Before he became the 18th US President, Ulysses S Grant played chess at his army outpost and sometimes travelled several 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. In his biography, author William Crafts wrote of Grant: “His characteristic persistence was illustrated at West Point not only by his application to studies, but by his playing the game of chess of which he was fond.”
Perhaps the strongest player ever to occupy the White House was 20th President James Garfield. He played chess with Ohio Senator and Governor Salmon Chase, the US Treasury Secretary and the Chief Justice. Arthur Hosterman’s biography of Garfield recalled 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.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President, played chess during his famous 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. While in office, he was rumoured to have kept an astrological chart mounted on a chess set. The record shows that several others played the game as an enjoyable recreation.
Franklin Roosevelt spent many a lunch hour playing chess with his White House guest, Henry Ford. In one of his speeches, Dwight Eisenhower said, “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.”
Bill Clinton played for the Georgetown University’s chess team in 1968. He met with Garry Kasparov and was a keen supporter of the Chess-in-Schools programme.
Barak Obama plays chess. So does his wife Michelle. In his book, Dreams from my Father, he talks about learning the game from his grandfather and Indonesian stepfather. Perhaps the most famous non-player among US presidents was Richard Nixon. In a newspaper interview he admitted that he never understood chess. He named his dog checkers. Maybe it’s just as well.
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– GM Susan Polgar