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The Caw: Playing Chess With An NFL Player

Posted Jul 18, 2014

I’ve been getting crushed in chess by math genius and Ravens rookie guard John Urschel.


So I’ve been playing Ravens rookie guard John Urschel in chess for the past month and a half, and I’ve learned one of two things.

Either I’m way worse at chess than I thought, or Urschel is even smarter than I thought.

I think it’s the latter.

When you’re a math genius like Urschel, the NFL playbook can only challenge you so much. So he looks for mental stimulation from outside sources as well.

One fan sent a physics textbook to the Under Armour Performance Center. Urschel blew through it and said it was “awesome.” Another mental snack is chess.

Urschel sent out a tweet looking for opponents 44 days ago.

Always up for a challenge and confident in my chess abilities, I immediately responded that I would take him on. Plus, it’s way better for my health to square off against the 6-foot-3, 308-pounder on a board rather than a field.

A rivalry was born, or so I thought. I’ve come to realize that we have about as much a rivalry as the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals.

Urschel has beaten me six times so far. It could be more, I’m not positive. I have beaten him zero times.

In our first game, I had him on the ropes for a minute. In the second, he actually had to battle from behind as I got my knight deep in his territory and was able to bushwhack his bishop. But he came back, as he always does.

In our most recent game, I only made four moves before I was checkmated.

So I asked Urschel, have you been toying with me?

“We have some fun. They’re fun games,” Urschel said, as if talking to a 5-year-old child.

“Here’s the thing. You don’t know how much time the other person is spending on the game. So I put in time proportional to how worried I am. If I look at the game and I’m like, ‘Ehhh,’ I’ll take two or three seconds to get refreshed, and then I’ll make the move in 10 seconds. If I’m in trouble, I’ll actually sit down and take a minute and then make a move.”

On average, Urschel said he takes about 10 to 15 seconds before making a move. I’m closer to three minutes.

But my problem, I told him, is that I’ll have multiple games going at once on my phone. So I have to re-acclimate myself to the board every time, which slows me down.

Then Urschel dropped another hammer on my confidence. While I’ve been playing as many as three games at once, he’s been playing as many as 50.

“When I first tweeted out who wants to play, I legitimately ended up with 50 games on my hands,” he said. “I’m not going to deny someone who’s like, ‘Yeah, I want to play.’ I had so many games on my hands, it’s not even funny.”

Urschel’s record, as of Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., is 97-3-1.

So how did he get so good at chess?

Urschel first learned the game from his parents when he was 6 years old. He stopped playing around third grade and didn’t pick it back up until his junior year of college at Penn State when a team manager challenged him. They would play every day during training camp and about once a week during the season.

Having a mastermind math brain doesn’t hurt either.

Urschel is the Ravens rookie who won the academic version of the Heisman Trophy, got a bachelor’s in Math in three years and a Masters the next year while teaching calculus at the university. He’s got four academic papers written, including one titled “Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem.”

“It helps just being able to think about things quantitatively,” Urschel said of his math brain.

“My favorite part of chess is the end game. I feel like there’s so much math and analytic thinking in that. It’s like a puzzle; I find it fascinating trying to find the solution.”

One of Urschel’s personal goals, separate from the many he has in football, is to become a better chess player. He plans on looking into entering some chess tournaments after this season is over. His ultimate mission is to become the World Heavyweight Chess Boxing champion.

Don’t know what chess boxing is? You’re not alone. Foes have 11 rounds to either knock out their opponent in the ring or checkmate them on the board. Here’s an ESPN piece on it from 2007:

“Not anytime soon, but after my 10-year career and I’m retired, I’m coming for his spot,” Urschel said. “Put the word out there.”

Until then, Urschel will just have to keep playing me and the other peons he comes up against. I asked him to give me a grade from newbie to Bobby Fischer.

“I’m going to give you … ok this is tough … feelings will not be hurt here,” he said. “I would give you a B.”

Did I also mention that, along with smart, Urschel’s very generous?

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