Whatever role chess may have played in their political ascendancy no one will ever really know, but the clear historical record is that almost all Amerian presidents and their close political associates played the royal game as a form of recreation, if not distraction. From the first, George Washington, to the 44th, Barak Obama, there are stories about their indulgence in the sport with varying degrees of skill and passion and sometimes with a touch of humour. Perhaps the most ardent among them, believe it or not, was Jimmy Carter, the mild-mannered 39th President, who wanted to become a chess expert after leaving the White House. Carter bought several chess books and a computer chess programme but eventually gave up the quest 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."
Evidence of George Washington's affection for the game may be seen in the beautiful ivory set which the first President once owned and 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 in one story of helping Washington to win one crucial battle in the revolutinary war of 1776. His plan to attack the British across the Delaware was given by a boy in a spy report to the British commander, Colonel Rahl. The commander 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 usually played chess in the evenings with his friends. When he moved into Monticello, the plantation home he built at Charlottesville, Virginia, he was concerned about his beloved ivory chess sets which had disappeared during the moving. 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 regarded then as the best chess player in the world.
In his later years, Jefferson enjoyed jousting over the chessboard with multi-talented ex-diplomat Benjamin Franklin, one of the keenest players in that distinguished company. In several of his letters, Jefferson appeared to enjoy writing about Franklin and how popular the US diplomat became in France because he played chess 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. While he lived in Paris, Jefferson joined the Salon des echecs in 1786. But he did not renew his membership, saying he was too busy. However, David McCullough, in his book on John Adams, says that Jefferson was so decisively beaten at the chess club that he never went back. He left Paris in 1789.
Another of Jefferson's sparring partners was James Madison, fourth US President, also a keen chess player. A book on Madison by Abbot Smith recalls that the President once attended a fancy dress ball in Washington DC, but spent the evening playing chess with John Quincy Adams, the sixth US president. Adams lost his bid for re-election after his political enemies falsely accused him of using public funds to buy and install "gaming furniture and gaming devices" in the White House. While in Florida, 13th President Millard Fillmore recalled in a letter that he played chess one evening with Major General Thomas Jessup but he found his concentration disrupted by the Seminole Indians he saw lurking in the bushes behind him. He lost three games in a row.
One of Abraham Lincoln's chess sets is proudly displayed at the Smithsonian. Another set he bought for his son Tad can be seen at the National Museum of American History. In his book, The Every Day Life of Abraham Lincoln, author Francis Browne wrote: "Mr 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? Small wonder that Lincoln became such a great US president.
Part two of this column continues tomorrow