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Bengals’ Chidobe Awuzie has a serious chess game

The defensive back’s love for the game dates to college and his rapid improvement earned him a title in an NFL players tournament

CINCINNATI – Chidobe Awuzie and two of his University of Colorado football teammates often couldn’t contain their excitement during economics class, which drew stares from classmates.

“Our laptops were open like we were doing work, but we were all playing chess online,” said Awuzie, now a starting cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals. “And every now and then we’d make noises like ‘Yes!’ or ‘Wow!’ when someone made a great move, and everyone would start looking around. Fortunately, our professors never caught us. Those were some great times. That’s when I really started my love for chess.”

Awuzie’s passion for chess helped propel him this summer as the inaugural BlitzChamps chess champion sponsored by Chess.com. The online tournament consisted of current and former NFL players who all competed for a cash prize for their favorite charity. Awuzie won $25,000 for his charity, the Awuzie Kickstep Foundation.

“The tournament was fun,” Awuzie said. “Chess.com did a good job of assembling the tournament with some good chess players.”

The tournament also included former NFL players Larry Fitzgerald and Will Davis, and current players Arik Armstead (San Francisco 49ers), rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux (New York Giants) and Amari Cooper (Cleveland Browns).

Chess.com was founded by Erik Allebest and Jay Severson in 2007. The website and the classic board game have benefited from a recent boom in popularity. According to Chess.com, the website had 1.5 million new subscribers in April 2020, compared with 670,000 in January 2020, likely boosted by isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the popular Netflix chess-inspired series The Queen’s Gambit.

Chess became increasingly popular in the United States 50 years ago when Bobby Fischer became the first American-born player to win the World Chess Championship. Rensch said the current increase in chess’ popularity attracted many celebrities to Chess.com, such as pop star Justin Bieber, actor Rainn Wilson (The Office) and rapper Logic.

Rensch, who joined Chess.com in 2008, also credits the website’s popularity to a tournament put on by Chess.com earlier that year. It was a tournament for Fortnite and Call of Duty players.

“It went down as the most watched online chess tournament of all time,” Rensch said. “People loved watching other people play chess, even if they weren’t necessarily great at it. People love the struggle because it’s relatable. The tournament [in 2020] led to a lot of new chess players.”

That early success led to Rensch creating a chess tournament for NFL players. Months before launching BlitzChamps, Rensch had several conversations with Cooper to gauge his interest. Cooper frequents the website. He’s even completed all 150 lessons offered by Chess.com.

“Amari loved the idea and he was so into it,” Rensch said. “He helped make it happen [by encouraging other players to join the tournament].”

Cooper and Awuzie were two of the first players to register. They are quite familiar with each other. When the Oakland Raiders traded Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys in 2018, Cooper’s locker neighbor was Awuzie. After time on the practice field, their conversation led to chess, followed by competition on the board.

“Chido played chess, but he kind of laid off of it a bit,” Cooper said. “You can play online, but it’s more competitive when you’re playing someone in person. When he found out I played, he hopped back into it. I was a little bit further than him at the time, so I was really [beating] Chido.”

The routine defeats didn’t discourage Awuzie. He learned fast. 

“Through the losses, I started to recognize some of the positions I was in, which led me to make better moves the next time we played,” Awuzie said. “Over time, I started to make the games more competitive. He’d give me some tidbits here and there because he wanted our games to be more competitive.”

Fortunately for Awuzie, Cooper was merciful during the one-sided games. Each defeat was followed by instruction and advice.

After weeks of consistent defeats, the tide started to change.

“Chido’s a fast learner and he got better really fast,” said Cooper, who was traded by the Cowboys to the Browns in March. “When we started, he’d beat me once in every 20 games, then he’d sneak one in every 15, then one in every 10. Now we’re more even.”

Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Chidobe Awuzie’s love of chess dates to college at the University of Colorado.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Awuzie’s development was on the line during the BlitzChamps tournament. The players were divided into two groups — Cooper, Awuzie and Thibodeaux in Group A, and Fitzgerald, Davis and Armstead in Group B. Cooper and Awuzie advanced to the semifinals. One of Cooper’s first-round victories came against Awuzie.

“I beat him in two out of three in the first round and he was mad,” said Cooper, smiling. “There was a lot of trash talking between us. But I knew by the way he played that it was going to be tough to beat him if we met again.”

Awuzie defeated Fitzgerald in his semifinal round to set up his rematch and championship against his mentor and friend Cooper. The earlier loss brought back memories.

“[Cooper] kicked my butt for a long time,” Awuzie said. “But then the past year or two, I surpassed him. I started to beat him pretty good. So, in the championship, we started off talking trash and then we locked in. He has his days and I have my days when we play each other. I knew this was going to be my day.”

And it was. 

Awuzie avenged his earlier defeat to become the BlitzChamps champion and earn a prize for his foundation. Cooper won $22,500 for his charity, The Barnyard, a community center in Miami where he grew up that offers after school and summer programs.

“He beat me 2-0 in the championship,” Cooper said. “It was humbling. I knew competing against him would be stiff, because Chido’s gotten better.”

Depending on the organization, there are various chess ratings from novice to expert. Rensch is an international master, which can only be achieved by participating in international tournaments and by beating other professional players.

Rensch ranks Awuzie just below a Class A-level player.

“Class A is a top-level player who is getting into the realm of becoming a master,” Rensch said. “He definitely became head and shoulders above the rest of the players by the end of the event. But my scientific evaluation is that Chido is a damn good chess player.”

Awuzie and Cooper owe much of their chess success to hours spent on Chess.com and to further study of the game. Cooper’s so involved that he has a chess coach. And many of the same principles of chess are used in football, such as strategy and countermoves.

For Cooper, chess’ valuable lesson is patience.

“If you want to win in chess, why would you rush when there’s so many different variables,” he said. “Just like in football or in life, it’s hard to be successful if you’re impatient.” 

Likewise, Awuzie visualizes his football opponents as chess pieces.

“Which player is going to give me the most trouble? Which one is getting the ball on certain routes? It’s just like the knight on the chess board: He can only move in a certain way and you have to counter his moves,” he said.

The Bengals and Browns face each other twice this season, with the first meeting scheduled on Halloween night in Cleveland. Sometime during the game, Cooper will line up across from Awuzie. Each player will visualize his next move while anticipating a countermove. The football field will become a chessboard.

“It’ll definitely be some mind games,” Awuzie said. “There’s going to be a lot of great plays made on both sides. Amari and I know what each other is about. It’s going to be fun, because competition is what our friendship has been built on.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.