U.S. Presidents and Chess

U.S. Presidents and Chess

Aug 7, 2007, 12:00 AM |
9 | Fun & Trivia

George Washington (1732-1799) may not have played chess, but there is the story of Washington crossing the Delaware to attack the British army. Earlier, a boy had given a spy report to the British commander that Washington was about to attack. The commander did not want to be interrupted while he played chess, so put the unread note in his pocket. The note was found in his pocket, unopened, when he died in battle.

John Adams (1735-1826) taught he son, John Quincy Adams, to play chess.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) played chess. It was one of his favorite games. He started playing in his 20s and owned several 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 45/." 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. 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 and played a few games against Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

James Monroe (1758-1831) was a chess player and purchesed chess books from Jefferson.

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.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) played chess. One of his chess sets is displayed in the Smithsonian. He did play an occasional game at the White House. One time he was playing chess with Judge Treat. 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. Lincoln bought a chess set for his son Tad, which is on display at the National Museum of American History.


Ulysses S Grant (1822-1885) was a chess player who played chess with friends.  He was given several nice chess sets as gifts during after his presidency.

Rutherford Hayes (1822-1893) was a strong chess player, taught by his mother.

James Garfield (1831-1881) was a strong chess player. A Philadelphia chess column described him as a first-rate chess player in 1880.

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.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th U.S. President, played chess during his hunting trips. He may have also played Ajeeb the automaton. In 1906 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.

William Howard Taft (1857-1930), 27th U.S. President, played chess as a child, according to the National Park Service visitor's guide for Taft's National Historic Site.

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), 28th U.S. President played chess. One of his chess sets is in the Smithsonian.

Warren Harding (1865-1923), 29th U.S. President, played chess.

Harry S Truman (1884-1972), 33rd U.S. President, may not have played chess, but he 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), 34th U.S. President, may have played chess. He acknowledged he received a chess set from a political supporter.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th U.S. President, 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.

Richard Nixon (1913-1994), 37th U.S. President, 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. Nixon declined to invite Fischer to the White House after Fischer won the world chess championship in 1972.

Gerald Ford (1913- ), 38th U.S. President, may not have been a chess player, but he did declare October 9th, 1976, National Chess Day.

Jimmy Carter (1924- ), 39th U.S. President, 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 Brzeinski, was an avid chess player, who played Menachem Begin at Camp David.

Bill Clinton (1946- ), 42nd U.S. President, 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.

Barack Obama is a chess player as noted in his autobiography.

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