The US Presidents and Chess

Three of first five Presidents of the United States lived near Charlottesville, Virginia.  These were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.  Chess has been a part of many of the lives our leaders.  The World Chess Hall of Fame takes great pride in sharing how that the game of chess has been played by many of our Presidents.  Here are a few comments from the World Chess Hall of Fame website regarding these three particular Founding Fathers regarding chess:

Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) – Many stories of Jefferson playing chess come from his granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge. She wrote: “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.”

James Madison (Montpelier) – He was an avid chess player and often played with Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. According to stories of Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, his battles against Jefferson were “epic” and they lasted for hours. According to Coolidge, Jefferson “was, in his youth, a very good chess-player. There were not…many who could get the better of him. I have heard him speak of ‘four hour games’ with Mr. Madison.”

James Monroe (Ash Lawn-Highland) – Bought several chess books from Jefferson, including François-André Danican Philidor’s Analysis of the Game of Chess, when Jefferson departed for France according to James Monroe, The Quest for National Identity, by Harry Ammon. Played chess against Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

The Founding Fathers also played chess againist men of their day like Ben Franklin.  Franklin was reported to be a skilled chess player.  Franklin also wrote an article entitled The Morales of Chess.   This link further discusses that work and the history being debated regarding early chess writings in America.

Presidents from Abraham Lincoln, to Teddy Roosevelt, to John Kennedy, and now to the current President, Barack Obama, have played/play chess.  While not all of our presidents have played the game it continues to be used as a metaphor, from areas like geopolitics to art.

The Charlottesville area community is indeed fortunate to have a history that claims five of Virginia’s seven US Presidents as chess players:

  • (1st) George Washington (Mount Vernon – estate)
  • (3rd) Thomas Jefferson (Monticello – estate)
  • (4th) James Madison  (Montpelier – estate)
  • (5th) James Monroe (Ash Lawn-Highland – estate)
  • (28th) Woodrow Wilson (Presidential Library, Staunton, Va.)

Finally, here is a more comprehensive list of famous and infamous people that have played the “Royal Game”.