At first glance, there’s very little that football has in common with chess. Football is physical, violent and played at full speed, with each player trying to batter everyone standing in their way. Chess, on the other hand, is a battle of minds. It’s two opponents trying to out-think one another rather than pulverise them.
But if you dig deeper, football’s not just about who’s bigger, stronger or faster. There are game plans and playbooks, mental preparation and strategic analysis. And on the field, some positions – quarterback and defensive back spring most readily to mind – are a lot like chess. You need to read the whole field/board in front of you, know the capabilities of each player/piece, interpret your opponent’s plans and predict several moves in advance.
So it shouldn’t be that surprising that quite a few NFL players enjoy a game of chess, and even use it to improve their football. And being athletes in a sport awash with rankings and data, there are naturally going to want to know who’s the best at the ‘royal game’.
So, who is the best chess player in the NFL?
There has been little empirical evidence up till now, mainly because these guys don’t face each other very often. But last weekend, Chess.com ran a two-day online ‘rapid chess’ tournament called BlitzChamps. Six NFL players were invited to compete for a share of a $100,000 charity prize fund.
And our very first champion? Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.
Initially, Awuzie was up against Browns WR Amari Cooper and Giants outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux in Group A. The much-fancied Cooper won both of his round-robin matches, but Awuzie also advanced to the semi-finals. This was despite a slip of the mouse that cost him one game against Cooper and a pre-programmed move that went wrong in the other. The banter between them after the blunder was one of the highlights of the event.
Meanwhile, veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead and former Dolphins cornerback Will Davis (a late stand-in for Micah Parsons) made up Group B. Fitzgerald and Davis progressed to the semi-finals.
On the Sunday, Awuzie knocked out Fitzgerald 2-0. He needed just 18 moves to win the first game and while the second was closer, Awuzie was confident enough to risk pre-programming more moves, then sit back to watch them unfold. Amari Cooper triumphed against Davis in the other semi 1.5-0.5, winning one game and tying the other, to set up an AFC North rematch in the final.
After some back and forth, Awuzie exacted his revenge with a 2-0 win to claim the inaugural BlitzChamps crown. He also won $25,000 for the Awuzie Kickstep Foundation, while Cooper secured $22,500 for his chosen cause, The Barnyard.
So Awuzie, who has thousands of online games logged on Chess.com, has bragging rights over Cooper for now. But it won’t count for anything come Halloween, when the Bengals and Browns next meet on the football field.
How can chess help with football?
Another participant in the competition, rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux, is no stranger to chess. He even attributed part of his success to the game in his first interview after being drafted by the Giants.
The former Oregon edge rusher also told the Draft Network: “Chess is life and chess is football. You talk about your first move, and your first move is going to set up your second move, then your third move.”
Thibodeaux was drawn to chess by the chance to compete against his uncles. They didn’t take it easy on him and when he got tired of losing, he went online and taught himself more about the game.
Dallas’ Micah Parsons was originally down to compete this weekend but was seemingly unable to fulfil the commitment. He too has also spoken about the role chess plays in his football career. He even compares the various chess pieces with positions on the football field, claiming his role as linebacker equates to the queen, the most versatile piece on the board.
Naturally, he sees the king – the piece you have to defend at all costs to avoid defeat – as the quarterback.
Who else is good at chess?
If we’re looking for players – other than the absent Micah Parsons – who might compete next time, Kyler Murray must be a hot favourite. The Cardinals QB has been playing chess since fourth grade and left Degan Elementary in Lewisville, Texas, as his school’s champion.
He mainly plays on the Chess With Friends app, but also took on Fitzgerald in real life when they were together in Arizona. Back in 2019, he told ESPN, “I think just I was born with the feel of just how to see things before they happen.” Handy for chess and playing QB.
Apparently, Murray was disappointed not to feature in last weekend’s tournament. On finding out, the organisers sent a tweet asking him to get in touch. Alas, that offer wasn’t taken up. Fitzgerald joked that Murray probably shouldn’t be invited anyway, so that other people can win something for a change. So he sounds quite good!
Another quarterback, Joe Burrow, has played chess since elementary school and is another potential contender. Although relatively inexperienced, he and Awuzie have done battle in the Bengals locker room. His teammate may be Cincy’s – and the league’s – chess champion for now but I suspect Burrow won’t be content with that situation. He’ll be keen to ramp up his game and who knows, he may be able to give Chido and Amari a run for their money next time.
Chess power rankings, anyone?