready. When his father continued with his chess game, Tad went over to the game and kicked the chess board off the table or laps of the two players. The judge was speechless, but Lincoln said mildly, "Come, Tad," and they walked away together to have dinner. (American Chess Magazine, Volume 2, 1898). Lincoln bought a chess set for his son Tad, which is on display at the National Museum of American History. In The every-day life of Abraham Lincoln, author Francis Browne wrote, “Mr. Lincoln was fond of playing chess and checkers, and usually acted cautiously upon the defensive until the game had reached a stage where aggressive movements were clearly justified.” In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan, there is a story that Abraham Lincoln and a family friend, George Harrison. Harrison wrote of their time in the militia during the Black Hawk War, “We [Lincoln and Harrison] passed our evenings by jumping, playing checkers, chess, swimming our horses…”
Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) may have played chess and was a checkers player. In debates, he would compare a bill to Maelzel’s automaton chess player, as deceiving no person save those wishing to be deceived. (The Life and Public Services of Andrew Johnson, by John Savage)
Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was a chess player. There is a picture of him playing chess with Mrs. W.B. Dinsmore. He played chess at his army outposts and sometimes traveled 10 miles from his post to find a chess player. He may have learned chess while he was at West Point. When he found a chess player who was stronger than him in a match, he persisted in playing the match until he “tired out” his opponent, and finally beat him. William Crafts, author of Life of Ulysses S. Grant, wrote of Grant, “His characteristic persistency was illustrated at West Point not only by his application to studies, but by his playing the game of chess, of which he was fond.”
Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) was a strong chess player, taught by his mother. He wrote about playing chess in his diary. He wrote “Somehow my faculties are so dull that nothing but chess seems to excite the attention…” He mentioned that his sister, Fanny, was a skilful chess player. His chess set is in the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Ohio. William Howells, in Sketch of the Life and Character of Rutherford B. Hayes, wrote, “His greatest amusements were fishing and chess.”
James A. Garfield (1831-1881) was a strong chess player. A Philadelphia chess column described him as a first-rate chess player in 1880. He played chess with Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873), who was Ohio Senator and Governor, U.S. Treasury Secretary, and Chief Justice of the United States. An article in Chess Life in 2003 suggests that James Garfield was perhaps the strongest chess player who was President. Author Arthur Hosterman, in Life and Times of James Abram Garfield, wrote, “At one time, he became a chess player. He enjoyed the game to the utmost, but perceiving that its playing carried him to late hours, he denied himself even the pleasure of this game.”
Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) may not have been a chess player, but one of his best friends, John C. Fremont, was a chess player. He was also a friend of Ulysses S. Grant, who was also a chess player.
Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was a chess player. In September, 1885, he visited the Eden Musee in New York while the chess automaton Ajeeb was being displayed. Cleveland's Vice-President, Thomas Hendricks, was with Cleveland at the time. Hendricks played Ajeeb and lost in a smothered mate. In 1893, he consented to become a patron for the New York Chess Congress (Columbian Chess Congress) and presented to the winner of the tournament a gold medal (British Chess Magazine, Volume 13, 1893).
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) played chess during his hunting trips. He may have also played Ajeeb the automaton. In 1904 he invited the foreign masters that played in the Cambridge Springs chess tournament to the White House. He was rumored to have kept an astrological chart mounted on a chess board while in office. Theodore Roosevelt once described living on his ranch. “The long winter evenings are spent sitting round the campfire, playing checkers or chess, in the fire light.” (Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Work, by Frederick Drinker).
William Howard Taft (1857-1930) played chess as a child, according to the National Park Service visitor's guide for Taft's National Historic Site. He taught chess to his son. His son, Robert, was described as a slightly obnoxious whiz at chess. It was his favorite game. Doug Wead, author of All the Presidents’ Children, wrote, “On April 17, 1900, the Taft family boarded the army transport Hancock, bound for the Philippines. President McKinley had just appointed William Howard Taft, Sr., as the civil governor of the island nation. Eleven years old at the time, Robert [Taft’s son] had taught himself to play chess from a book. He promptly beat all the army officers on board.”
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) played chess. One of his chess sets is in the Smithsonian. Carol Dommermuth-Costa, author of Woodrow Wilson, wrote that Woodrow Wilson (called Tommy as a boy) and his father shared many hours playing chess and billiards.
Warren Harding (1865-1923) played chess. William Kerr, who founded the American Flag Day Association and is considered the founder of Flag Day played a correspondence chess game with Harding (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1649104/posts). At the moment that Harding died in San Francisco, the Western Chess Championship, now known as the U.S. Open, was being played across the street at the Mechanics’ Institute. A rumor circulated that Harding was poisoned by one of the chess players in the event.
Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) played chess. In his diary in 1886, he wrote, “played chess with Dal and beat him every game (February 25). (The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge by Robert Gilbert)
Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) played chess. An acquaintance of Hoover remembered him as “a quiet, introspective nontalkative lad who played a little chess and a little checkers.” (Herbert Hoover: A Public Life, by David Burner)
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) played chess. When Henry Ford was Roosevelt’s luncheon guest at the White House, they would spend the whole luncheon hour playing chess. (That Man: an Insider’s Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, by Robert Jackson, John Barrett, and William Leuchtenburg)
Harry S Truman (1884-1972) played chess as a child, learning from his uncle, Harrison Young who was a strong chess player (Harry S. Truman: a Life, by Robert Ferrell and The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman by Harry S. Truman). Truman mentioned chess in some of his speeches. In 1947 he said, "International relations have traditionally been compared to a chess game in which each nation tries to outwit and checkmate the other."
