“Hartsfield’s Landing” (season 3, episode 15; originally aired February 27, 2002)
Bartlet plays some chess
I used to have this Thanksgiving tradition where I would challenge my uncle to a game of chess after the big meal. He grew up studying the game, had read all the books, referred to spots on the board with a letter-number combination, knew the names of different types of moves, and was just generally a chess prodigy all grown up. I knew how to move the pieces. But he was patient with me as a little kid, and even though only one game a year was a challenge—I played only rarely at non-Thanksgiving times—I found myself getting better each time we played. Later, my uncle stopped coming to Thanksgiving: He became a vegan, moved onto a farm with a woman he met, and from what I can recall, has a ton of cats. (He also teaches lawyers how to do improv comedy.) But mostly he wasn’t having it anymore with the whole Thanksgiving thing, and given Thanksgiving is the most important holiday in my family, we quickly lost touch.
When I think about my uncle, I think about chess. Specifically, I think about one move he taught me, which is now the way I open every game of chess, if I ever find the time or means to play: I move my bishop’s pawn on the queen’s side up two spaces, followed by moving the queen’s knight behind the pawn. Without thinking, I do it every time. Once my uncle stopped coming to Thanksgiving, I took up the tradition with my younger cousin, who in later years drifted further and further from the rest of my family, and me specifically. I’d use the same opening move every time, and I’d beat him every time. Then, a few years ago—the final game we played—he beat me. It was a big deal for him, but I sort of shrugged off the loss and went up to have dessert.
This isn’t a story with a sad ending. There isn’t really much of a story to tell, really. All this is to say that for most of my life, chess was the way I connected to the family members with whom I had the least in common. It was a game we all knew how to play, and required we invest ourselves in the game, rather than rely on the luck of the dice or, to a lesser extent, the color of the random Candy Land card. Strategy is rewritten every single turn, and just when you think you know what somebody is going to do, they’ll make one move and it changes everything. I suppose the way they played chess told me something about my uncle and my cousin: My uncle was conservative, saving up for deeper strategy while holding back his best stuff, considering I was such a novice; my cousin, blind to my own motives as a player, throwing himself into battle quickly. But I wasn’t removed enough from the game to really take that in. Really, the simple fact that they wanted to play meant they were looking for a connection. Once the game starts, your fate is tied to your opponent until it ends. The way someone plays chess is irrelevant; the key is they want to play at all.
While watching “Hartfield’s Landing”—the first of an excellent one-two that also includes “Dead Irish Writers”—I was at first tempted to unpack each chess move Bartlet, Toby, and Sam makes, wonder why one chose the “Fibonacci Opening” and when is the proper time to take a rook and talk about what it all means, man. But then those Thanksgiving memories came flooding back, and I think it’s a lot simpler than that. Quite simply, Bartlet wanted to connect with these two men, for very different reasons. He’s eager to speak to Sam about the developing situation in Taiwan, because, as it turns out, he sees a lot of himself in Sam and thinks one day Sam Seaborn can be President. On the other hand, Bartlet is still reeling from the discussion he had with Toby about his father, and this particular chess game is a way, both for himself and for Toby, to force the issue. He may not be looking forward to Toby, but he’s certainly looking forward to Sam; regardless, once the game starts, he’s in it, and the connection is made.
And each conversation develops just as Bartlet says it would, albeit describing a growing situation overseas: “After our next move comes their next move.”
The games themselves each have a different intensity. With Sam, Bartlet sits back and luxuriates over every one of Sam’s moves, as if he’s trying to be in his head. He encourages Sam to “see the whole board”—though it’s impossible to know what your opponent will do, find that magical balance between wiliness and unpredictability. Take action even against uncertainty, provided you’re able to garner a big-picture view. Right from the beginning, there’s a sense Bartlet is taking Sam under his wing; it’s clear Bartlet is the better chess player, but he insists on the game with Sam, who seems to agree only because Bartlet will be there to walk him through everything. Bartlet is excited to have that mentorship role with one of his peers. It’s been a long campaign of talking about the president—how to deal with his MS and work around the man. Many, like Toby, still harbor a bit of personal pain about the whole situation, wondering how the man they trusted could do that to them. Sam is the least tarnished by the whole thing. By the nature of his position, he has to put his head down and do his job a lot more than other people. This was Bartlet’s chance to feel like a father figure again.
