When John Urschel retired from the NFL last year after just 3 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, it made headlines. In recent years, several young players, including Chris Borland of the 49ers, have bowed out of the sport early due to growing concerns over the potential for long-term brain damage, but Urschel’s motivation was different: he just didn’t have time for football anymore. He was getting a PhD in math at MIT.
The idea of a 300-pound offensive lineman trading in his helmet for a protractor obviously generated a lot of interest, as well as a lot of bad math/football puns. Now, Urschel has quietly set himself a new goal: he wants to become a chess master.
You might think someone who spends his days studying Laplacian eigenvectors would pick a hobby that’s a little more restful on the brain. But for Urschel, the appeal of math and the appeal of chess are very similar. “As a mathematician, I really like to understand the structure of things,” he says. “[Chess] is very mathematical to me. You’re playing a game, you’re faced with some position, you’re trying to figure out the way to proceed, and you don’t really know in most cases if I play this move or that move, if that’s winning, if it’s losing, if it’s drawing... It doesn’t feel that much different from being faced with a mathematical problem and trying to reason your way through.”
Urschel has set himself the goal of earning the National Master title, which is awarded by the US Chess Federation to players who reach a certain rating level. While the “NM” title falls well below the prestigious Grandmaster title given out by FIDE (the International Chess Federation) it’s still a heavy lift for someone who’s getting a PhD and raising a child at the same time. Nevertheless, Urschel thinks he can do it. So does Daniel Rensch, Vice President of Chess.com, the most popular online chess site. “I would be surprised if he doesn’t make master in the next five years,” he says.
The two met sometime last year, when Urschel reached out to Rensch on Twitter. Rensch is an International Master (the second-highest title bestowed by FIDE), and was one of the top junior players in his youth. “[Urschel] said he was a big fan of Chesscenter, which is a show that we do, a monthly sports-style recap of all the biggest stories in chess,” recalls Rensch. “At first I was like, ‘who’s this?’ Then I click and I’m like, ‘oh crap, this is an NFL star.’ And then I found out John is one of the most interesting people on the planet.”
Intrigued by the idea of an ex-NFL player who wanted to become a chess master, Rensch made himself Urschel’s unofficial mentor. Nowadays you can often see them together on Chess.com’s youtube channel, like in this video where Rensch gives Urschel a calculation lesson:
In July, Chess.com organized a “celebrity chess match” between Urschel and Shaun Hutchinson, or “Hutch”, a popular eSports streamer and commentator who dabbles in chess. “At the time our ratings on Chess.com were comparable,” says Urschel. “It seemed like a cool thing to do.”
After losing the first game, Urschel surged to a blowout victory by winning the next eleven in a row ― but he’s charitable to his vanquished foe. “I won but I want to stress that the score did not represent our talent levels,” he told me. “He very much went on tilt, as people do. People go on tilt, things happen.”
After I spoke to Urschel on the phone for this article, I challenged him to a quick game on Chess.com. He accepted. It was a tense game, with both sides holding the advantage at various points. Urschel managed his clock better than me and I lost on time in the endgame (in timed games, the first player whose clock runs out loses). I showed our game to Daniel Rensch to see if he had any thoughts. After offering me some tips on my own play, he turned to Urschel’s. Get ready for some chess jargon.
“I think John’s biggest mistake was that after e5 on move 19 he should’ve played d5,” he told me. “If he responds with d5 there he’s got a really strong passed pawn in the center, and it leaves your bishop on f6 blocked by your own e-pawn. John has a tendency to like trading pieces, because he really likes the endgame, but it means he can misplay some middlegame space advantages. I’ve worked with him on this.”
Getting to master level means meticulously identifying and ironing out those weaknesses, one by one. “I think it’s totally realistic that he can make master in 3 to 4 years,” says Rensch. “In that way I am both his biggest cheerleader and his biggest critic. Because I do push him to challenge his own weaknesses and not to be comfortable. John loves the game, he loves the scientific aspects of it, and he’s willing to work hard. But whether he’s able to fully embrace the gamesmanship aspect of it will be a big determining factor. I think John is already on the way to having a master-level understanding of the game. But he’s not there yet.”
In 2015, after Chris Borland’s retirement due to concerns over football-related brain damage, Urschel published a piece in the Players’ Tribune defending his decision to keep playing the game. “Objectively, I shouldn’t,” he admitted. So why not quit? “I love hitting people,” he said simply. For Urschel, there was just no replacing the rush of physically dominating another player.
Two years later, growing academic and family commitments had changed the calculation. While it seems unlikely chess will be able to fill that very specific void in his life, Urschel has developed enough of a passion for the game to keep pushing toward a master title. “By the end of 2020 I think seems like a reasonable goal,” he says. “Hopefully by then I’ll have something to celebrate.”