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20+ Famous People in History That Were Avid Chess Players (Great Minds…)

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

Chess has been around for many centuries, and over the years, many famous people have been avid chess players. Many presidents, writers, and composers have played the game to stay mentally sharp, so let’s look at who these famous historical figures were.

Chess was enjoyed by some of America’s greatest presidents, including Adams, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, and Christopher Columbus were chess players, as were actors John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe and authors Charles Dickens and George Orwell.

Countless other famous people were avid chess players, which shows the game’s attraction for people from all walks of life. So let’s get the board set up and look at 21 famous persons in history that were avid chess players.

These are 20+ famous persons in history that were avid chess players:

1. President John Quincy Adams Was An Avid Chess Player 

It is thought that John Adams was exposed to chess by Benjamin Franklin while they were in France and taught his son, John Quincy Adams, to play the game. Adams became a collector of chess sets, and his Barleycorn design chess set is on display at the Smithsonian.

2. Thomas Jefferson Played Chess

Chess was one of Jefferson’s favorite games; he owned at least six high-quality chess sets. A diary reference in 1769 to James Ogilvie ‘to buy me a bunch of chessmen’ and Jefferson became a collector of chess books that later became part of the Library of Congress.

3. Abraham Lincoln Enjoyed Chess

The quintessential US President, Abraham Lincoln, played chess at the White House and with his friend George Harrison. Abraham Lincoln has at least two chess sets displayed in museums – one at the Smithsonian and his son’s set at the National Museum of American history. 

4. Theodore Roosevelt Played Chess On Hunting Trips

Another avid chess player, Theodore Roosevelt, enjoyed the game on hunting trips and during winters at his log cabin. He also had foreign chess masters from the Cambridge Springs chess tournament in Pennsylvania come to the White House in 1904 and offer a trophy as one of the prizes in that event.

5. Winston Churchill Played Speed Chess During The Blitz

Another avid chess player, Churchill, played a form of speed chess during the Blitz of London. It was also rumored that he and Hitler once met for a chess game, but it ended in a scuffle when Churchill noted a cheating device under Hitler’s shirt!

6. Albert Einstein Was A Friend Of A Chess Champion

Mathematician and chess champion Emanuel Lasker was a friend of Einstein. Although Einstein was no slouch at the game, he never pursued his interest and disliked the game’s competitive aspect, preferring to play recreationally.

7. Stephen Hawking Played Paul Rudd In Quantum Chess

Stephen Hawking did play chess, but one of his more famous games was when he played actor Paul Rudd in a game of quantum chess. This was part of a video done for Caltech to show the work done in quantum physics, and each piece took the characteristics of a quantum particle!

8. Christopher Columbus Played Chess

Most people know the story behind Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, but very few know that this was due to a very intense game of chess played by the King Of Spain! Facing defeat, Queen Isabella whispered to him that he could win in four moves- which he duly did and, upon the joy of his victory, awarded Columbus his title- and the rest is history!

9. Humphrey Bogart Was A Master Chess Player 

Aside from his acting career, Humphrey Bogart was an avid chess player and held a master rank, as well as the tournament director for the US Chess Federation. He was taught by his father and even played chess by mail with US Servicemen until the FBI told him to stop, fearing the chess notations were secret codes.

10. George Orwell Had An Exceptional Grasp Of Chess

Although not many records of Orwell’s involvement in chess exists, he is listed as a ‘writer who played chess’ in Fox & James’ The Even More Complete Chess Addict. His collection of essays refers to him buying a chess set, but he had an intricate understanding of the game as both a game of skill and a metaphor for life.

11. Charles Dickens Played Chess Regularly With Friends

A review in Lasker’s 1905 Chess Magazine refers to writer Charles Dickens as a chess player and novelist. He often played with his friend Miss Tregear, who recalled the games they played together. When she beat him, he would insist on another game – losing was not his strong point.

12. William Shakespeare Understood Chess Well

It was considered normal to find the Bard regularly engaged in chess games with contemporary poet and writer Ben Jonson. Evidence of his passion for the game is found in his writings with references to the king, queen, bishop, knight, and even the word ‘mate’ in Act 2 of King John.

13. Oscar Wilde Played Chess Under A Pseudonym

In 1909, chess master Emanuel Lasker played an exhibition match against an opponent named Egon Wilde, which was writer Oscar Wilde! Playing one of the greater proponents of the game at the time shows that Wilde was an adept chess player.

14. Henry Kissinger Had An Intellectual Interest In Chess

Statesman Henry Kissinger enjoyed chess greatly, but in one famous incident, he is reputed to have called up grand champion Bobby Fischer and asked him to attend the World Chess Championship so America could beat the Russians – which he duly did!

15. The ‘Duke’ Was A Great Chess Player At A Young Age

Aside from his tough guy image, John Wayne was an aggressive chess player who took great delight in beating his fellow actors and fans! He would regularly challenge and invite fans to play against him. Chess was his side hobby after acting.

16. Chess Wasn’t Paul Newman’s Strength

Although legendary actor Paul Newman did play chess, he wasn’t that good at the game. He played with George C Scott on the set of ‘The Hustler’ in 1961 and on the set of ‘The Secret War Of Harry Frigg’ with Italian actress Sylva Koscina.

17. Frank Sinatra Had Personalized Chess Pieces

Sinatra was an avid chess player and even played Champion Anatoly Karpov in 1979. He was so passionate about the game that he had personalized pieces made for him to use when he played.

18. The Beatles’ Front Man Played Chess 

Not only did John Lennon play chess, but Yoko Ono also did. It’s said that Lennon played the game during breaks from filming ‘Help’ in 1965.

19. The ‘Dumb Blonde Wasn’t So Dumb’ – Monroe Played Chess

Marilyn Monroe was a pretty smart lady and enjoyed playing chess. According to her psychiatrist, playing chess had helped her reduce mental anxiety in the last years of her life, and she played on a carved ivory set she had received as a gift.

20. Hedy Lamarr Was An Excellent Chess Player

Hedy Lamarr was an actress and inventor of the technology that became the base for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; Hedy Lamarr was so good at chess that she taught three of her husbands to play, and the last one became good enough to beat her!

21. Sir Isaac Newton Played Chess

Einstein and Newton both played chess, and Newton used the game as a tool to keep his innovative thinking faculty sharp and refreshed. Many believe this contributed greatly to his scientific mind and insight, which made him one of the greatest chess players in history.

Last Word

Some of the greatest people ever to walk this Earth have been avid chess players, which says much about this timeless game. From strategy to mental acuity, the game of chess has influenced the history of the world.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.