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 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.)
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