Bengals’ Chidobe Awuzie has a serious game of chess — Andscape

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 their classmates.

“Our laptops were open like we were working, but we were all playing chess online,” said Awuzie, now a starting cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals. “And every once in a while, we would make noises like, ‘Yes!’ or “Wow!” when someone took a big step, and everyone started looking around. Fortunately, our teachers never caught us. Those were good times. That’s when I really started to like chess.

Awuzie’s passion for chess propelled him this summer as the first Chess.com sponsored BlitzChamps Chess Champion. The online tournament was made up 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 great job running the tournament with good chess players.”

The tournament also included former NFL players Larry Fitzgerald and Will Davis, as well as 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 classic board game has enjoyed a recent boom in popularity. According to Chess.com, the website had 1.5 million new subscribers in April 2020, up from 670,000 in January 2020, likely boosted by the isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the popular chess-inspired Netflix series. The Queen’s Bet.

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 rise in popularity of chess has brought many celebrities to Chess.com, such as pop star Justin Bieber, actor Rainn Wilson (Office) and rapper Logic.

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

“It has become the most-watched online chess tournament of all time,” Rensch said. “People loved watching other people play chess, even if they weren’t necessarily good at it. People love wrestling because it’s relatable. Tournament [in 2020] led to many new chess players.

This early success led Rensch to create 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 even completed the 150 lessons offered by Chess.com.

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

Cooper and Awuzie were two of the first players to sign up. They know each other well. When the Oakland Raiders traded Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys in 2018, Cooper’s locker neighbor was Awuzie. After some time on the practice ground, their conversation led to chess, followed by competition on the chessboard.

“Chido played chess, but he kind of strayed from it,” Cooper said. “You can play online, but it’s more competitive when you play against someone in person. When he found out I was playing, he started again. I was a bit further than him at the time, so I was really [beating] chido.

Routine losses did not deter Awuzie. He learned quickly.

“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 making the games more competitive. He would give me a few treats here and there because he wanted our games to be more competitive.

Luckily for Awuzie, Cooper was merciful in one-sided matches. Each defeat was followed by instructions and advice.

After weeks of constant losses, the tide has started to change.

“Chido is a quick learner and he’s improved very quickly,” said Cooper, who was traded from the Cowboys to the Browns in March. “When we started he beat me once every 20 games, then he sneaked one every 15, then one every 10. Now we’re more even.”

Cincinnati Bengals defensive back Chidobe Awuzie has loved chess since college at the University of Colorado.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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

“I beat him two out of three times in the first round and he was crazy,” Cooper said with a smile. “There was a lot of talk between us. But I knew from the way he played that it would be hard to beat him if we met again.

Awuzie defeated Fitzgerald in his semi-final to set up his rematch and championship against his mentor and friend Cooper. The previous loss brought back memories.

“[Cooper] kicked me for a long time,” Awuzie said. “But then the last year or two I overtook him. I started beating him pretty well. So in the championship we started talking trash and then we locked ourselves in. He I have my days and I have my days when we face each other. I knew this was going to be my day.

And it was.

Awuzie avenged his previous loss to become the BlitzChamps champion and win an award 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 tough because Chido has improved.

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

Rensch ranks Awuzie just below an A-level player.

“Class A is a top player who is entering 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 assessment is that Chido is a damn good chess player.

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

For Cooper, the valuable lesson of chess is patience.

“If you want to win at chess, why are you rushing when there are so many different variables,” he said. “Like in football or in life, it’s hard to succeed if you’re impatient.”

Similarly, Awuzie visualizes his soccer opponents as chess pieces.

“Which player is going to give me the most problems? Who receives the ball on certain routes? It’s like the knight on the chessboard: he can only move a certain way and you have to counter his moves,” he said.

The Bengals and Browns play each other twice this season, with the first meeting scheduled for Halloween night in Cleveland. At some point during the match, Cooper will line up opposite Awuzie. Each player will visualize his next move while anticipating a counter move. The soccer field will become a chessboard.

“It will definitely be mind games,” Awuzie said. “There are going to be a lot of good plays made on both sides. Amari and I know what it is. It’s gonna be fun, because competition is what our friendship was built on.

Branson Wright is a freelance multimedia sports filmmaker and journalist.

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