List of all presidents of the United States of America
In the Party column F = Federalist, DR = Democratic-Republican, W = Whig,
D = Democrat, R = Republican
first President George Washington (right) owned a beautiful
ivory set which is now housed in the US National Museum in Washington DC. When
asked by his wife what were his favourite forms of entertainment, Washington
replied, “I read, my lady, and write and play chess.” The game,
in fact, is credited with helping Washington to win a crucial battle in the
revolutinary war of 1776. His plan to attack the British across the Delaware
was handed to the British commander, Colonel Rahl, by a spy. Rahl did not want
to be interrupted while playing chess with one of his officers, so he put the
unread note in his pocket. The note was found in the Colonel’s pocket,
unopened, when he died in the ensuing battle.
Jefferson (left) liked to play chess in the evenings with friends.
When he moved into Monticello, the plantation home he built at Charlottesville,
Virginia, he was distraught because his beloved ivory chess sets which had disappeared.
Among the 6,000 volumes he collected in his library were several chess books
including his favourite, Analysis of Chess, by the legendary French
composer Philidor, then regarded as the best chess player in the world. While
he lived in Paris, before his Presidency, Jefferson joined the Salon des
echecs but did not renew his membership, saying he was too busy. However
the most lighly reason was that he was so soundly beaten at the chess club that
he never went back.
Jefferson often played chess with the leading US diplomat in France, author,
printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor,
satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat Benjamin Franklin.
He was very keene on the game, as Jefferson told it, and enjoyed playing with
beautiful and powerful women. Legend has it that the amorous Mr. Franklin played
chess with the fashionable Madame Brillon while she bathed in her tub.
Benjamin Franklin playing Lady Caroline Howe (by Edward Harrison May)
James Madison was also a keen chess player, who once attended
a fancy dress ball in Washington DC and spent the evening playing chess with
John Quincy Adams, the sixth US President. Adams was accused
by his political enemies of using public funds to buy and install “gaming
furniture and gaming devices” in the White House.
The fifth President, James Monroe purchased chess books from
Thomas Jefferson, including the the Philidor book mentioned above. Monroe was
an avid player of chess, checkers, poker, whist and dominoes. You will find
one of his chess sets in the James Monroe Museum in Virginia.
The seventh President, Andrew Jackson, was most likely a chess
player, since he once had a go against the Turk chess automaton. Jackson has
been described by contemporaries as an excellent chess player, who would sometimes
kibitz his guests during a game direct the moves for one side.
Martin Van Buren, the eighth President, probably played chess,
since his son was an avid player from an early age. John Van Buren greeted Paul
Morphy upon his triumphal return from Europe in 1859, calling him “the
chess champion of the world” – probably the first time that title
13th President Millard Fillmore played chess one evening in
Florida with Major General Thomas Jessup but lost three games in a row, he says
in a letter, because his concentration was disrupted by Seminole Indians lurking
in the bushes behind him.
One of the chess sets owned by Abraham Lincoln (right) is
displayed at the Smithsonian, another at the National Museum of American History.
Lincoln was fond of playing chess and checkers, and usually acted cautiously
upon the defensive until the game reached a stage where aggressive movements
were clearly justified. A case of life imitating chess.
Ulysses S Grant played chess at his army outpost before becoming
the 18th President of the USA. He sometimes travelled miles in search of an
opponent. When he found a player stronger than himself, he persisted in playing
until he “tired out” his opponent and finally beat him.
The 19th President, Rutherford B. Hayes, learnt chess from
his mother and became a fairly strong chess player. He once wrote about in his
diary: “Somehow my faculties are so dull that nothing but chess seems
to excite the attention…” His sister Fanny was also a good chess
The 20th US President, James Garfield, was probably the strongest
chess player ever to occupy the White House. His biographer Arthur Hosterman
wrote that the President “enjoyed the game to the utmost” but had
to deny himself even this pleasure when it repeatedly carried him into late
hours of the night.
Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President, also dabbled in chess and consented
to become a patron for the New York Chess Congress, presenting the winner with
a gold medal.
The 26th US President, Theodore Roosevelt (left), played chess
during hunting trips. In 1906, as a tribute to the game, he invited the masters
who played in the prestigious Cambridge Springs tournament to the White House.
William Howard Taft, the 27th President, played chess and
taught his son the game. The son, Robert, studied from books and became something
of a chess prodigy.
The 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, played chess and billiards
with his father as a boy. One of his chess sets can be seen at the Smithsonian.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President, made a note in his diary
on February 25, 1886: “Played chess with Dal and beat him every game.
The 32nd President Franklin Roosevelt spent many a lunch hour
playing chess with his White House guest, Henry Ford.
Harry S. Truman, 33rd US President, learnt chess as a child
from his uncle Harrison Young, who was a strong player. In a 1947 speech 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 said in one of his speeches: “I
am an indoor man and I find more relaxation in playing a game of chess.”
1962 John F Kennedy received a handsome chess set for his birthday
from “a very close friend.”
Richard Nixon admitted in a newspaper interview that he never
understood chess. He aptly named his dog checkers.
The 39th President Jimmy Carter (right) wanted to become a
chess master after leaving the White House. He bought several chess books and
a chess computer, but eventually gave up in frustration. “I found that
I didn’t have any particular talent for chess,” he lamented. “I
hate to admit it, but that’s a fact.”
Bill Clinton played for the Georgetown University chess team
in 1968. He met with Garry Kasparov and was a keen supporter of the Chess in
The 42nd President with the strongest chess player of all time in New
George W. Bush did not play chess but met Garry Kasparov, whose
book "How Life Imitates Chess" Bush is holding in this AP picture
Barak Obama plays chess, as does wife Michelle. He learnt
the game from his grandfather and his Indonesian stepfather. He has met World
Champion Viswanathan Anand, but we have no pictures of the encounter.
Some of the above has appeared in a recent two-part article by Carl Jacobs
for Guardian Media: Chess
helped Washington win the war and Persistence
pays off for chess-playing president. Much of Jacobs' article appears to
stem from research by Bill Wall: "U.S.
Presidents Who Played Chess". A wealth of information on the subject
may of course be found in the Presidential biographies, Wikipedia and the Internet
in general. We also thank our readers for drawing our attention to additional
details and information.