CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow looked at the opposition, plotted his next move and prepared to strike.
The execution required only lifting a finger. With Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie seated across from him in the locker room, Burrow fianchettoed — a chess maneuver when one repositions their respective pieces to free a bishop for a diagonal attack.
Yes, the franchise-changing quarterback who relishes the challenge of dissecting and exploiting football defenses also happens to enjoy chess.
“Chess is fun,” Burrow said in a January 2021 news conference. “It’s very strategic, and you have to plan all your moves. That kind of calls to me.”
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Throughout his life, Burrow’s interest in chess has been sparked and later rekindled during times he was forced to stay inside.
Burrow traced his first interest in the game back to his childhood in southeast Ohio, when the weather forced his elementary school into having indoor recess.
“It got too cold and we would play chess,” Burrow said.
Burrow, who will travel to play the Titans in an AFC divisional-round game Saturday (4:30 pm ET, CBS), picked it back up during isolation at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and started playing more around the same time he suffered his season ending left knee injury that November.
But his interest hit a new level ahead of this season. Since training camp, a brown-and-white chessboard perched atop a rolling cart has been part of the team’s locker room decor. Burrow initially played most of his games against Thaddeus Moss, a tight end on the practice squad who was Burrow’s teammate at LSU.
Awuzie, an avid chess player himself, soon took notice. When he was at the University of Colorado, Awuzie and a few friends started playing chess on their laptops as a way to pass time during a business class.
Awuzie began to linger around Burrow’s chess games with Moss, offering subtle comments to indicate that he also played. When Awuzie told Burrow he was ready for a match, things didn’t go well for the quarterback.
“I had to get a little better,” Burrow said.
After his initial victory, Awuzie suggested Burrow and Moss download the Chess.com app as a way to improve.
Burrow took the advice. In a rematch a couple of weeks later, Awuzie immediately noticed a more calculated strategy compared to their first game. Even though Burrow lost again, the way the quarterback played the opening and middle portions of the game impressed Awuzie.
“His end game needed a little bit of work,” Awuzie said. “But he was playing all the right moves.”
In many ways, the decision-making skills and ability to recognize patterns required in chess are the same Burrow has used to transform the Bengals from one of the NFL’s worst franchises into an AFC contender in just two years.
Football coaches often like to compare football and chess, where both sides deploy competing schemes throughout the course of a game.
“You’re always trying to play the cat-and-mouse game with the [opposing] playcaller,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said after the Bengals beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 2. “You’re trying to keep them off-balance as well as playing the chess game with the quarterback.”
John Hartmann, the editor of Chess Life, the official publication of the United States Chess Federation, said that as one becomes to understand the game better, players learn to read the board in order to make moves.
And while not all football players make for good chess players, Awuzie said his two games against Burrow did reveal something about him as a quarterback.
“The fact that he plays chess lets you know that he’s able to prioritize certain things and articulate things very fast and have formation recognition,” Awuzie said. “Because that’s all chess is — pattern recognition at this point.
“If you recognize a position that you’ve been in, you’re going to know the perfect move to play or the best move to play.”
That skill has been at the core of Burrow’s success in his second NFL season. In Cincinnati’s wild-card win over the Las Vegas Raiders, Burrow identified a zone coverage that Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley didn’t use often. Instinctively, Burrow found the defense’s weak spot and fired a 29-yard completion to tight end CJ Uzomah, who’d trash-talked Burrow’s chess game during the offseason.
It’s why the Bengals give Burrow the freedom to make pre-snap changes at the line of scrimmage.
“We want it to happen, and he’s gotten better at it because he’s got a better understanding of what he’s seeing versus what we have,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said in September. “It’s just the chess match of, ‘What are we trying to get done and how do I recognize it and take advantage of it?’”
If Burrow and the Bengals can put the Tennessee Titans in checkmate in this weekend’s playoff game, Cincinnati will be playing for its first conference championship since 1988.
And throughout Cincinnati’s best season in three decades, chess hasn’t been too far from Burrow’s mind. Awuzie said the other day, Burrow flashed his phone in the cornerback’s direction and let him know he’s been preparing for another showdown against the cornerback.
“I walked through your locker,” Burrow told Awuzie. “Just let me know when you’re ready.”