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Chess and the NBA: Derrick Rose will play anyone, anywhere, any time in the league’s popular pastime

If you happen to come early enough to a Grizzlies game to see Derrick Rose walking into an arena, chances are that he will be holding a small Louis Vuitton case tucked under his arm. The case contains one of Rose’s passions, which he will share instantly if prompted. 

“Do you play?” Rose asks, revealing the small chess set inside. 

Chess’ popularity within the league is not new. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar counts himself as a fan. Wilt Chamberlain once played an all-night session with World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer.

These days, chess is still very popular within the league. Klay Thompson is the self-proclaimed best player on the Warriors, Luka Doncic plays (and usually wins) and Giannis Antetokounmpo fell in love with chess after learning from Rose’s former Bulls teammate and frequent chess partner Tony Snell. 

There is no bigger fanatic in the NBA though than Rose. The Grizzlies are honoring his passion with a Derrick Rose chess set giveaway on Feb. 12.

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There’s a chess ‘cult’ among NBA players

As one of the most outspoken fans of the game, he knows the secret fraternity of chess players within the league. 

“It’s kind of a cult type thing,” Rose says. “People whisper about it. It’s never where I say, ‘I play chess.’ It’s a thing where it’s like, ‘Hey I play.’ ‘Oh sh—, you play too?’ It’s a whisper. It’s never like you see people with boards. It’s more of a hidden type of community.”

Rose came to the Grizzlies to bring veteran leadership to the locker room. He also brought two chessboards — “a little board that I travel with and a handheld board. Anybody on the team, on the plane, I’ll play them.” 

Rose started playing chess when he heard that it helps prevent dementia in old age. After that, he got addicted.

Rose plays every day on chess.com, many times against random players who have no idea that they are challenging the 2011 NBA MVP. His addiction went viral earlier in the summer when his wife posted a semi-exasperated video of him playing a match during the middle of a Drake concert. 

“It was intermission,” Rose clarifies, for the record. 

Rose took on all comers with the Knicks, ranging from Svi Mykhailiuk (“I kicked his a— a few times”) to executive William Wesley, aka World Wide Wes (“He beat me at damn near 60 years old”).

Now, he’s challenging the Grizzlies. Marcus Smart plays, as do Steven Adams and Santi Aldama.

Adams picked up a love for the game during the pandemic while with the Pelicans. He once spent months responding to tweets with pictures of chess formations

“I was just starting off the chess thing then,” Adams says. “I was hyped that I got real basic opening traps and sh— like that. Just boasting about it.”

Many players in the league have fallen in love with chess. Not only does it give them an outlet for their competitive nature, it hones their mental skills as well. The common strategic elements of basketball and chess are obvious. Both sports utilize the concept of chunking and pattern recognition. There are of course limitations to how much chess can help.

“It’s not like you’re good at this opening, now you can dunk a ball,” Adams quips.

“You gotta try to think ahead,” says Aldama, who prefers the blitz game variant where moves are made against the clock. “And it’s frustrating when you make the wrong move. It’s good for the mind.”

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Chess keeps NBA players mentally sharp

Adams does say a player’s style can reveal what he’s like on the court. “You see how ruthless or reckless they are.”

Jaylen Brown, another chess enthusiast, has echoed those same sentiments. “I play you in a game of chess just to see how your mind works a little bit,” he once told Matt Petersen of NBA.com. 

Adams also uses the board as a gauge for himself, to test how mentally sharp he is on any given day. 

“Sometimes I fall for some bullsh— a— trap. So I’m not locked in. I have to go back, drink some water, turn it down, meditate, come back a bit more fresh and with more clarity.”

For Rose, he uses chess to hone the strategic side of his brain. He believes that his chess moves parallel those in his life. 

“I replaced the word sacrifice with gambit,” Rose says. “I don’t like using the word sacrifice no more when it comes to life in general. A gambit is a way you sacrifice something to set up the board for the long run. That’s where I’m at in my life. I’m making gambit moves right now.”

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