How Soccer Is Copying The Game of Chess
World Champion GM Magnus Carlsen can score an own goal in two sports: soccer and chess. Photo: Remko de Waal/AFP.

How Soccer Is Copying The Game of Chess

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It all began early this year. Whether it’s the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, or some other phenomenon, soccer teams around the world seem to be copying what is happening at chess tournaments.

Playing hall of Tata Steel before coronavirus pandemic
The playing hall of Tata Steel Chess in previous years was “standing room only.” Photo: Alina l'Ami/Tata Steel Chess.

No Spectators

The clearest example comes from the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, which was held January 16-31, when players made their first moves in three months during a tournament on a physical chessboard. Grandmasters faced off over the boards and competed in the playing hall as usual, except this year spectators were not permitted. 

Playing hall of Tata Steel Chess in 2021
Spectators were not permitted to watch in the playing hall of Tata Steel Chess in 2021. Photo: Sernin van de Krol.

As amazing as playing without spectators seems, consider what happened in Valencia, Spain. When Valencia hosted Atalanta in a Champions League game in a stadium that usually accommodates 55,000 screaming fans, there were none. Having no fans at games is no longer that unusual for soccer teams. However, as sad as it seems, loudspeakers at some soccer stadiums have been playing crowd noises to make up for the lack of actual spectators. Even TV coverage has been broadcast with basic noise taken from previous matches and then enhanced with sounds for scenarios such as goals, penalties, and fouls that are added at appropriate times by a producer.

Mestalla, home field of Valencia
The Mestalla, the home field of Valencia, usually accommodates 55,000 screaming fans, but it had no spectators during a recent match against Atalanta. Photo: UEFA/EPA.

Own Goal

Another prime example is what happened on the second day of the quarterfinals at the Opera Euro Rapid tournament. World champion GM Magnus Carlsen suffered two losses to GM Daniil Dubov as his king was suffocated on the back rank and his own pieces watched. How did he describe his play? “It was mostly just a massive own goal." Look at the end of the game below and see if you agree. 

Realizing that just one own goal is not enough in his career, a month later the world champion made another. At the 2021 Magnus Carlsen Invitational on the first day of the semifinals, the namesake of the tournament blundered on his 22nd move against GM Ian Nepomniachtchi that enabled the Russian to win the game displayed below. Although the world champion said his blunder was “just really bad,” more significant is how he described his loss: "a massive own goal”—a blunder now being copied by soccer players in prestigious events.

It was mostly just a massive own goal.
—Mangus Carlsen

Soccer players definitely are inspired by Carlsen’s blunder. Consider the play during the Football Association Challenge Cup, the 140th edition of the oldest soccer tournament in the world. Gabriel dos Santos Magalhaes, who plays for the Premier League club Arsenal, scored an own goal in a game against Southampton that imitates the skills of the world champion of chess. How many more own goals will we now see soccer players making?

Soccer player scores an own goal
Gabriel deflects an opponent’s shot past his goalkeeper to score an own goal during, the Football Association Challenge Cup. Photo: Eurosport.

Open Goal

Similarly, chess players have created a new tactical term for soccer players and are describing a positional advantage as “an open goal.” For example, in the finals of the 2021 Magnus Carlsen Invitational, GMs Nepomniachtchi successfully defended against GM Anish Giri in the game below that ended in a draw, although Giri seemed to have reached a technically winning position after a tense middlegame. “I definitely had to score,” Giri said, but “it was not an open goal.”

Defenders in a soccer game are duplicating this experience and creating opportunities for strikers to find the “open goal” that Giri couldn’t find. In a Belgium Pro League game between Oostende and K.V. Mechelen, a defender poorly cleared the ball, and his goalie had to come off his line to punch the ball away—creating an open goal. But the keeper failed to safeguard the ball, and an opposition midfielder found himself with the ball as he faced an open goal about two yards away. Did he score? Of course, not. He hit the right post. Sometimes soccer is as difficult as chess.

Soccer player misses an open goal.
About two yards from an open goal, a K.V. Mechelen midfielder misses a sure shot and sends the ball into the right post. Photo: Daily Mail.

Have you noticed how soccer games are looking more and more like chess games? It’s amazing how soccer players are also using terms and plays that chess players are making popular.

Imagine what basketball players will do when they realize that games in chess are played with a clock. It might revolutionize basketball beyond recognition.

[After reading the initial comments, I need to add a note: Don’t take this light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek article too seriously. It’s April Fool’s Day. ]