SANDS: Power moves in politics and on the chessboard

For you last few undecided voters still out there, here’s one more data point to consider before the polls close Tuesday.

President Obama, according to his autobiography, is a chess player, like eight of the last nine Democrats to occupy the Oval Office. (Lyndon Johnson was the exception.) GOP challenger Mitt Romney, to judge from the public record, doesn’t play the Royal Game, a trait he shares with the last four Republican presidents — Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes.

In fact, according to a 2011 survey by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, dating back to the Chester Arthur administration in the early 1880s, 89 percent of Democratic presidents have been chess players (8 of 9), compared to just 35 percent of Republicans (5 of 14).

Then again, given the level of competence and fiscal probity in some international chess institutions, it could just be that a talent for chess and a talent for electoral politics are mutually exclusive.

Turning to history, we see that Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Vaclav Havel were all chess players. Then again, so were Vladimir Lenin, Ferdinand Marcos and Fidel Castro. The strongest chess-playing politician of all time is a bit of a trick question, because former world champ Garry Kasparov’s recent effort to launch a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin barely got off the ground.

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the few world leaders whose actual games have come down to us today, although there is some dispute about how hard his opponents were trying to beat the Frenchman when his armies were dominating most of continental Europe.

Napoleon’s blitzkrieg win in today’s first game may be a bit more legit, as it was played while the deposed emperor was whiling away his final years in exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Fittingly for the man who once observed that “he who fears being conquered is sure of defeat,” the “Little Colonel” takes the play to his opponent, longtime aide Gen. Henri-Gratien Bertrand, with a Scotch Gambit that quickly devolves into messy hand-to-hand combat.

Black actually defends well up through 11. fxe5 bxa1=Q 12. Bxg8 Be7! (Rxg8?! 13. Qd5 Re8 14. Qxc5 h6 15. Nc3 and White is winning) 13. Qb3, with a material advantage of the exchange and a pawn to compensate for his development deficit. With 13. … Qxe5! 14. Bb2 Qg5 (Qxb2 15. Qxb2 Rxg8 is also possible), Black might even have consolidated and won in lines such as 15. Qf7 d6 16. Bxg7 Be6! 17. Qxe6 Qxg7 18. Rf7 Qg5.

Instead, whether from lack of skill or abundance of prudence, Black errs with 13. … a5? (see diagram), allowing Napoleon one of his signature lightning attacks: 14. Rf8+! Bxf8 15. Bg5+ Be7 16. Bxe7+ Kxe7 17. Qf7+ Kd8 18. Qf8 mate.

Rating the strongest chess-playing American politician is tricky, because there are relatively few surviving game scores from which to make a judgment.

Chess author and blogger Bill Hall, who has made an extensive survey of U.S. presidents and chess, asserts (without documentary evidence) that Republican James A. Garfield was perhaps the strongest commander in chief at the chessboard, citing his frequent matches with Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase, another talented amateur.

Jimmy Carter recalled in his memoirs that he took up the game in earnest after his one term in office, even buying a computer program, but conceded, “I found that I don’t have any particular talent for chess. I hate to admit it, but that’s a fact.”

Here’s one dark-horse candidate for the title from the outer precincts — Western explorer and cartographer Col. John C. Fremont, one of the first U.S. senators from the newly admitted state of California, the first Republican Party candidate for president in 1856 and later the governor of the Arizona Territory.

A fascinating article by John S. Hilbert on chess in California in the late 1850s unearths a game played by Fremont against a “Boston Amateur” reprinted in The Chess Monthly magazine. “We publish it with great pleasure,” the authors wrote, “as a specimen of the chess-play of the distinguished explorer and savant. It was one of a match played three or four months since and will amply repay the attention of the reader.”

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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