Athletes, Grandmasters Battle In Chess Pro-Am

Athletes, Grandmasters Battle In Chess Pro-Am

What happens when you combine six professional athletes with six premier mental athletes? At the inaugural The Players' Tribune and Chess.com Pro-Am Chess Tournament, you get moments of serious chess, bouts of raucousness, and a mixing of cultures that both sides enjoyed immensely.

Athletes wanted to hear some insider chess tips while grandmasters wanted to relive famous moments they shared vicariously with the sportsmen.

On Friday, June 23, a dozen players gathered at The Players' Tribune offices in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. Six of them were active or former professional athletes: two soccer players, two American football players, and two basketball players.

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Unsurprisingly, it was chess players in front, athletes in back for the group shot.

"The Players' Tribune," founded by former New York Yankee Derek Jeter, is a media outlet that mostly asks pros to write first-person accounts of their careers. But on this day it dove into the Rolodex and asked six athletes to get back into competing, albeit in an arena that all but one of them never had tried before.

Each of them was randomly assigned a local grandmaster to form six two-man teams. The two distinct groups would each play six-person round robins at a time control of 10+10. The best combined score would win.

The teams:

  • GM Robert Hess and John Urschel, current offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens (OK this coupling may not have been that random; the two are good friends)
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  • GM John Fedorowicz and Larry Johnson, former NBA player for the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks
  • GM Marc Arnold and Jay Williams, former NBA player for the Chicago Bulls
  • GM Anatoly Bykhovsky and Stephen Keel, former MLS player for several teams, most recently FC Dallas
  • GM Pascal Charbonneau and Christian Fuchs, current left back for Leicester City

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Bigger career highlight: Winning the Premiership or beating Anand?

  • GM Mackenzie Molner and Bart Oates, former center for the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers

No one quite knew what to expect, organizers and players included! So when all parties arrived, most of the grandmasters used the precious first minutes giving their charges a crash course in chess fundamentals for the rapid games.

"The main goal of this event is to show that chess is for everyone, to give children something to look at and say, 'Hey, even professional athletes play chess,'" Urschel told Chess.com. "It's my hope that events like this begin to break barriers in chess, and show it for the great game it is."

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The mood was relaxed at the beginning of a few rounds, with kibitzing until the blitzing. Hess might be ribbing Williams. Hess said, "Jay is hilarious; he and I got along extremely well. But it's way easier for me to heckle him than vice versa. He initially knew next to nothing about me, whereas I'm an avid sports fan." Hess also said that Johnson was one of his favorite players growing up, even though rooting for the Knicks is "painful."

Fedorowicz, an unabashed New York sports fan, began at square one with his former NBA all-star teammate. He taught Johnson how the pieces moved, then the basics of the opening. As it turned out, Johnson was either sandbagging or too polite to tell his partner that he had practice in the game -- he checkmated the first few athletes he played with confidence and ease. (Chess.com found out later that Johnson played with his teammates while on road trips.)

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GM John Fedorowicz, always at home in New York.

One athlete certainly not needing any last-minute advice was Urschel, the only pro with tournament experience. His one competition netted him a provisional rating of 1601 and he plays regularly with Hess. Chess is a big enough part of their relationship that they were both seen playing on the recent "Real Sports" feature on Urschel.

By chance, round one featured the two NFL linemen. Sure, Oates enjoyed three Super Bowl rings in his career, but Urschel is about to get something far rarer among athletes: a PhD from MIT.

Their opening tilt showed they could both play a completely cogent game. Urschel's winning technique included an unnecessary exchange sacrifice on move 30 (he could have just taken the d-pawn straight away), but that's a small critique for a game that many Chess.com members could be proud to play:

The GMs were of course a "known commodity" with thousands of tournament games and ratings all in the 2400-2600 range. The real question would be: Could any other athlete keep up with Urschel's obvious talent? It quickly became clear in that opening round that, after years of being cheered on by Fedorowicz, Johnson would continue to make the legendary New York GM proud.

While not quite as impressive as the well-studied Urschel, this game showed an amazing degree of competence. Pieces developed, en prise pieces were captured, threats were thwarted, and at the first opportunity, the classic queen-and-helper checkmate earned the 6'6" power forward the W.


In a twist from the norm, Johnson would be rooting for Fed for once, but his teammate could only draw Bykhovsky. That allowed Hess-Urschel to take the early lead when the former high school football player made his pro teammate proud with a win over Molner.

Even though you could easily confuse the middlegame position with the French, it wasn't a Winawer, but just a win.

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Stephen Keel once played for the Seattle Sounders, but here he realizes his play was decidedly unsound.

