Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte
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Last NBA season, while flying to Cleveland for a road game, Kristaps Porzingis noticed his then-teammate Deni Avdija playing chess on his phone.
Porzingis was mesmerized. He had never played chess before, and watching the pieces move, each one a part of an intricate, geometric ballet, captivated him. That night, Porzingis streamed a 30-minute YouTube video explaining the fundamentals of chess and then stayed up until 5 a.m. in his hotel room playing games on the Chess.com app—despite a 7 p.m. tipoff that night.
“I completely fell in love with the game,” Porzingis tells me now, a year into his newfound chess hobby. “When you really lock in for a good chess match, there's nothing like it. You have to anticipate and see what could happen. It's kind of the same decision-making on the court.”
Chess might seem an unlikely pursuit for an NBA star given its historical association with nerdom. But the game has become a fixation in recent years for many of the most talented basketball players in the world, with players across the league cultivating serious chess hobbies—and helping fuel chess’ rise as a spectator sport. The NBA chess club includes everyone from former MVPs (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Derrick Rose, who famously spent much of a Drake concert playing chess on his phone) and generational talents (Luka Doncic) to broadcast commentators (Jay Williams) and front-office executives (Daryl Morey). Their skill levels range from beginner to, if Doncic’s A.I. bot is to believed, near-grandmaster. No matter the level, every player I’ve spoken to finds that the mental competition of chess is the perfect complement to the physical competition of being in the NBA.
The NBA chess boom reflects the wider cultural mainstreaming of chess caused by The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s wildly successful 2020 series starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a tranquilizer-addicted chess prodigy in mid-century America. (With more than 62 million viewers in its first 28 days on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit is the most popular scripted series in the streamer’s history and is, according to popular chess YouTuber Levy Rozman, the single greatest thing to ever happen to the game of chess.)
Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward, who first learned chess as a kid, was one of the millions who picked the game back up after watching the series. At first, chess was just another way for Hayward to kill time during the pandemic, but he soon found himself consumed with his Chess.com ranking, to the point he started studying various chess openings and watching instructional videos on YouTube. “Chess.com is basically a video game,” Hayward, an avid gamer as well, tells GQ. “You play online against people, you get a ranking, and you climb when you win and fall when you lose.” Hayward’s chess habit has earned him a bot on Chess.com that replicates his playing style.
(A word about rankings: chess players are ranked using the Elo system, a statistical model that measures a player’s skill relative to their competition. The more a chess player wins, the more Elo points they accumulate. But every time a player’s score increases, so does the level of their competition. Players with less than 1400 are generally considered beginners, 1400 to 1799 is intermediate, above 1800 is advanced, and 2000 is master level. Hayward sits around 1200, while his bot, perhaps because it doesn’t have a day job, is rated 1350.)
Hayward has found some striking similarities between his new habit and his day job. “Basketball is matchup-based,” he explains. “Sometimes you have to take what the defense gives you, sometimes you have to force the defense to do what you want. On defense, you react to how the offense plays. Maybe you're going to play zone one game, maybe you're going to play man. Maybe you're going to double-team on picks, maybe you're going to switch. There’s similar things that you can do in chess. You can take initiative with white, forcing your opponent into moves, and you react as black, guarding things in different ways.”
Grant Williams, power forward for the Dallas Mavericks, credits his court vision to chess. “I visualize everything on the court because of chess,” says Williams, a 1300 Elo chess player who grew up playing chess with his grandfather and attending chess tournaments.
Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson had a similar revelation. “Each player, we're all unique in our own skill sets, just like each chess piece on the board,” Thompson says. “Knowing what each piece does and how to use them to their best ability, that’s similar to basketball.”
Thompson started playing chess in eighth grade, when he took a chess class as an elective. “At the end of every semester, there was a class tournament, and I'll never forget losing in the first round and literally crying because I was so upset. I was so competitive and it was hard to handle losing,” he says. His passion for chess has continued into his NBA career. Thompson makes rookie teammates carry his magnetic chess board on team road trips, and uses a chess clock app on his phone to log games of five-minute speed chess. “It's the best way to train your mind,” Thompson says.
