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Off The Beaten Path: I Played Chess With John Urschel, And It Did Not Go Well

by on September 08, 2017 1:45 PM

The first time I really interviewed John Urschel was a few years ago at a military hospital in Altoona as Penn State sent some players to visit for an event.

As we were passing the time, I mentioned to him a video game called 2048. It's difficult to explain, but the general point of the game is to add like numbers together on a small board until they reach a sum of 2048. It's far harder than it sounds and I had spent a good amount of time not beating it.

A few weeks later I ran into John again, he had beaten 2048 with what I would refer to as "disturbing ease." Because of course he had.

A lot of things have already been written about the fact John's brain is full of a lot smarter hardware than the rest of us. So rolling out a long list of his achievements is repetitive and in most cases just means saying a lot of big worlds that normal humans don't understand.

But following James Franklin's challenge to the media to catch punts during the Blue White game I got to thinking about what other things I might not be able to do.

And that's when I thought of John. He plays chess and even coaches a Tuesday night class about the game on, not to mention playing in tournaments as if a now former NFL career wasn't enough to go with his work at MIT.

So I challenged him to a best-of-five series. Mostly to make it three games instead of two.

"I enjoy chess mainly because of the amount of concentration, planning, and quantitative thinking it takes," John told me. "It’s a great game, but an unforgiving one. You’re fully in control of your own destiny, and if you lose it’s your fault. Unlike other sports, in chess you can’t lose unless you make at least one unforced error. I’m extremely average at chess compared to, say, my math ability, but still I get great enjoyment out of it."

Average is his polite way of saying he isn't Bobby Fischer. I myself am aware of the rules of chess and spent the week leading up to the game playing a lot of chess against people online. I figured my only way of beating him was either playing aggressive early on, much like McGregor against Mayweather. Or that maybe John would have to use the bathroom and the timer would run out.

Neither of those things happened. In the first game my drunken-boxer tactics made him think, possibly about which way he wanted to beat me. I took a few of his pieces, was setting something up three moves ahead, and he read it. The rest was history.

Game two same deal. This time I saw it coming, but it was too late.

Game three I think he had somewhere to be, and suddenly I was sitting in front of a checkmate. If it's possible to get intellectually dunked on it happened in that third game. 

Point taken.

"Right now, I have a couple big life projects," John said looking forward past his NFL career. "Mathematically, I’m working on some very interesting research in machine learning and combinatorial optimization. But I think my main project right now is taking control of my health. I’m hoping to drop 70 pounds when all is said and done. But, easier said than done."

Same John, same.

"It’s great to see Penn State football doing so well," he added. "Penn State really is my home, and I couldn’t be happier for my fellow Nittany Lions. Winning a Big Ten championship is an amazing thing, and judging from the season opener, I think they have a great chance to repeat. And who knows after that…"

In the more immediate future he's running a contest through Texas Instruments, as one does. You can read about that and how to enter, here.

In the meantime, I'm going to practice my chess and my punt returns.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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