American Presidents and Chess

American Presidents and Chess

Oct 21, 2007, 2:19 PM |

I am sure that Batgirl knows this information inside and out. But to us chess players and non-chess historians this is different. I found this article to be interesting enough to share with all of you. Enjoy! (Picture from MSN Encarta)


I borrowed this from excaliburelectronics website who reprinted it from the September 1885 International Chess Magazine. 



by Robert John McCrary

Chess in the White House has not gotten as much press as the other "games" played there, especially recently. Yet about 20% of US presidents are known to this author as having played chess, and there may be more. At least one president was considered to be a good player, and there were at least two administrations in which both president and vice-president played.

Perhaps the most interesting episode involving a US President occurred around September 1885, when both the US president and vice-president visited a chess event together! The incident was described as follows in the September 1885 issue of The International Chess Magazine:

"Ajeeb, 'The Chess Automaton', is now giving exhibitions at Eden Musee, Twenty-third Street, New York. We learn from the Evening Telegram that President Cleveland and Vice-President Hendricks paid a visit recently to Ajeeb's chess room, and the latter had a game with the figure which 'The Automaton' finished with a neat five-move version of the so-called Philidor's Legacy or smothered mate."

Unfortunately, we do not know who the hidden player inside Ajeeb was on that occasion, but Albert Hodges, a one-time claimant to the US championship, was one of its secret operators. Sadly, vice-president Hendricks died in office only two months after losing that game. President Cleveland went on in 1888 to become the only president to win the popular vote while losing in the electoral college. He then became the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms when he avenged his 1888 defeat in the 1892 election.

Aaron Burr, the nation's third vice-president, was an enthusiastic and fairly strong player. According to The Book of the First American Chess Congress (1859, on pp. 346-47), Burr's journal included a number of references to chess. In one entry he said he "went out at one to hunt a chess-table; bought one, which after buying, I found was not the thing." He was good enough to give rook-odds to one opponent ("I gave him a castle to make us even.") But he was not as strong as a Swedish navy captain, "who is rather my superior at chess."

Burr's enthusiasm for the game was evident in his description of a very uncomfortable layover stop while traveling. After complaining that there was no bed, couch, or decent food, he then added what was clearly the crowning indignity: "there being no candle in the hut, we could neither read nor play chess."

Aaron Burr, of course, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. One wonders how history might have been different if they had settled their quarrel over the chessboard instead? ("Gentlemen, take ten paces, turn, and play P-K4!")

James Madison played chess, as did Thomas Jefferson. John Quincy Adams also played, and his set (an older design) is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, enjoyed chess, and a chess set from his family is also displayed in the Smithsonian. There are several stories about his enjoyment of the game. One of those stories was that he once was playing chess in the White House, when his little son called him to supper. He told the lad to wait, but the tyke did not handle frustration well and was probably hungry besides. So he swept away the position, whereupon his presidential dad dutifully headed to supper. By the way, Lincoln's first vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin, enlisted in the Maine Coast Guard while serving as US vice-president and served two months as a cook! (Apparently there is truly little for a vice-president to do in Washington!) Lincoln was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, a checkers fan.

James Garfield was assassinated early in his term and thus is remembered today largely as the namesake of a cartoon cat. Yet, Garfield was well respected by his peers, and he is one of only a handful of presidents to have a monument in Washington. (His statue is located at the foot of Capitol Hill in front of the House of Representatives.) Garfield was evidently a smart man, as he was known to have been a skilled chess player; a Philadelphia chess column described him as a first-rate player in 1880.

Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield's predecessor, enjoyed chess. Woodrow Wilson also played, and has a set on display in the Smithsonian. Jimmy Carter plays chess occasionally, but despite his high intellectual skills he has never achieved much apparent skill at the game. He is pictured in the May 1998 issue of Chess Life, with the observation that he played about a year earlier than the time the picture was taken.

Some of our finest presidents played the game! Perhaps we should check more carefully into the openings and ratings of our future aspirants to the White House. After all, who ever heard of a "checkgate" scandal in Washington?