News & Politics
New Stories about Old Chess Players Jeremy P. Spinrad Play through and download the games from ChessCafe.com in the DGT Game Viewer. The Complete DGT Product Line Early American Political Players We have many examples of famous people who are known to have played chess. In this column, we’ll discuss early American politicians. Undoubtedly the most famous stories of an American political figure playing chess are told about Benjamin Franklin. Stories abound of how Franklin used his chess connections to advance American interests. The cutest tells of politics hidden in a rules discussion: when playing chess with the Duchess of Bourbon, Franklin decided to make a point by taking the king rather than announcing an illegal move. “In Europe,” sniffed the duchess, “we don’t take kings.” “In America, we do,” replied Franklin. Unfortunately for Ben, today’s column tries to look at the actual chess abilities of politicians. By most accounts, Franklin was not a particularly strong player. As George Allen of Philadelphia complains, with tongue firmly in cheek, about the coverage of Franklin as a chess player in the book of the First American Chess Congress: “... one entire section of this very chapter of the BOOK has been devoted to his glory as a ‘Chess-player’ forsooth; and thus he has come to have nearly as good a chance for immortality as Philidor himself; while not even the name of those who really deserved to be remembered – the men who gave him, or could have given him, ‘Pawn and two,’ at the least – has escaped the cruel god that eats up his own children: Can haughty time be just?” Thomas Paine Franklin was by no means the only American founding father who played chess. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), whose writings, such as his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, helped stir revolutionary fervor, played chess regularly, as mentioned in various accounts. The sixth US President John Quincy Adams (who was said to have been taught chess by his father, the second President, giving us yet another founding father player, who as my daughter points out is also a founding father father) voiced the opinion that chess was by far the best way to occupy time during tedious sea voyages. Unfortunately, it is hard to find anything on the actual chess ability of these players. James Madison Thomas Jefferson Third President Thomas Jefferson took his chess fairly seriously. He had many chess books, including such authors as Philidor, Stamma, and Greco. He sold some of these books to a later successor to the office, fifth President James Monroe (who played chess with Aaron Burr, US Vice-President under Jefferson 1801-1805, an enthusiast said by some sources to be strong), and played long, serious games with another eventual President, his own successor and Monroe’s predecessor in the office, James Madison. He called himself equal with Franklin in chess. When he went to a chess club in Paris (probably the Salon d’Echecs), however, he was crushed badly enough so he decided never to play there again. John Randolph This shows a couple of interesting points. First, the problem of chess clubs being unwelcoming for weaker players seems to have been an issue for quite some time. The other is that famous individuals are often called strong players by one source and third-rate by another. Compared to other casual players, they win most of their games, and are judged as very strong, but serious players may judge the same individual weak. A letter tells of Jefferson losing 5 of 7 games to one Thomas Lee Shippen; I mention this merely to point out that he was also not the cream of the chess crop in the US, though he had many other fine qualities. Virginia Congressman John Randolph explained, somewhat implausibly, that a bitter political split with Jefferson in 1806 came from beating the president at chess. Abraham Lincoln I had come up with a number of references to sixteenth President Abraham Lincoln playing chess, but none talked about his actual chess ability until I hit the jackpot with the following article. It is from the New York Times, page 1, Nov 15, 1860, article called “The Next President”: “Speaking of custom, reminds me of a curious custom of Mr. Lincoln while playing chess – for be it known to the disciples of Caissa, the devotees of Morphy, Paulsen, Anderssen, Staunton, Lichtenhein, and the army of chessplayers, that Lincoln takes delight in the movement on the ordinary, as well as of the political chess-board, and plays a fair game, but not a first rate one. He has a habit of whistling and singing all the time - his musical ability being confined to one tune, and that tune, I sagely suspect, is ‘Dixie’s Land.’ While playing chess, Mr. Lincoln seems to be continually thinking of something else. Those who have played with him say he plays as if it were but a mechanical pastime to occupy his hands while his mind is busy with some other subject, just as one often twirls a cane, or plays with a string, or as a pretty coquette toys with her fan. “The way any man plays, either at a game of skill or of chance, is generally a pretty fair index to his character. Success or defeat – the chances – the variations in the probability of triumph – the turning point in the struggle – the exhibition of temper under all circumstances – the stubborn defence in hopeless resistance – the spirited attack with the weaker force, and all the incidents of mimic warfare contribute to develop the strong points of a man’s character. Nor does Lincoln suffer by judgement under this rule. He plays what chess-players call a ‘safe game.’ Rarely attacking, he is content to let his opponent attack while he concentrates all his energies in the defence – awaiting the opportunity of dashing in at a weak point, or the expenditure of his adversary’s strength, self-reliant in adversity, magnanimous in success, and undaunted by defeat, he is the model of a chess general. His abstractedness, however, must not be regarded as applicable to ordinary pursuits. He seizes a point in conversation with remarkable quickness – often anticipating the meaning before the sentence is concluded.” Ulysses S. Grant Note that the writer takes pains to point out that this distractedness in Lincoln’s play is very different from his functioning in other situations. The play of Civil War general, and later eighteenth President Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, is said to be very consistent with his image as a dogged rather than brilliant military planner; the following account is from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Men of Our Times. “In 1848, after the end of the [Mexican-American] war, Capt. Grant married a Miss Dent, from near St. Louis, and for some years lived in the monotonous routine of the peace establishment; at Detroit, at Sackett’s Harbor, and in Oregon. To this period of life belongs a story that being a good chess player, and very fond of the game, he found while at Sackett’s Harbor an opponent of superior force. With this champion our stubborn infantry captain used to play, and as regularly