What also became clear after the opening round: This would not be a silent, staid event. Played in a giant loft space that had just hosted an NBA draft party the night before (which was attended by the number-one pick Markelle Fultz), the room included a free-throw shooting arcade game and a big screen TV. That gave all the players license to trash-talk during the games, with the most notorious offender being Williams.

nullTrash-talking but also kid-friendly: Jay Williams tries to help this girl against GM Mackenzie Molner in a lunchtime simul.

During several critical moments, the former Duke standout couldn't keep his emotions in check and yelled loudly after unexpected moves. Apparently his long career in broadcasting couldn't hide his eagerness to get back into competition.

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Jay Williams scored pretty well in the free-throw arcade game leaderboard: 88 points (two points per basket) in 40 seconds. That's far better than his 67 percent average as a Blue Devil.

The teams of Hess-Urschel and Fedorowicz-Johnson stayed close throughout the morning rounds. Johnson checkmated again in round two with the rare back-rank pattern of rook on e8 and knight on d8, which covered the empty f7 square as a possible escape route for Fuchs's castled goalkeeper.

This reporter, who grew up in Charlotte watching him play as a Hornet, told Johnson since we don't have a name for such an arrangement, that we would call it the "Grandmama mate." He said he still enjoys his nom de robe.

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Larry "Grandmama" Johnson just after his original checkmate against Christian Fuchs, who weirdly never played the Austrian Attack.

The pivotal matchup came in round four when the two leaders faced off. Hess took care of his side of the room by winning a near-miniature against the veteran.

Then Urschel made it a team sweep to essentially put the competition out of reach. Johnson allowed a big center and then White's knight posted up in the paint, where there is no three-second rule in chess.

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Williams crept up for a courtside seat to watch the finale of the pivotal Urschel-Johnson game.

Urschel can again be proud of play, this time including a winning queen sac, but he may be chagrined at missing mate-in-one on move 27. Could that be what Williams insisted on pointing out?

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Urschel went on to win his final round too, so the 5-0 personal record propelled his team to overall victory. 

Fedorowicz-Johnson took second as the ex-NBA star continued to impress and won his final round to finish with four points. Of course, it didn't supplant his more famous four-point play.

The game did produce a literal howler. No, it wasn't the missed fork on e4 or the hanging knight on d4. Johnson went up a queen but was so eager to mate that he simply placed his queen on an attacked square. When Williams captured on h4, it wasn't as loud as Madison Square Garden, but the two both let out an unrestrained belly laugh. 

"I would say Jay is a very strong chess player," Urschel said. "He's also, unsurprisingly, extremely competitive."

Johnson initially felt like giving up, but Fed reminded him the game was basically still level. Grandmama re-focused and found another unique mate to close out his first chess tournament.

The '72 Dolphins couldn't do any champagne toast on this day, as perfection was achieved by the Baltimore Raven. Urschel's 5-0 day ended with a bit of whimsy. After playing his usual setup as Black against 1. d4, he got a winning position but inexplicably moved his rook one square on move 20 instead of all the way to the first rank.

With the atmosphere as lighthearted as it was, we didn't have to wait until afterward to hear why. The "confessional booth" was the board itself: Urschel admitted to his opponent that he was attempting to double rooks on the b-file, only he forgot that he was reduced to only one rook!

Call it a high-class stutter step:

"I think our team was certainly a favorite," Urschel told Chess.com. "I'm by no means a strong chess player, but I can hold my own against most. Robert is such a strong player, even among other grandmasters, and I was lucky to have a player of his caliber as my partner."

"We are very good friends, so the majority of our interactions have nothing to do with chess," Hess said. "I do look at his games, give him advice when he asks, and, let's be real, even when he doesn't want it. I also will send him games to look at. However, John is at a point where he has way too much going on to really work on his chess."

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The winning combo of Hess-Urschel. We trust you can tell which one is the NFL player. Photo: Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' Tribune.

Urschel and Hess donated the twin $5,000 charity prizes to the State College (PA) Salvation Army (Urschel went to Penn State) and Centre County Paws, an organization in the same town devoted to dogs, not pawns.

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The same room hosted an NBA Draft party the night before. Sadly, this 6'0" reporter wasn't selected and will be keeping his day job.

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IM Danny Rensch (left) commentated for the match, with guests popping in at their leisure. Here Christian Fuchs (center) and Larry Johnson discuss their game.

"It was really cool to experience a collision of supposedly contradicting worlds," Hess said. "For the image of chess, I hope it will create a broader audience and help people realize that chess lovers are not just people who sit and study all day, but rather a wide spectrum of individuals.

"My favorite thing about the event was that it was not forced in the slightest. Some of the athletes cleared their entire busy Friday schedules to participate. So, a collaboration of individuals with completely different backgrounds who find a common interest in an extremely rewarding mental sport? What could be better?"

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