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.”
We can’t vouch for that last statement, but the game is an interesting historical curiosity nonetheless. The Giuoco Piano opening here lives up to its Italian name — “The Quiet Game” — as the early play features some close positional maneuvering. Fremont as Black sharpens the game with 12. Qe2 d5?! (Nxb3 was perfectly playable here) 13. Nxe5 Bxh3 14. Nxc6 bxc6 15. gxh3 dxe4 16. d4, when Black has exposed White’s king but has little immediate chance for an attack, while White has the better pawn structure.
Some weak play by White hands Fremont the exchange: 20. Raf1? (both on this move and the previous one, White should have covered the d5-square with c3-c4, with equal play) Nd5 21. Qf2 (Black also is much better in lines like 21. Nxe4 Nxf4 22. Rxf4 g5! 23. Nxg5 Rg8 24. Rg4 Qxe3+ 25. Kh2 h5 26. Rg3 Qf4 27. Qf3 Qxf3 28. Nxf3 Re2+, winning a boatload of material) Nxf4 22. Qxf4 f5 23. Rf2 Rf6!, and Black merely has to activate his pieces to cash in on his material advantage.
With White’s pieces mostly bystanders, Fremont closes the deal with a snappy little cavalry sortie by his knight: 34. … Rh6 35. Qf1 Nf6 36. Nc4 Ng4 37. Qf4 Rh2+ 38. Kd1 (Kf1 Nxe3+! 39. Qxe3 Qg2+ 40. Ke1 Rh1+ and mate next) Nf2+ 39. Kc1 Nd3+, picking off the unfortunately placed queen. Boston Amateur resigned.
Napoleon-Bertrand, St. Helena 1820
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 Nxd4 4. Nxd4 exd4 5. Bc4 Bc5 6. c3 Qe7 7. O-O Qe5 8. f4 dxc3+ 9. Kh1 cxb2 10. Bxf7+ Kd8 11. fxe5 bxa1=Q 12. Bxg8 Be7 13. Qb3 a5 14. Rf8+ Bxf8 15. Bg5+ Be7 16. Bxe7+ Kxe7 17. Qf7+ Kd8 18. Qf8 mate.
Amateur-Fremont, Boston 1859
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Qe7 5. 0-0 d6 6. h3 Nf6 7. d3 0-0 8. Be3 Bxe3 9. fxe3 Be6 10. Bb3 Na5 11. Nbd2 c6 12. Qe2 d5 13. Nxe5 Bxh3 14. Nxc6 bxc6 15. gxh3 dxe4 16. d4 Kh8 17. Bc2 Nb7 18. Rf4 Nd6 19. Qg2 Rae8 20. Raf1 Nd5 21. Qf2 Nxf4 22. Qxf4 f5 23. Rf2 Rf6 24. Rg2 Rg6 25. Rxg6 hxg6 26. Bb3 Rf8 27. h4 Qf6 28. c4 Nf7 29. c5 g5 30. hxg5 Nxg5 31. Qh4+ Nh7 32. Qh3 Qg5+ 33. Kf1 Rf6 34. Ke2 Rh6 35. Qf1 Nf6 36. Nc4 Ng4 37. Qf4 Rh2+ 38. Kd1 Nf2+ 39. Kc1 Nd3+ White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com.