KindredSpirit’s Kaleidoscope: Early American Chess Thanks to Indepth Writings of Thomas Jefferson

THOMAS JEFFERSON we can thank for his critical thinking development, industrious penmanship, as he methodically wrote in assorted journals on architecture, language, law, literature, mathematics, nature and travel.  Is it any wonder that his knowledge and interest for the game CHESS found considerable attention to its interest.

Jefferson was born during April 13th of 1743 at Shadwell and died July 4th of 1826 at Monticello.  In those times, chess was considered a game for refined ladies and gentlemen so it might behoove me to say that he learned and developed interest for the game under the tutelage most likely from Dr. William Small, a professor of mathematics at William and Mary College between 1760-1762.  Jefferson wrote out a description from Philidor’s “Method of Giving Check-mate with a Rook, Bishop, and King against a Rook and King” first mentioned in his “Analysis of Chess” in 1749.

An account entry of August 18th, 1769 is a reference for his friend, James Ogilvie, to purchase a set of chessmen 45/when he moved to London from Williamsburg in his quest to be ordained. He later followed this up with a letter to his friend Jack Walker on September 3, 1769, requesting he bring a chessboard apparently having himself received the chessmen.

Thomas Jefferson married in January of 1772; during the next ten years they had six children; the Declaration of Independence was written; and, from 1779 to 1781 he served as Governor of Virginia. During this period two entries were recorded; one, a chess equipment purchase for 3/12 pounds. Correspondence from General Gates in letter exchanges mention  the chess prowess of the times.  Such an important correspondence was written after Gates losing a battle at Camden, SC wrote Jefferson that, if Lord Cornwallis conquers the Southern portion of South Carolina and Eastern portion of North Carolina,..”….the weight of the war will penetrate into your Bowels.  Military wisdom has ever theretofore been imputed to Virginia.”

Gates was a well-known adversary in chess with his friend Benjamin Franklin and so, too, appears to be likewise with background of his correspondent.

After his wife died in September 1782, the Confederation Congress appointed Jefferson to help with negotiations for ending the war with England.  For several months travel in both Philadelphia and Baltimore, while preparing for his assignment, his interest in chess revives per entry in his account book:  January 14th 1783, paid Affleck, a noted cabinetmaker, for chessmen and board 37/6 pounds and to Mentz, a tradesman for 30/; March 3rd paid for chessmen 11/3; March 4th paid mendg 7/3; March 7th paid mendg 2/3.

Perhaps on eve of his trip to France, Jefferson made a purchase from the bookseller James Rivington noting the date May 31st 1784 for chessmen in the amount 20/ that suggests he was going to make use of his chess interest during the long voyage to Europe.  Furthering this interest developed when Philip Mazzei, mentioned in correspondence to Jefferson those with influence in European affairs and was, during the war, a  European agent to Virginia and skilled in European politics.  This entry included the very important letter, “Your going to France without letters from me will seem very strange to many worthy persons who have shown great kindness to me…Therefore, I beg you as strongly as I can not to fail to call on those persons whom I shall name hereunder…To Favi who is living at the Hotel de Mirabeau rue de Seine, a most worthy young man, a great friend of mine and agent of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Among many other things you will tell him that your departure has prevented me from giving to you, as I said was my intention, a superb set of chess which he gave to me.”

Chess was an important activity in 18th Century Paris, France.  The entry February 6th 1786 pd. on admission to the prestigious chess club, the Salon des echecs  96f.  Eventually he discontinued that association due to his labors having curbed any time for chess.

Due to my chess theory about the board and pieces, I find the following quite interesting study concerning cause and prevention of yellow fever of concern during his Presidency. He wrote: I have supposed it practicable to prevent its generation by building our cities on a more open plan. Take, for instance, the chequer board for a plan. Let the black squares only be building squares and the white ones left open, in turf and trees.  Every square of houses will be surrounded by four open squares, and every house will front an open square. The atmosphere of such a town would be like that of the country.

His retirement in 1809 certainly was well deserved after a life-long dedication to public service. He returned home to his beloved Monticello in 1809 where he launched his last great work–building the University of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson contributed to the American adventure, leaving a bright shining light on the birth, freedoms, and historic perspective of a time when letters and correspondence was the major source of early life in these colonies and grew to expand in building the future United States of America.

My thoughts on building my blog article base and personal thinking on the joys experienced through chess can be likened to the leaders of our birth who found chess to provide an intellectual outlet for the play where enjoyment was experienced in the beauty of the pieces and boards as well as the aesthetic beauty of such spirited schemes uncorked during such practice.

One might wonder about score keeping.  I point to my articles on the Englishman, Howard Staunton.  Games recorded were rather clumsy.  Examples: 1. P. to K. B’s 4th; 13. Q. to her R’s 6th. The process that led to modern chess tournaments and record keeping was long and often created debates over ideas.  Time reflection came from none, to sand/hour clocks, to windup clocks, to modern electric clocks which are regularly tinkered with for special time controls.

Debates, too, often arise over various eras in chess.  Who were the best players throughout chess history? While some find this fascinating, I rather suggest that through the reading of letters, do players of old count much for the strength of players? Letters mention play; but I see nothing to reflect who the best were in such individual games.  Jefferson responded to such question from a chess buff as to his judged strength versus Benjamin Franklin who was regarded at the time as a strong amateur player: “I played Dr. Franklin at chess, and was equal to him at the game.”

There was a cartoon I saw someplace that showed Franklin playing chess with the Duchess of Bourbon, who was in bath*.  They were of similar skill. She put her King in a skewer position and Franklin took it.  Ah, she exclaimed to say that the French do not take Kings so; in reply, Franklin quipped, “We do in America!”

*bath was a closed box with steam

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