Thomas Jefferson and Chess

by Bill Wall


Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13 (April 2 – old style), 1743 in a farmhouse in Shadwell, Virginia.  He was the third of 10 children.  At the age of 16, Jefferson entered the College of Willian & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  He graduated in 1762, completing his studies in only two years. 


Dr. William Small (1734-1775) was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the College of William and Mary.  As a chess player, he probably introduced chess to Jefferson around 1762. Dr. Small was one of Jefferson’s teachers.  Dr. Small usually played chess in the evenings with his friends, including Jefferson.


Jefferson was a member of the Flat Hat Club Society (founded in 1750), the earliest secret college society in America, and spent evenings playing chess with its members or pulling pranks on others at William and Mary. (source: Dear Companion: The Inner Life of Martha Jefferson, Kelly Neff, 1997)  One of the other members of the Flat Hat Club Society that Jefferson played chess with was John Page (1743-1808).   He later represented Virginia in the House of Representatives and was a governor of Virginia.


Jefferson then studied law and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767, at the age of 24.


In the late 1760s, Jefferson rode from his clients in Virginia counties to the provincial law courts in Williamsburg to file lawsuits.  During his travels, he paid calls along the way on old school friends and played chess with them.  In his letters to them were kindly reminders, written in Latin, to bring along a chessboard to gatherings (Jefferson would bring the chessmen).  (source: Thomas Jefferson: A Life, Willard Randall)


Jefferson was a collector of books.  In 1770, his home and library of 200 books was destroyed by fire.  He started collecting again, and had 1,250 titles by 1773.  By 1815, he had over 6.500 volumes.  He collected chess books as well, and one of his favorites was Philidor's Analyse du jeu des Echecs (Analysis of the Game of Chess), first published in 1749, 1750, 1752, and 1754. Benjamin Franklin also has a copy of this book that he purchased in London.  Jefferson also had chess books by Greco and Stamma (1737 and 1745). 


Jefferson had 6 children, but only two (Martha (1772-1836) and Mary (1778-1804)) survived to adulthood.  Jefferson inherited 135 slaves from his wife’s father when he died in 1773.  His wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, died in 1782 at the age of 33.  Jefferson never remarried.


In 1768, Jefferson began construction of his primary residence, Monticello on a hilltop overlooking a 5,000 acre plantation.  From the West Lawn at Monticello, Jefferson, family, and guests could walk up the stairs on the West Portico to reach the Parlor, one of three rooms in Monticello that were part of Jefferson’s original plan for the home. The Parlor was a public room, designed for conversation, music, games, and reading. The room held folding tables for games, such as a chess set that, according to family tradition, was a gift from the French court to Jefferson.   He owned at least 6 chess sets.


When he moved into Monticello, he was concerned about his ivory chess sets that had disappeared in the move.


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."


On September 3, 1769, Jefferson wrote to John Walker (neighbor and classmate at William & Mary), “I shall be at a Society spring [Flat hat Club] on Tuesday at four…Bring also, as I asked you before, a chess board [tabulam scaccariam].  I shall bring the men.  If we can get a board made expressly for this use, it would be well.  But we will speak of that later.” (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


On September 13, 1769, Jefferson wrote, “Send for chess board and men.” (source: Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with legal records and miscellany, 1767-1826, James Bear and Lucia Stanton, 1997, p. 28)


On Aug 3, 1771, Jefferson wrote to Robert Skipworth, his brother-in-law, “A spring, centrally situated, might be the scene of every evening's joy. There we should talk over the lessons of the day, or lose them in Musick, Chess, or the merriments of our family companions. The heart thus lightened, our pillows would be soft, and health and long life would attend the happy scene.” (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


Jefferson practiced law in Staunton, Virginia and probably played chess there.  He served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1775.  Jefferson wrote the first draft to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  He then returned to Virginia and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.


In 1779, Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia at the age of 36. 


On February 2, 1781, Horatio Gates (1727-1806) wrote a letter to Governor Jefferson about some of the Revolutionary War effort and after his defeat at Camden, South Carolina.  He added the following in the letter, “This is the Letter of One Chess Player to Another, not the letter of General Gates, To Governor Jefferson.” (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


On Nov 26, 1782, Jefferson wrote to Francois-Jean de Chastellux, a French general, “…I hope being with you in time.  This will give me full Leisure to learn the result of your observations on the Natural bridge, to communicated to you my answers to queries, to receive edification from you on these and other subjects of science, considering chess too as a matter of science.”  (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)  Chastellux visited Monticello several times and they played chess together.


