5 Sports Plays That Are Like Chess
What if sports announcers really talked about chess?

5 Sports Plays That Are Like Chess

| 93 | Fun & Trivia

Sports commentators love to mention chess during their broadcasts of football, basketball and baseball games, but often these shallow metaphors don't show a true understanding of chess.

IM Daniel Rensch recently observed, while watching a sports game, that it would be interesting if announcers used more realistic chess comparisons in their commentary. Instead of spouting the cliche that "it's a chess game between the coaches," announcers who actually knew chess could use more relevant references.

Which applicable chess ideas could related to common sports situations?

Here's our list. Let us know your proposed sports/chess metaphors in the comments section.

Sport: Football.

Play: Hail Mary, a long pass attempted at the last second by a trailing team.

Chess Comparison: A desperate trick in a losing game.

GM Serper wrote an entire article about the Hail Mary play in chess, focusing on the threat of checkmate turning a losing position into a win.


But as IM Rensch pointed out, a Hail Mary could also be a desperate stalemate trick attempt.

I found myself on the humble end of this situation in a game on the live server a few weeks ago, and miraculously, I was able to save the draw with this trick:

Like the Hail Mary play in football, these desperation tricks in chess should usually be rebuffed with the proper defense. But the true lesson in chess, as in football, is never give up.

Sport: Basketball.

Play: Pick and roll. A teammate sets a screen for a ball handler, then rolls toward the basket.

Chess Comparison: A fork.

In basketball, the pick and roll is a fundamental weapon for the offense to break down the defense. It's simple but effective. A teammate sets a "pick" against the ball handler's defender, then drifts toward the basket. After the screen disrupts the coverage of the ball handler, the defense has to make a choice: stick with the ball handler or collapse on the screener headed toward the basket.

On a well executed pick and roll, either option should lead to a good shot for the offense, because the opponent can't defend both spots at once.


In chess, the clear analogy is a fork, when a piece attacks more than one enemy piece or critical square at once. Like the pick and roll in basketball, the fork is a go-to tactical theme for winning players.

Sport: Football.

Play: Kick return for a touchdown.

Chess Comparison: Passed pawn promotion.

Touchdowns are common in pro football, but usually they're from set plays via passing or rushing. It's a special moment when a kickoff or a punt is returned all the way to the endzone, with the returner beating 11 defenders in a very improbable play.

Usually in these kick-return touchdowns, one key block by a teammate or a juke by the returner opens up a clear path to the end zone, with only the kicker or punter futilely standing in the way.


In chess, the pawn is the weakest piece and starts all the way back on the second rank. It's a difficult path for a pawn to reach the end of the board and get promoted—but once a pawn becomes a passed pawn, with no enemy pawns in front of it, it becomes instantly more dangerous, like a kick returner getting a key block.

Often the defending rook is too clumsy, the knight is too slow or the bishop is the wrong color to stop the passed pawn, like a hapless kicker trying to tackle the speedy returner, only to get a facemask full of turf for his efforts.

Sport: Baseball.

Play: Perfect game—27 up, 27 down.

Chess Comparison: Grandmaster miniature win.

A perfect game is one of the rarest and most difficult feats in baseball, where a pitcher records 27 outs facing 27 batters, allowing no baserunners.

To pitch a perfect game, the pitcher has to be good, but also lucky. His teammates can't commit any fielding errors, and the 27 opposing batters have to miss getting even a single hit or walk. It takes both skill and good fortune to record a perfect game, which is also the shortest possible pitching game in terms of outs.


A similar concept in chess is the grandmaster miniature win. To become a chess grandmaster, you have to be good, to put it mildly. While beginners fall for opening traps and quick checkmates frequently, a grandmaster rarely loses a game before 20 moves.

To win a chess game in under 10 moves at the grandmaster level might be the equivalent of pitching a perfect game—you need to be a good player, but your opponent has to make a mistake as well.

Sport: Football.

Play: Safety—A ball carrier is tackled in his own endzone, scoring two points for the defense.

Chess Comparison: Back-rank checkmate.

What happens when you run out of room on the football field?

If you get tackled in your own endzone with the ball (or fumble the ball out of the endzone, or commit a penalty there), it's a safety—two points for the other team and you have to kick back the ball. A safety frequently occurs when the defense pushes back the offense as far as it will go, leaving it no breathing room in its own endzone.


In chess, your first rank is similar to your own endzone. You can't go back any further. In fact, your own pawns can't even reach it.

If your first rank is weak, you might even find your king checkmated if he runs out of space. This is a back-rank checkmate, and unlike a safety in football worth two points, this immediately ends the game in a win for your opponent.

Which sports plays do you think could relate to chess? Let us know in the comments.

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