Which US presidents played the royal game?

8/22/2011 – Here are the answers to our August weekend puzzle: of the 43 presidents of the United States, over the last 222 years, 24 , i.e. more than half, have played and enjoyed chess. It started with the first president, George Washington, and ends with Barack Obama, who has occasional games with Michelle. Here is the full list and some interesting bits of information.

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List of all presidents of the United States of America

# President
Par.
Chess?
1 George Washington (1789-1797)
Yes
2 John Adams (1797-1801)
F
 
3 Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
DR
Yes
4 James Madison (1809-1817)
DR
Yes
5 James Monroe (1817-1825)
DR
Yes
6 John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) 
DR
Yes
7 Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
D
Yes
8 Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
D
Yes
9 William Henry Harrison (1841)
W
 
10 John Tyler (1841-1845)
W
 
11 James K. Polk (1845-1849)
D
 
12 Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
W
 
13 Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
W
Yes
14 Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
D
 
15 James Buchanan (1857-1861)
D
 
16 Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
R
Yes
17 Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
D
 
18 Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
R
Yes
19 Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)
R
Yes
20 James A. Garfield (1881)
R
Yes
21 Chester Arthur (1881-1885)
R
 
22 Grover Cleveland (1885-1889)
D
Yes
 
# President
Par.
Chess?
23 Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
R
 
24 Grover Cleveland (1893-1897)
D
(Yes)
25 William McKinley (1897-1901)
R
 
26 Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
R
Yes
27 William Howard Taft (1909-1913) 
R
Yes
28 Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
D
Yes
29 Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
R
 
30 Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
R
Yes
31 Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
R
 
32 Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945)
D
Yes
33 Harry S Truman (1945-1953)
D
Yes
34 Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)
R
Yes
35 John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
D
Yes
36 Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
D
 
37 Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
R
 
38 Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
R
 
39 Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
D
Yes
40 Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
R
 
41 George Bush (1989-1993)
R
 
42 Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
D
Yes
43 George W. Bush (2001-2009)
R
 
44 Barack Obama (2009-present)
D
Yes

In the Party column F = Federalist, DR = Democratic-Republican, W = Whig, D = Democrat, R = Republican

The 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.

Thomas 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 was used.

The 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 player.

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.

Grover 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.”

In 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 Schools programme.


The 42nd President with the strongest chess player of all time in New York 2004


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.


Sources

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.


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