Amari Cooper, Cleveland Browns wide receiver and 4-time Pro-Bowler, had a Cincinnati Bengals Chidobe Awuzie cornerback on his heels. Cooper attacked Ozzy with a series of maneuvers, making a charge he hoped to break the game. Despite this, Ozzy learned from Cooper during his two and a half seasons in Dallas. Relying on his reconnaissance report from the inside, Ozzie found his footing and confronted him.
pawn to f3.
Awuzie’s move came early in Game Two and clinched the July final game of BlitzChamps, an online chess tournament exclusively contested between current and former NFL players. Cooper, using the black bits, looked poised for a quick advantage, but Ozzie took advantage of a misstep to fend off a creepy Bishop. Fifteen minutes later, Ozzy had a clear advantage in time and position, and Cooper quit.
“Call me Thanos!” Ozzie shrieked in celebration of the championship he captured with wins in the best of three rounds, the semi-finals and the final.
Professional athletes tend to fill their breaks from competition with more competition. Ask around any pro club or locker room, and you’ll find out who’s better at table tennis, darts or video games. Develop more confidence and you’ll find out who is the scariest rogue of cards or dominoes. These days, though, many NFL players win locker room respect — for their tactical minds, accumulated knowledge and competitive enthusiasm — on the chessboard.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the level of chess we saw in the tournament,” said John Urschel, a mathematician and former offensive lineman Baltimore Ravens who appeared as an analyst for Chess.com during BlitzChamps. “I did not expect to see such a high-quality culture in chess. I was really impressed by the players who have a detailed opening repertoire, and an understanding of the ideas and structures.”
Chess grid assistants include top-tier players (Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals and Joe Burrow of the Bengals), rookie rookies (the passing giants pass Kayvon Thibodeaux) and prestigious retirees (such as the cardinal who greet the great Larry Fitzgerald). And while bragging rights alone provide plenty of reason to compete, athletes say the benefits go beyond just trash talk, as matches give them space for deep reflection away from their fast-paced careers. In some cases, they believe that chess helps them walk, too.
One thing they universally make clear: Although football-like comparisons to chess are overused, very little in the NFL has anything to do with the specifics of chess strategy. “Oh, it’s a chess match!” Orschel said with sarcastic enthusiasm, mimicking the announcer’s cliché. “No, no – no, it’s not. It’s something completely different.
Still, one game can learn the other.
Cooper, 28, learned the rules of chess growing up and started playing seriously during the NFL’s junior season, in 2015, initially encouraged by fellow veteran Oakland Raiders Roadstreeter, then repeatedly stopped. Then, he hired a chess coach, and the game became his road ritual — his answer to the most popular video game marathon — and a boon for his focus on Sundays.
“There’s a big correlation,” Cooper said. “In chess, if you make one bad move, you can lose the whole game. And in football, if you play really well, one bad game can cost you.” Cooper likened fleeting inattention to pawn structure to missing out on the mission to ban the second half: a seemingly simple mistake that could spoil a working day. “It teaches me to be intentional in every moment, about everything,” he said.
When Cooper came to the Cowboys via trade during Awuzie’s second season, in 2018, his teammates were playing regularly in person. Ozzy, who played quite a bit in college to pass the time during grueling classes, quickly embraced Cooper’s seriousness about the game.
Ozzy, 27, said: “He yelled so well to me. Feeling lost wasn’t nice, I’m not the type to back off and stop playing. I wanted to get better.”
He worked on online puzzles, played more and more matches, and studied openings and defenses. This bridged the gap between him and Cooper and paid dividends on the field, allowing him to quickly adapt to the myriad techniques thrown at NFL receivers.
“It’s pattern recognition. If a receiver gave me a specific version, a specific stem, a specific route, and I’ve seen that setup before, I probably would have an answer for that,” Ozzie said. “I am able to dig into my mind a little better. I am a great blogger, but playing chess helped me remember things without having to take notes.”
Scott Goldman, a performance psychologist who has consulted with several teams across professional leagues, sees chess as a useful training ground for high-level athletes because of the attention it requires.
“Novice chess players may look at only one quarter of the board versus an experienced player who sees the entire board,” Goldman said. “In the world of football, you call that expectation. A center back trying to see the running procedure can’t get caught up in a center back faking the handover. He studies the offensive line. You have many situations that hide intent or engage in misdirection.” .
For Fitzgerald, who was also involved with BlitzChamps, his introduction to the game marked a turning point early in his life. Years before he became an All-Pro professor for picking up on the finer details of speed and angle, the 7-year-old Fitzgerald was an excitable and well acquainted with elementary school specialists. One teacher recommended playing 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 did something, how you would adapt to it.”
During his 17 seasons in the NFL, Fitzgerald played weekly games with his father and brother and made downtime on the road to online puzzles. His career with the Cardinals overlapped, over the last two years, with his career with Murray, who matched in locker room clashes with Fitzgerald’s appetite and acumen. (“Extremely aggressive,” Fitzgerald’s survey report reads.) Since his playing days ended — Fitzgerald, 39, hasn’t filed for retirement but hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since 2020 — he’s become a bit of an unofficial ambassador for chess, praising all Of his benefits and the skills of his former colleagues.
“It’s to help overcome the negative stigma that footballers have – they are not smart, they are not thinkers, they are barbarians,” Fitzgerald said of his motivations for participating in the summer tournament. “The NFL has a lot of smart, critical-minded guys. My dad always taught me, that beating a guy physically is one thing, but when you can trick them with reason, it’s a whole different thing.”
Chess also helped Fitzgerald and Urschel set new goals in their post-football life. Fitzgerald hopes to reach the 1600 rating and teach his son, who has proudly reported having played three of his four games in one of his recent youth tournaments.
Urschel, 31, who took full-time messaging classes at MIT during his final season with the Ravens in 2016, has set what he calls an “unofficial” goal. “I would eventually like to become a national master of, let’s say, a 2200 rating,” Urschel said. “That’s far in the future, maybe 10 years, once my kids are a little older and I have more time.”
Among current NFL players, the goals may be more modest but the stakes more immediate. When playing the white pieces – move first – at the BlitzChamps tournament, Awuzie often topped the aggressive opening Ponziani, who advances the pawns to wrest early control of the center of the board.
The strategy proved effective against Cooper in the final, and when the student was victorious, he let his former mentor hear about it.
“What drew me to the game, first and foremost, was my competitive nature,” said Ozzie. “I am still searching for that competitor that Amari planted in me.”
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