His game with Toby, on the other hand, reminds me of the relationship I have with one of my best friends. If he calls me out on my shit, at first I don’t want to hear it. I want him to be wrong. I’ll eventually hear him, but it’s not after seething in solidarity for a long time, it’s after we’ve hung out a bunch more in other contexts, so I can be reminded of why we’re friends in the first place, and what a wonderful thing that is.
It goes without saying that Bartlet is pissed at Toby, though he’s angriest because Toby was right. Bartlet has become a soft president, doing things he imagines a seasoned politician would do, not remaining true to the kind of person he truly believes he is—and the person the team believes he is. He goes out of his way to appear folksy, even though he claims he’s been like that all along. He’s constantly at odds with his intellect, which is superior, but too often sees it as a liability rather than his greatest strength. At the same time, he’s constantly at odds with his gut. It’s a dangerous thing, a man pulled by the right brain and the left brain simultaneously.
The problem, as it comes out in his game with Toby, is that there have been situations in Bartlet’s life that demonstrate the dangers of listening and fully acting upon one or the other. He tells the story of David Wheaton, the kid who taught Bartlet to be good at chess, who saved up for a trip to San Francisco and was stabbed to death trying to help a woman being mugged. In that same conversation, he brings up his father again, and Toby calls his father an idiot. This takes Bartlet back. “God, can we talk about my father with some respect? The man’s gone… he’s my father, he wasn’t a Dickens character.” Bartlet puts Toby in check, and storms out of the room.
Though Bartlet has been in the Oval Office for two years, it’s only now that he is figuring out what kind of President he’s going to be. As his therapist said last week, Lincoln had to lose half the country to fight a war for what he believed in. Bartlet lost half the country (give or take), and has only embarked on tiny battles. It’s time to start the war and, quite simply, Bartlet is afraid. And he’s looking to his good friend Toby for advice, even though he’s too proud to admit it.
The following segment ends his game with Toby (at least in the episode), and I’d like to republish it in full:
Abbey told me this story once. She said you were at a party once where you were bending the guy’s ear. You were telling him that Ellie had mastered her multiplication tables and she was in third grade reading at a fifth-grade level and she loved books and she scored two goals for her soccer team the week before, you were going on and on… And what made that story remarkable was that the party you were at was in Stockholm and the man you were talking you was King Gustav, who two hours earlier had given you the Nobel Prize in economics. [Laughs] I mean, my God, you just won the Nobel Prize and all you wanted to talk about to the King of Sweden was Ellie’s multiplication tables!
[Approaches to sit across from him] What’s your point?
You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the president, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken… Do not—do not—do not act like it!
I don’t want to be killed.
Then make this election about smart, and not… Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight. And you’ve been holding me up for too many rounds.
Toby lays down his king on the board to retire. Bartlet stands and turns to walk out.
Pick your king up. We’re not done playing yet.
Any chess player knows that while it’s important to “see the whole board,” it’s also important to see what’s not there. Whenever I play chess, I look to the pieces in both graveyards. I find that I’m really adept with rooks and knights together, for example, and have a hard time making it work with bishops. So if I look at the arsenal of fallen pieces and see two knights and a rook, I have to majorly rethink how I’m going to proceed in the game. But it can’t be all I focus on; novices might lament the loss of a queen, but pros know it’s just one piece in a game of many pieces, ducking and weaving effortlessly around one another in relentless onslaught. Yes, you must know what’s gone, but you have to move on; the next step is to take stock in what you still have. Because no matter what that is—whether it’s one pawn or seven pawns—you can always make something great happen. You can take down a king just the same. After all, the game doesn’t end any other way.