In 1783, Jefferson was appointed as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress. 


On Mar 3, 4, and 7, 1783, Jefferson wrote in his ledger that he paid around 11 shillings for some chessmen.  On Nov 12, 1783, he wrote in his ledger that he paid Mentz 2 shillings and 3 pence for a chess board. (source: Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with legal records and miscellany, 1767-1826, James Bear and Lucia Stanton, 1997)


On May 31, 1784, before departing for Paris, Jefferson visited the book store of James Rivington in New York and paid him 20 shillings for maps, a Spanish dictionary, and some chessmen.


In June 1784, Philip Mazzei, and Italian physician and close friend of Jefferson, wrote, “Your going to France without letters from me will seem very strange to many worthy persons who have shown great kindness to me that I have not procured for them your acquaintance…To Favi who is living at the Hotel de Mirabeau rue de Seine…you will tell him that your departure has prevented me from giving to you, as I told him was my intention, a superb set of chess which he gave to me.” (source: Philip Mazzei: Selected Writings and Correspondence)


In 1784, Jefferson moved to Paris. Before leaving, he sold some of his chess books to James Monroe (1758-1831).  Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison lived within 30 miles of each other.  They rode to each other’s neighboring plantations to play chess.


On Dec 6, 1784, Jefferson bought another chess set in France.


In 1785, he served as Minister to France for the Continental Congress.  Jefferson tried to play chess in some of the Paris cafes, but didn’t like to lose. 


On Oct 17, 1785, Dr. James Currie, a neighbor of Jefferson, wrote to Jefferson, “…Send me the Encyclopedia, if you thought proper, tho Came in the French language.  It might divert my mind from play which has hitherto been my Bane and which I have altogether left off except Chess, wishing to acquire some knowledge in that in Expectation of having the pleasure of one day or other seeing you here and being further instructed by you in it.  Short, I suppose by this time is being such an adept as not to make one false move in this Science.”  (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


On Feb 6, 1786, Jefferson paid 96 francs for admission to the Salon des echecs.  This was an exclusive chess club in the Galerie de Montpensier of the Palais-Royal above the Café de Foi.  He did not renew his dues in 1787, saying he was too busy. David McCullough, in his book, John Adams, says that Jefferson was so decisively beaten at the chess club that he never went back. 


On Apr 1, 1786 and Apr 11, 1786, Jefferson bought some chessmen in France.


On Apr 22, 1786, Jefferson wrote to Francis Eppes, “Meeting accidentally with a light neat pattern of chessmen, I ask your acceptance of a set which I deliver with this letter to Fulwar Skipwith to be forwarded to you.”  Fulwar Skipwith (1765-1839) was an American diplomat and served as U.S. Consul-General in France.


In 1786, Jefferson sent a chess set to Francis Eppes.  Francis wrote back on Oct 30, 1786, “I must now thank you for your present of chess Men.  They are very handsome.  I shall endevour to recover what little knowledge I had of the game which for want of practice I have almost forgot.”  (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


In 1788, Thomas Jefferson played chess with Thomas Lee Shippen.  Shippen wrote that he won 5 out of the 7 games.


Jefferson left Paris in September, 1789.  One of the items he returned with was an ivory chess set made in France.  The red pieces represented Africans, and the white pieces represented Frenchmen.


When he returned to the United States, President George Washington appointed him Secretary of State.  He served as Secretary of State from 1790 to 1793. 


On May 4, 1791, Francois Andre Danican Philidor (1726-1795), the great chess player, wrote to Jefferson and enclosed some information on the manufacture of arms and a report of a commission named by the Academy of Sciences to examine locks and interchangeable parts. (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


On July 31, 1791, Jefferson wrote to Mary Jefferson Eppes, his younger daughter, "You mentioned formerly that the two Commodes were arrived at Monticello. Were my two sets of ivory chessmen in the drawers? They have not been found in any of the packages which came here, and Petit seems quite sure they were packed up.”


Jefferson could not get along with Alexander Hamilton and Washington nearly dismissed Jefferson from his cabinet for his political views.  Jefferson left the cabinet voluntarily in 1793, but Washington never forgave him for his actions, and never spoke to him again.


Jefferson was Vice President under John Adams from 1797 to 1801. 


On Feb 12, 1798, Jefferson noted that he paid Roberts for a chessboard.


