A Game of Chess at James Madison’s Montpelier

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 . 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,...