Harry S. Truman once said that being president was like riding a tiger. Of course, that’s not exactly a comparison that applies to the real world. In the more modern age, that all-American of pastimes, poker, has become the game most likened to the presidency, mostly because countless presidents have enjoyed cards. But that fascinating presidential comparison could soon be usurped by the thinking-man’s game, chess.
Ulysses S. Grant played cash games in the White House while vaunted tiger rider Truman hosted weekly games on the presidential yacht. More recently, George W Bush played a little poker during his MBA at Harvard. A favorite among presidents, cards became the ultimate analogy for effective diplomacy. But the blue-collar presidential analogy of cards and reading tells is being replaced by kings, queens, and pawns.
Before becoming governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted that he had toned down his workout regimen in favor of chess. “I play chess. If I read I fall asleep, so I use chess to keep my mind awake,” Schwarzenegger told a Spanish journalist in 2003. “Every game is a stimulation of my brain cells. it feeds my mind.” More recently, both President and Mrs. Obama are said to be avid chess players. In fact, while on the campaign trail, Michelle Obama was known to pass her downtime by playing chess with her brother while, as an Illinois senator, Barack Obama supported the International Scholastic Chess Convention. In a recent interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger even compared President Obama to a chess player. “Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess and has opened his game with an unusual opening,” said Kissinger. “Now he’s got to play his hand as he plays his various counterparts.”
These comments from Kissinger come on the heels of President Obama’s meeting with Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster who has parlayed his chess board success into a prominent place at Russia’s political opposition, a controversial place that resulted in his being imprisoned in 2007. So what exactly does this shift mean?
On the surface, it seems to imply a great capacity for much longer-term strategic thinking, as explained by Nation columnist Bruce Shapiro, who in March said “I certainly think that Obama plays the longest chess game and most complex chess game of anyone in living memory in American politics.”