Chess helped Washington win the war

Published: Thu, 2011-08-18 20:10

Carl Jacobs

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 American 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, Barack 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.

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