Speaking of taking stock in what you have, “Hartsfield’s Landing” also smartly includes a story that, for those of you playing along at home, serves as a reminder of a few things the president has accomplished in his two years in office. There’s this little town called Hartsfield’s Landing in New Hampshire, where 42 people will vote at 12:01 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. like everyone else. The votes are tabulated by 12:07 a.m., and the results fed to the 24-hour news cycle. It’s just a preliminary election, but the town has a history of predicting the next president that dates all the way back to William Howard Taft—“Who, by the way, was the founder of the seventh-inning stretch and wherein we sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame,’ music and lyrics by Jack Norworth and Albert VonTilzer. It’s all part of the service here at Claudia’s House Of Useless Knowledge.” (CJ can duck follow-up questions like a pro.) Josh makes a good point to Donna near the beginning of the episode: Sure, this little voting exercise is ultimately meaningless, but whoever wins will be the subject of much critical analysis until 9 p.m., when the rest of the polls in New Hampshire close and the results from the state are made available. Josh cares about the results of Hartsfield’s Landing because, right now, there’s nothing else to care about.
As it turns out, Donna has a connection to a few of the residents of that town, so Josh asks her to call them and extol the virtues of the Bartlet administration. This is a clever little device to remind us all what Bartlet’s been up to, while exploiting the wonderful “Josh is the boss and Donna begrudgingly accepts” dynamic that’s so classic to the show. Especially now of all times, since every time Donna has to call these people, she has to physically leave the White House (so as not to upset campaigning policy) and enter the cold, harsh night. Eventually, Josh realizes the futility of obsessing over those few votes, and calls Donna off. The lesson of “Don’t sweat the small stuff” comes up a lot on The West Wing, but what made this moment so special was that Josh was forced to make a personal connection with Mr. Flender, telling him to get the chains on the truck and promising that he’ll learn a thing or two about salmon in Oregon. (“All I know right now is that they’re good on a bagel.”) I suppose there’s a chess lesson to be learned here, something like “It’s impossible to completely predict how each piece is going to move, so sometimes you just have to let the game play out as it’s going to play,” but really it was just a simple moment of connection. Like when Sam speaks to the UFO guy, Josh is forced to think about each of the 42 people in that voting district, and learn their idiosyncrasies.
Of course, connection can be a terrible thing. I don’t recall many episodes devoted to CJ/Charlie back-and-forth, and “Hartfield’s Landing” delivered one of the most playful subplots I could have hoped for. I mean, it’s always satisfying to watch grown men and women act like children; it’s even more amazing when they work in powerful government positions. CJ and Charlie get into a little feud when Charlie refuses to simply give the president’s private schedule to CJ; he asks that she sign it out, since unauthorized copies have found themselves into the hands of the press. Annoyed that she’s being treated with such a lack of trust, she steals Charlie’s copy and hides it from him. All in good fun, until Charlie takes the perceived prank war too far and crazy glues CJ’s phone, replaces her security badge, and basically takes apart her entire desk, causing it to collapse onto itself. Some games continue simply because the players decided to begin playing.
At the end of the day, Bartlet played a few games of chess, manipulated the Taiwanese and Chinses governments, and had his staff meddle with the opinions of 42 small-town New Hampshire residents. But of all the stories in “Hartsfield’s Landing,” none struck so personally as the story that unfolded between Bartlet and Toby. In a time when it’s easy to rest on your laurels and micromanage every decision—a.k.a. re-election—Bartlet came back to chess. Like my games with my uncle, it was a way to feel like he was making progress with someone who’d put up a major roadblock. The game was a peace offering, which Toby begrudgingly accepted. And just as minds are prone to do when they’re occupied with something seemingly trivial, both men’s minds wandered, and they found their way back to each other.
The thing about chess is that no matter how you play—be it a travel set or an awesome board gifted by an Indian emperor—you feel like you’re playing a game that’s been played for thousands of years. There’s a history and timelessness to the game that you just won’t find anywhere else except for maybe “catch.” The men on The West Wing love history, and study it as much as they find themselves making it. Chess serves as a great equalizer, as it always has—a way for very different people to find common ground. It just so happens that this particular common ground has the potential to change the election for Bartlet, for Sam, for all of history.