Chess fever has spread to the rest of the team—perhaps not surprising, given that the Warriors’ dynastic run has been chess-like in its execution. Chess is often described as a game of space and harmony, with pieces moving in concert to occupy valuable real estate on the board and build a coordinated attack on the opponent’s position—much in the same way those Warriors teams used spacing and ball movement to build one of the most potent offenses in NBA history.
Warriors backup shooting guard Moses Moody is an avid chess player, too. Moody doesn’t gamble on chess, but he’s seen teammates wager as much as $2,000 on a single chess match. And he’s also seen the way a player’s on-court style carries over to the chessboard, too. “Klay’s a shooter, so he plays off adrenaline,” Moody says of his teammate. “When he gets hyped, shots falling, he wanna shoot, shoot, shoot. That same mentality goes into the chess game. If he takes a piece, he gets aggressive and wants to take it all.”
Thompson’s chess hobby has piqued the interest of fellow veteran stars Steph Curry and Draymond Green, the two other stalwarts of the Warriors dynasty. Thompson taught Curry and Green the basics of chess during team lunches, according to Moody, and Moody has played Green in a couple of “practice games,” though Moody declined to say who won. (In Moody’s defense, I wouldn’t want to be on record bragging about beating Draymond Green, who was suspended indefinitely earlier this season for a string of violent outbursts, in chess either.) “Steph is a beginner, but he’s passionate about it and he’s learning,” Thompson says. “Draymond just likes to commentate and wish for me to lose.”
The nexus of the NBA chess club might be in Philadelphia, where team president Daryl Morey’s love of the game has permeated the entire franchise. Morey, a front-office executive famous for his unorthodox thinking and eclectic personal interests, is perhaps best known for taking the NBA’s “space and pace” style of play to its absolute extreme with the Houston Rockets, where he built a roster that nearly eliminated the midrange jumper from its repertoire.
Morey is also solid on the chess board, where he boasts a 1700 Elo, putting him in the 99th percentile of all Chess.com players. (He’s also got a Chess.com bot—one that uses lyrics from Broadway showtunes, another one of Morey’s fascinations, to trash talk its human opponents.)
In Philly, everyone from the players (Paul Reed, De’Anthony Melton) to the training staff—Morey says that strength and conditioning coach Stephen Brindle is the best player in the organization—is playing chess. Last March, Melton hosted a chess tournament for kids in the Philly area. 76ers small forward Paul Reed joined the chess club in elementary school but didn’t play for years until he joined the team. “None of my friends played chess. None of my friends in high school played chess either. In college, none of my friends played chess. Once I got to the NBA, it opened up again because a lot of my coaches and teammates play. We be competing all the time.”
As the NBA has embraced chess, the world of chess has embraced the NBA. Chess.com, in its effort to promote chess as a spectator sport, has created A.I. chess bots modeled after NBA players and their playing styles, including Hayward and Celtics star Jaylen Brown.
It also helps, of course, that Magnus Carlsen of Norway—one of the youngest people to ever achieve the rank of grandmaster, the number one ranked player in the world, and, at 33, arguably the greatest chess player to ever live—is an enormous basketball fan.
“He's come to a few of our games. I've been able to meet him, and he's just a great guy,” Klay Thompson says of Carlsen. “He's not just a chess player, he’s a sportsman. He loves to play all types of games, whether it be soccer, chess, basketball. He's passionate about the world of sport.”
Chess and basketball have similar geometries, according to Carslen. “The chessboard and the basketball court are similar in the sense that you usually have more options from the middle,” Carlsen explains. “But there’s also a strategy in chess of overloading your pieces on one side, leaving the other open—like running an iso in basketball. Oftentimes in chess there’s a point when the opponent can’t protect because all of their pieces are on one side.”
