I used to joust with my college room-mate over a game of chess. We played for different reasons. For him, it was an intellectual challenge of strategy, an opportunity to demonstrate how victory (and bragging rights) could be secured through reason and endurance. For me, it was a chance to unwind and thwart the foundations of reason by asserting the supremancy of whimsy, blind luck, and psychology. My opponent’s turns usually lasted 20 minutes or more. Mine typically took about 2 minutes, and their completion usually invited a raised eyebrow of annoyance and disbelief from my compatriot.
More often than not, deliberation and reason prevailed, and I lost more than one pitcher of beer for my insolence. To the victor went the spoils
Antique ivory chess set is an exqact match to the one used by James Madison
I had forgotten about these semi-frequent sparring matches until recent events at James Madison’s Montpelier conjured them from my mind. You see, James Madison was an avid chess player, and he frequently sparred with his friend Thomas Jefferson. Madison and Jefferson were both intellectual powerhouses–Madison was deeply learned and bookish, while Jefferson was more focused on breadth and application. A chess match between these two was undoubtedly a serious affair.
Around 1853, Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, wrote the following about her grand father: “So he was, in his youth, a very good chess-player. There were not among his associates, many who could get the better of him. I have heard him speak of ‘four hour games’ with Mr. Madison. Yet I have heard him say that when, on his arrival in Paris, he was introduced into a Chess Club, he was beaten at once, and that so rapidly and signally that he gave up all competition. He felt that there was no disputing such a palm with men who passed several hours of every evening in playing chess.”
The Founding Fathers at Play
What in the world does all of this have to do with Montpelier, and why am I writing about it here? Amazingly, archaeologists at Montpelier dug up fragments of chess pieces that once belonged to James Madison. The broken pieces were all that remained of his set, and they were discarded in a trash heap (archaeologists call them “middens”) on the Montpelier property. The chess set was a gift from Benjamin Franklin, also a brilliant chess player. Had Madison been alive when his estate left his family, he probably would have lamented the loss of his chess set.
But its loss was not permanent! The brilliant history detectives at Montpelier were able to use the recovered pieces to identify the chess set, and the Montpelier Foundation purchased an authentic match that dates to the same period. This antique ivory chess set is now on display in the newly restored mansion where it belongs!
According to an article published on 4 February 2011 in the Daily Progress, “The period set was unveiled this week in the fourth president’s Drawing Room, sitting atop one of Madison’s original gaming tables, discovered in 2009.
The hand-turned pieces are in the Old English or Washington style, known as such because George Washington also owned such a set, said Lynne Dakin Hastings, Montpelier’s vice president for museum programs.
The pieces are white and red, rather than white and black, and, as such, may seem a bit unusual to modern eyes. Both black and red pieces were in use during the period.
‘This particular style of set, this Old English style, was very fashionable and very popular at the time,’ Hastings said.
Montpelier officials consulted with chess scholars to determine the style of set that produced the small fragments, which were found in a trash pit. The officials concluded that Madison’s set had red pieces based on three surviving pieces at Tudor Place, a historic home in Georgetown. The pieces purportedly belonged to Madison and are said to have been given to him by Benjamin Franklin, Hastings said. Those pieces are white and red.”
Dolley Madison, the famous First Lady, was also known to have played chess, and also had a love of loo, a popular eighteenth century card game similar to modern-day hearts. Thus, next to the chess display, visitors can see an in-progress game of loo.
Madison’s enthusiasm for chess brings his deeply intellectual personality to light in a profoundly visible way. In fact, he loved chess so much that he was even known to play on Sundays, which was a bit of a taboo in his day. According to Hastings, “gaming on Sundays really was not acceptable at all.” But perhaps, she speculated, Madison saw chess as something more. “Madison may have felt that chess was not so much a game, as an intellectual pursuit,” she said.
In that regard, James Madison and my former college roommate were kindred spirits. As such, I feel obligated to challenge him to a game of chess during his next visit to the Holladay House Bed and Breakfast in Orange, Virginia. Just for old times sake. And maybe a few beers.