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) may have played chess. He acknowledged he received a chess set from a political supporter. In one of his speeches, he said, “…I am an indoor man and I find more relaxation in playing a game of chess.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower: Containing the public messages, speeches and statements of the President, 1953-1960/1, Volume 1)
John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) may have played chess. He received a very nice chess set as a birthday gift in 1962 from a very close friend. In a Cold War statement, referring to the USSR, he said, "We play poker, they play chess." His son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., did play chess. There is a picture of John F. Kennedy, Jr. playing a game of chess while on a visit to Moscow State University Chess Club.
Richard Nixon (1913-1994) may have played chess. However, in a 1983 interview, he admitted he never understood chess. He named his dog checkers. His Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, played chess. Kissinger called Bobby Fischer to encourage Fischer to play Spassky in 1972. Kissinger started out the conversation by saying, “Bobby, this is one of the worst chess players in the world speaking to the best.” Nixon declined to invite Fischer to the White House after Fischer won the world chess championship in 1972. Nixon did write to Fischer congratulating his victory over Tigran Petrosian in Buenos Aires.
Gerald Ford (1913- 2006) may not have been a chess player, but he did declare October 9th, 1976, National Chess Day.
Jimmy Carter (1924- ) was a chess player. He wanted to become a chess expert after he left the White House. He bought numerous chess books and a computer chess program. He finally gave up on chess around 1997, saying: "I found that I don't have any particular talent for chess. I hate to admit it, but that's a fact." Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was an avid chess player, who played Menachem Begin at Camp David. He hand-carved his own chess sets and contributed hand-carved chess sets to the Carter Center to be auctioned for charity.
Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) may not have played chess, but he talked about chess with Mikhail Gorbachev during their summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, the site of the 1972 world chess championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. In his diaries, Reagan wrote that he met with some school chess champions on May 23, 1983. In 1984, Victor Palciauskas of the United States won the 10th World Correspondence Chess Championship. President Ronald Reagan sent him a note of congratulations.
George Herbert Walker Bush (1924- ) George H.W. Bush may not play chess, but in 1989, President Bush and his wife, Barbara, visited Budapest and was introduced to the Polgar sisters. A picture of George Bush and his wife with the three Polgar girls appeared on the cover of Inside Chess. In 2004, Boris Spassky wrote a letter to President Bush appealing to let Bobby Fischer go free and not be subject for arrest because he played chess in Yugoslavia. Spassky received no sanctions from the French government. (source: ChessBase magazine, August 10, 2004).
Bill Clinton (1946- ) played chess while at Georgetown University. He played for the Georgetown University's chess team in 1968. He is a supporter of the Chess-in-the-Schools program and has met with Garry Kasparov. When Clinton contributed a President's Day recipe, his recipe was Lemon Chess Pie. His daughter, Chelsea, also plays chess and has played chess on the Internet. In his book, My Life: the Presidential Years, Clinton wrote: “…I had a cousin in Arkansas who played chess twice a week on the Internet with a man from Australia…” In 2007, Clinton wrote Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. He mention the Chess-in-the Schools program and how it was a classic example of a very good idea with no chance of becoming a reality without private support. Clinton pointed out that playing chess helps students develop thinking and analyzing skills, concentration, greater self-control, and self confidence.
George W. Bush (1946- ) may not have played chess, but he posed for pictures with former world chess champion Garry Kasparov on September 23, 2008 in New York. One picture shows Bush holding Kasparov’s book, How Life Imitates Chess.
Barack Obama (1961- ) plays chess. So does his wife, Michelle. A New York Times article stated that “Mrs. Obama and her brother were expected to fill their time with books, chess, and sports.” Obama mentioned chess in his book Dreams from My Father and talked about learning chess from his grandfather and Indonesian stepfather. He learned chess around age 9 and played chess with his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro (1935-1987). In 2009, President Obama spoke at the New Economic School, a graduate economic school in Moscow and used chess as a metaphor. In his speech, he said, “The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess-bard are over.” (source: Senauth, The Making of a President, p. 235). While in Moscow, Obama met with former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. In 2009, Henry Kissinger (a chess player) was interviewed by Spiegel Online. He said this of Obama. “Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess and has opened his game with an unusual opening. Now he’s got to play his hand as he plays his various counterparts. We haven’t gotten beyond the opening game move yet. I have no quarrel with the opening move.” In Afghanistan, Allied troops have been playing Osama vs. Obama“terror chess.” The traditional pieces have been replaced with late terrorist Osama Bin Laden and U.S. President Obama as respective kings. The rooks have been replaced by the World Trade Center towers. The Statue of Liberty is the queen. A map of Afghanistan is superimposed over the classic checkerboard pattern. The chess board game was produced by an ex-Canadian special forces soldier.