Playing Games


Do you enjoy the mental challenge of a game of chess, moving the pieces across the board trying to bring about check or checkmate? Or is your interest in chess limited to vague memories of the chess match between Russian Grandmaster Kasparaov facing off against the chess-playing computer Deep Blue, or maybe having seen The Search for Bobby Fisher? Either way, we hope you’re as excited as we are about Montpelier’s latest acquisition: a Madison-era chess set, now on view in the Drawing Room!

Like his friend Thomas Jefferson, and many other gentlemen of his era, James Madison enjoyed a rousing match of chess. His friend Edward Thornton described Madison’s enthusiasm for a game as a “passion.”[1] Ellen Wayles Coolidge, one of Jefferson’s granddaughters, recalled in 1853 that her grandfather was “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.”[2] From these and other documents, researchers at Montpelier have culled details about Madison’s affinity for chess, confirming that he enjoyed the strategy and competition of the contemplative game.

As we were completing our curatorial research on chess, Montpelier’s archaeologists were solving another piece of the puzzle: what Madison’s set looked like. They found chess piece fragments buried in a midden just outside the house! With a good visual reference in hand, we were able to locate and acquire a chess set that resembled one owned by the Madisons. To showcase these discoveries, the curatorial team has opened up the drawing room card tables, draped in period-appropriate broadcloth, to exhibit the range of leisure activities at Montpelier.

Gaming and gambling have a long tradition among Virginians, and card games were an extremely popular form of entertainment at Montpelier. The game of loo (pronounced “lew”) was particularly favored by Dolley Madison, who was known for playing in mixed groups and for stakes.

Women betting in public was considered avant-garde in the nineteenth century, and the name loo conveyed a mildly risqué tone which no doubt added to the game’s amusement.[3] The pacing of the game is quick, using 3 or 5 cards, and involves betting with counters, known as “fish” (derived from the French “fiche” for counter).[4] Skill at loo is based on understanding other players, as in poker, and Dolley’s enjoyment of this particular game may speak to her character and her ability to read people.

The excitement of the game lies in the stakes, and there is evidence that Dolley Madison played loo for money. In an 1803 letter from Samuel Harrison Smith to his wife Margaret Bayard Smith, he mentions beating Dolley and his subsequent “mortification at putting the money of Mrs. Madison…into my pocket.”[5] In another letter to her sister Anna Cutts, Dolley writes, “how delighted I should be to accompany you to all the charming places you mention—to see all the kind people & to play loo with Mrs. Knox—I have scarsly played since you left us.”[6]

Chess and loo were not the only games the Madisons played in the Drawing Room. James Madison’s father owned a backgammon table, as did Dolley’s son John Payne Todd. There are also documentary sources that indicate the Madisons owned a checker board. Clearly, their guests would have been able to enjoy a choice of amusements on a rainy or snowy day.

We hope that you will be able to come visit us and see the game tables in the newly wallpapered Drawing Room. If you can’t, at least break out the chess board and think of President Madison playing a long and competitive game!


1. Edward Thornton to James Madison, March 17, 1802, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

2. Ellen Wayles Coolidge Letterbook, 1853, Pg. 37, University of Virginia. Retrieved from Monticello Website.

3. B. Hewitt, P. Kane, and G. Ward, The Work of Many Hands: Card Tables in Federal America, 1790-1820 (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1982), 33. 

4. For period rules, see Richard Seymour’s The Compleat Gamester: In Three Parts…5th edition. London: E. Curll and J. Wilford, 1734. 

5. Samuel Harrison Smith to Margaret Bayard Smith, July 2, 1803. In Gaillard Hunt and Margaret Bayard Smith, Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 38.

6. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, [June] 1804, in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004.

A chess match in progress

A game of loo







Montpelier Staff