Sports

Forget Madden. The hottest game in the NFL is chess.

These days, though, many NFL players win locker-room respect — for their tactical minds, accumulated knowledge and competitive zeal — on the chess board.

By Robert O’Connell

Amari Cooper, the Cleveland Browns wide receiver and a four-time Pro-Bowler, had Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie on his heels. Cooper attacked Awuzie with a flurry of maneuvers, setting up a charge that he hoped would break the game open. Awuzie, though, had learned from Cooper during their 2 1/2 seasons as teammates in Dallas. Leaning on his insider scouting report, Awuzie found his footing and countered.

Pawn to f3.

Awuzie’s move came early in the second and deciding leg of the July final of BlitzChamps, an online chess tournament contested exclusively between current and former NFL players. Cooper, using the black pieces, had seemed primed to gain a quick advantage, but Awuzie capitalized on a misstep to parry away an encroaching bishop. Fifteen minutes later, Awuzie had a clear edge in time and position, and Cooper resigned.

“Call me Thanos!” Awuzie shouted, celebrating his championship, which he captured with sweeps in the best-of-three semifinal and final rounds.

Professional athletes tend to fill their respites from competition with, well, more competition. Ask around any pro clubhouse or locker room, and you’ll learn who is the best at table tennis, darts or video games. Cultivate a little more trust and you’ll find out who is the most feared hustler at cards or dominoes. These days, though, many NFL players win locker-room respect — for their tactical minds, accumulated knowledge and competitive zeal — on the chess board.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the level of chess we saw in the tournament,” said John Urschel, a mathematician and former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman who appeared as an analyst for Chess.com during BlitzChamps. “I did not expect to see such high-quality chess and such chess culture. I was really impressed by the players having fleshed-out opening repertoires, understanding ideas and structures.”

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Chess’s gridiron acolytes include A-list quarterbacks (Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals and Joe Burrow of the Bengals), ascendant rookies (New York Giants pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux) and well-regarded retirees (such as Cardinals receiving great Larry Fitzgerald). And while bragging rights alone provide plenty of reason to compete, the athletes say the benefits go far beyond trash talk, as the matches offer them space for deep contemplation away from their fast-paced professions. In some cases, they think chess helps them on the gridiron, too.

One thing they universally make clear: Despite the overuse of comparisons likening football to chess, very little in the NFL has anything to do with the specifics of chess strategy. “Oh, it’s a chess match!” Urschel said with mocking enthusiasm, mimicking a broadcaster’s cliche. “No, no — no, it’s not. It’s something completely different.

Still, one game can inform the other.

Cooper, 28, learned the rules of chess growing up and began to play in earnest during his rookie season in 2015, initially encouraged and then repeatedly walloped by his veteran Oakland Raiders teammate Rod Streater. He subsequently hired a chess coach, and the game has become his on-the-road ritual — his answer to the more common video game marathon — and a boon to his concentration on Sundays.

“There’s a huge correlation,” Cooper said. “In chess, if you make one bad move, you can lose the entire game. And in football, if you’re playing really well, one bad play can cost you.” Cooper likened fleeting inattention to pawn structure to missing a second-half blocking assignment: a seemingly minor misstep that can ruin a day’s work. “It teaches me to be intentional about every snap, about everything,” he said.

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When Cooper came to the Dallas Cowboys via trade during Awuzie’s second season, in 2018, the teammates played regularly in person. Awuzie, who had played a bit in college to pass time during tedious classes, quickly adopted Cooper’s seriousness about the game.

“He whooped me pretty good,” said Awuzie, 27. “That feeling of losing wasn’t pleasant, and I’m not the type to back down and stop playing. I wanted to get better.”

He worked puzzles online, played more and more matches and studied openings and defenses. That closed the gap between him and Cooper and paid dividends on the field, allowing him to adapt on the fly to the myriad techniques NFL receivers threw at him.

“It’s pattern recognition. If a receiver gives me a certain release, a certain stem, a certain route, and I’ve seen that setup before, I’m probably going to have an answer for that,” Awuzie said. “I’m able to dig into my mind a little bit better. I’m a big note-taker, but playing chess has helped me remember things without needing to take notes.”

For Fitzgerald, who also participated in BlitzChamps, being introduced to the game marked an early-life turning point. Years before he became an All-Pro master of the receiving subtleties of speed and angle, Fitzgerald was a distractible 7-year-old well-acquainted with elementary school disciplinarians. A teacher recommended he take up chess.

“It slowed my life down,” Fitzgerald said. “More than just football, I looked at life from a more strategic perspective. You think about why you’re doing something, how you’re going to adjust.”

During his 17 NFL seasons, Fitzgerald played weekly games with his father and brother and devoted on-the-road downtime to online puzzles. His career with the Cardinals overlapped, over his two final years, with that of Murray, who in locker-room clashes matched Fitzgerald’s appetite and acumen. (“Highly aggressive,” reads Fitzgerald’s scouting report.) Since his playing days ended — Fitzgerald, 39, has not filed retirement paperwork but has not appeared in an NFL game since 2020 — he has become a kind of unofficial ambassador for chess, lauding both its benefits and the skills of his former colleagues.

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“It’s to help with the negative stigma football players have — they’re not intelligent, not thinkers, they’re barbarians,” Fitzgerald said of his motivation to participate in the summer tournament. “The NFL has got a lot of highly intelligent guys that are critical thinkers. My dad always taught me, it’s one thing to beat a man physically, but when you can outwit them with the intellect, that’s something completely different.”

Chess also helped Fitzgerald and Urschel set new objectives in post-football life. Fitzgerald hopes to reach a 1600 rating and tutors his own son, who he proudly reported took three of four matches in a recent youth tournament.

Urschel, 31, who took full-time correspondence classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during his final season with the Ravens in 2016, has set what he calls a “casual” goal. “I would eventually like to become a national master, let’s say, rated 2200,” Urschel said. “That’s far in the future, maybe 10 years, once my kids are a little older and I have more time.”

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