Good chess, like good basketball, is also about balancing offense and defense, Carlsen adds. Crash the boards too hard and you’ll have no one back on defense to protect your own basket. Commit too many chess pieces to an attack and your king will be vulnerable.
If Carlsen has an analogue in the NBA, it’s most likely Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic, whose Chess.com bot, Luk.AI, is currently ranked at 2500, putting it on par with grandmasters. Grant Williams, Doncic’s teammate, is skeptical, though. “If Luka is a 2000 in chess, I would love to see it,” he says.
Doncic has mentioned his devotion to chess in interviews over the years, often apropos of nothing. In November 2022, when a reporter (bizarrely) asked Doncic for his opinion on Elon Musk’s management of Twitter (now X), Doncic shrugged off the question and responded, “I just play chess on my phone.” Doncic evoked chess again in a post-game interview in 2021, after hitting a game-winner. “It’s like playing chess: you gotta take your time and see the moves,” Doncic said. Not known for his speed and athleticism, Doncic dominates the court with his ability to manipulate defenders and put himself and his teammates in advantageous positions—just like a skilled chess player operates.
According to Morey, the chess craze in the NBA reflects the growing popularity of the game more generally. “We always felt that chess would have its moment because it is the greatest board game ever invented—and I play a lot of board games,” says Morey, But chess’ growth within the NBA is also part of the breakdown of the false nerd-jock dichotomy. Boys have long been conditioned to think they could be either athletes or intellectuals.
Instead of going outside and playing football during lunch in high school, Melton would often go to study hall to get in some midday games of chess, a hobby that raised eyebrows from fellow athletes. “They’d be like, ‘Why you in here playing chess?’” Melton says. “Even some of my friends now, they’ll be, ‘You playing chess?’” NBA players playing chess helps teach kids that they can be a little bit of everything.
The NBA’s embrace of the game has another effect, too: helping promote the game within the Black community, a population underrepresented in the highest echelons of competitive chess.
There’s a rich history of Black chess players. Moody, for instance, learned chess from his uncles. “They were born from the 1940s to the 1980s, they've all been in a penitentiary. They're just hustlers. That's what they do. So they play all the games, whether it's cards, pool, if it's chess,” Moody says. “I visited San Quentin the last two years and everybody there's playing chess. It’s a pastime.”
Professional chess, though, is dominated by players from Europe and Asia. There have been only three Black grandmasters in the game’s modern history, only one of whom, Maurice Ashley, is American.
“In a lot of these rooms where I was playing chess, I even felt more of an oddball because I was the Black athlete,” says former player and current broadcaster Jay Williams. Williams discovered chess as a child, while visiting his father’s office in New York City in the summer and observing men playing speed chess in Washington Square Park. He joined his school chess team in middle school and competed throughout elementary and middle schools, but was always conscious of his race. “That was a weight that I carried because I was competitive, but I also wanted to be taken seriously,” he says. “It wasn't just an elective course for shits and giggles. I actually wanted to be good at it.”
Williams notes that the politics of race seem reflected in the game itself. In chess, white moves first, giving it an advantage. When Williams was growing up, he had to seek out information about Pontus Carlson, Maurice Ashley and other Black chess greats. Showcasing Black athletes' love for chess helps change that.
If there is one grand unifying theory connecting chess and basketball is that both games have constraints—the size of the playing field, the number of pieces, their individual strengths and weaknesses—but within those boundaries exist seemingly limitless opportunities. Both chess and basketball are simple to learn but impossible to master, and the chase for perfection, forever elusive, will always appeal to competitors, be they chess grandmasters, NBA All-Stars or, perhaps one day, someone who is both.
“The biggest takeaway that I've had from chess is watching people over time and seeing their patterns,” Jay Williams says. Those skills lend themselves to everything from contract negotiations to marital relations, he adds. “Chess has set me up for everything I’ve done in my life. Chess is everything.”
Originally Appeared on GQ