On May 30, 1798, Jefferson wrote the following to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Polish military leader, “Niemcewicz [Polish poet and aide to Kosciuszko] was much affected.  He is now at the federal city.  He desired me to have some things taken care of for you.  These were some kitchen furniture, backgammon table, and chess men…” (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


He was President of the United States from 1801 to 1809.  His vice president was Aaron Burr, also an enthusiastic and strong chess player. They may have played chess together.


On Aug 13, 1801, Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “I shall rejoice to see Mrs. Madison, yourself and the chess heroine [Anna Payne, Dolley Madison’s sister] here.”  (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


On Dec 4, 1801, Jefferson wrote to Thomas Mann Randolph, future governor of Virginia, “I must trouble you to get it [a philosophy book] from Monticello whenever convenient, and to send it on by post well wrapped in stout paper.  I will pray you at the same time to send me Philidor on chess, which you will find in the book room.” (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


On Apr 3, 1802, Jefferson sent a note to DeWitt Clinton, New York senator and future New York governor, inviting him over for dinner and chess.  (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


On Nov 5, 1802, Jefferson sent a note to Edward Thornton, British diplomat, inviting him over for dinner and chess.  (source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, 1950)


On Sep 21, 1806, Jefferson played chess with a Mister Thornton.


After leaving the Presidency in 1809, Jefferson continued to be active in public affairs.  He founded and built the University of Virginia in 1819, at the age of 76.  He also designed and built a plantation house called Poplar Forest as a private retreat.  He populated it with some of his favorite books including several chess books by Philidor and Chess Rendered Familiar by J.G. Pohlman, London 1819. (source: The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, by Kevin Hayes, 2007, p. 609)


Jefferson taught his grandchildren how to play chess at Monticello.  Jefferson taught his granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph, to play. In the summer, the two would carry the chess set outdoors and play under the trees on the West Lawn.  


In 1815, Jefferson’s books later became part of the Library of Congress when the original Library of Congress was burned by the British in 1814. Jefferson sold 6,487 of his books to the new Library of Congress for $23,950.  He intended to use that money to pay off some of his large debt, but he immediately started buying more books. 


On Dec 4, 1818, Jefferson wrote a letter to Robert Welch, “"When Dr. Franklin went to France on his revolutionary mission, his eminence as a philosopher, his venerable appearance, and the cause on which he was sent, rendered him extremely popular. For all ranks and conditions of men there, entered warmly into the American interest. He was therefore feasted and invited to all the court parties. At these he sometimes met the old Duchess of Bourbon, who being a chess player of about his force, they very generally played together. Happening once to put her king into prise, the Doctor took it. 'Ah,' says she, 'we do not take kings so.' 'We do in America,' says the Doctor. "At one of these parties, the emperor Joseph II, then at Paris, incog. under the title of Count Falkenstein, was overlooking the game, in silence, while the company was engaged in animated conversations on the American question. 'How happens it M. le Compte,' said the Duchess, 'that while we all feel so much interest in the cause of the Americans, you say nothing for them?' 'I am a king by trade,' said he." (source: The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Ford, 1892-99, vol 12, p. 109)


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.

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.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826.


In 1853, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter, wrote of Jefferson, “So he was, in his youth, a very good chess-player. There were not among his associates, many who could get the better of him. I have heard him speak of 'four hour games' with Mr. Madison. Yet I have heard him say that when, on his arrival in Paris, he was introduced into a Chess Club, he was beaten at once, and that so rapidly and signally that he gave up all competition. He felt that there was no disputing such a palm with men who passed several hours of every evening in playing chess." (source: Ellen Wayles Coolidge Letterbook)


On 2011, archaeologists unearthed a few chess pieces at former president James Madison’s country estate.  Montpelier officials thought that the chess pieces were likely from the same set Madison and Thomas Jefferson used in their frequent matches during Jefferson’s visit.


One chess set on display at Monticello is “Set of Thirty Chessmen, c. 1770-90. Dieppe, France. Ivory.” According to the family, Jefferson received this set as a gift from the French court when he was in Paris as American Minister to France from 1785-1789. A second ivory set of “Barleycorn” design, created between 1800 and 1840 had one side stained red. It is not known when or where Jefferson acquired the set but it is believed that it was created or purchased in London. The Barleycorn design was growing in popularity in the nineteenth century and was named for the leaf motif encircling the main shaft of the kings and queens, almost becoming a standard before the Staunton style emerged. These are the only two sets owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.  The Barleycorn set is on display at Monticello, while the Dieppe set was exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of American History as part of “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” in 2012.  It is no longer on display.