to get beaten. But he played on, and was accustomed to insist upon protracting the sitting until his opponent became so tired that his mind would not work; when Grant would comfortably balance the account.” Whistling and singing, and deliberate use of the sitzfleisch strategy! To those who champion the good old days, I think that we can safely say that no resident of the Oval Office in our time would ever sink to anything as morally repugnant as this! William H. Crawford There are many other early American figures who were important in their time, but have been largely forgotten, who took chess quite seriously. The first Republican presidential candidate, the explorer John Fremont, had a game published in the Chess Monthly; you can find it on the web here. Another important but largely forgotten figure is William H. Crawford, who served as US Senator from Georgia, US Secretary of War 1815-1816, Secretary of the Treasury 1816-1825, and was a presidential candidate in the fascinating election of 1824. My knowledge of his relationship to chess comes from biographical articles in the Southern Literary Messenger of April and May, 1837. The 1824 election both helps explain the Electoral College system, and exposes some bizarre aspects that most of us did not realize even after recent disagreement between popular and electoral vote winners, as in the Bush-Gore contest of 2000. The 1824 election had four major candidates, all associated with factions of the Democratic Party. Popular vote totals were approximately 41% for Andrew Jackson, 31% for John Quincy Adams, 13% for Henry Clay, and 11% for Crawford, with minor candidates getting the rest. By electoral votes, however, the results differed in a strangely important way: Jackson 99, Adams 84, Crawford 41, Clay 37. The important difference is that Crawford finished third, ahead of Clay. Under a seldom used provision of the United States Constitution, when the Electoral College does not produce a majority, the election passes to the House of Representatives, with each state delegation getting one vote, and votes can be cast for only the top three electoral vote-getters. Clay thus had to drop out. He threw his support to Adams, and after much political horse-trading the election was won by Adams with 13 states, Jackson with 7, and Crawford with 4. Was it unfair that Clay had to drop out rather than Crawford? Not necessarily, since in those distant times some states, including Crawford’s home state of Georgia, did not hold a popular vote; the electors were chosen by state legislators. Crawford might well have finished third in popular vote as well if all states had direct elections. This lack of a universal popular vote was one reason, though not the only reason, that an Electoral College was necessary. The run-up to the House vote saw a frenzy of political activity, with candidates and their allies doing their best to persuade legislators in swing states to choose their side. At least, this was true for most of the candidates. During the frantic negotiations in this election, it is said that Crawford seemed more interested in winning chess games than the presidency. This behavior, which seems so natural to those of us who are members of the US Chess Federation, seemed to mystify some allies and family members, and as noted above did not help him win the election. He took his chess so seriously that when Lafayette came to console him on his defeat in the final vote, Crawford would not talk to him until the game he was playing finished. John J. Crittenden One of the most fascinating chess questions relating to early American political chess playing involves my own region, and I hope some reader can shed more light on it. The politician is John J. Crittenden (1786-1863), who at various times served as Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, Governor of Kentucky, US Representative and Senator from Kentucky, and US Attorney General. He was author of the Crittenden Compromise, a last-ditch, strongly pro-slavery attempt to avert the Civil War. He had a personal as well as political interest in avoiding war: one of his sons became a Union general, another became a Confederate general. He was also the man most responsible for keeping Kentucky in the Union. Crittenden County in Kentucky is named after him, though others in his family were also prominent politicians. How do we know Crittenden played chess? This comes from an interesting letter written by Hungarian master Johann Jacob Löwenthal about his time in America, which was printed in the book of the first American Chess Congress. Kentucky was at that time quite a hotbed of American chess, and Löwenthal spent some time there as the guest and opponent of the leading players of the state. Part of the letter reads as follows: “On the 10th of April I left Lexington for Frankfort on my way to Cincinnati, carrying with me letters of introduction to Mr. Temple, the Treasurer of the state of Kentucky. Mr. Temple introduced me to Gen. Pain and to Governor Crittenden, in whom I had the satisfaction of becoming acquainted with one of the leading statesmen of America. I stayed at the Governor’s house to tea and supper amid a large party. Mr. Brown, who was, I was told, considered the best player in Frankfort, was present. I won two games of Mr. Brown, to whom I gave odds, and then requested the honor of a game with the Governor. Here my good fortune deserted me, Mr. Crittenden proved victorious, and I had to console myself with the thought that I had been beaten in even play by one of the shrewdest brains in the States.” Beating a leading master of the time period is a remarkable result for a politician and chess unknown. Some people I mentioned this to believe this can only be explained as an intentional loss on Löwenthal’s part, but I am not convinced. Löwenthal went on many provincial trips and played various notable personages. He always wrote graciously of his hosts, but he did not generally make it a practice to lose to them. Crittenden was not like Napoleon, who was famous for his erratic temper and had such autocratic power that one might fear the consequences of beating him; in fact, there are many old remarks about players losing intentionally to Napoleon. I would expect Crittenden, as an elected state governor, to be treated with respect but not obsequiousness. In this way, he would be much like various members of the British nobility whom Löwenthal was used to playing and usually defeating. If I am correct, then Crittenden (even presuming he got lucky in their individual game) was probably a strong player, and we should be able to find some hints of this in the historical record. Can any readers trace this, and answer the question of whether this man from my area was the strongest American politician-chessplayer? [ChessCafe Home Page] [Book Review] [Columnists] [Endgame Study] [The Skittles Room] [Archives] [Links] [Online Bookstore] [About ChessCafe.com] [Contact Us] © Copyright 2007 Jeremy P. Spinrad and CyberCafes, LLC. All Rights Reserved. "ChessCafe.com®" is a registered trademark of Russell Enterprises, Inc.