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Chess and Basketball Print E-mail
By David Friedman   
September 8, 2007

Obrienlead.jpg Jim O’Brien, who recently replaced Rick Carlisle as coach of the Indiana Pacers, has been coaching college and professional basketball for more than 30 years. Prior to that, he played for St. Joseph’s University, leading the Hawks to three straight postseason appearances. O’Brien led the University of Dayton Flyers to the NCAA Tournament in 1989, served as associate head coach on Rick Pitino’s staff when the Kentucky Wildcats won the 1996 NCAA Championship and guided the Boston Celtics to the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. Many basketball fans are aware of these achievements but they may not know that O’Brien has been a chess player even longer than he has been a coach.

“The guy who got me most interested (in chess) was one of my college coaches, an assistant coach named Jim Boyle, who died two years ago,” O’Brien explains. “He taught me. I probably played more games of chess against him (than anyone) and beat him two times—maybe.” Boyle later became the head coach at St. Joseph’s before working as an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets. O’Brien describes some strategic similarities between chess and basketball: “In both basketball and chess the middle must be controlled. In our sport, it’s the three second paint—defensively we want to control that by keeping the ball out of the middle and offensively we want to control it by making sure that we get the ball into the middle. I have never won a chess game—or have not won very many times--when I didn’t control the middle of the board.”

Many fans believe that college basketball is a “coaches’ game” and that pro basketball is a “players’ game” but O’Brien says that this is simply a myth. “Every game of basketball is a players’ game ultimately and the coach’s job is just to put them in position to be able to do their best. I think that the difference between college basketball and professional basketball is the difference between checkers and chess. The professional game, because it is played with the top athletes in the world, has nuances that are such that there is actually more strategy involved (than in college); the typical fan does not understand the depth of what is going on, much like somebody who would come in to a masters’ tournament in chess would not be able to explain what he is seeing. I loved college basketball and I still love college basketball but it’s different than what goes on in the NBA—like chess and checkers, college basketball and pro basketball are played on the same board or the same court but they are different.”

Chess players from the Grandmaster level down to the club level are keenly aware of how much technology has completely changed the game both in terms of pre game preparation and post game analysis. If an opening novelty is played in a small tournament in Iceland on Monday it will be posted on the internet and may very well appear in a U.S. swiss the next weekend. A similar transformation has happened in basketball coaching. Just like a Grandmaster books up on his opponents so that he does not walk into their home preparation, basketball coaches study the strengths and tendencies of opposing players and teams. If Grandmaster X only plays the Najdorf against e4 you can be sure that his top level opponents will take advantage of that knowledge—and if an NBA player favors certain moves in crucial situations or is more accurate when he shoots from particular spots on the floor, that is also duly noted.

The same applies to post game analysis in the NBA. Much like chess players engage in extensive postmortems after tournament games, basketball coaches review game footage in order to better instruct their players about what to do in future encounters. Years ago, of course, this involved watching film, which was cumbersome to deal with and could not be easily broken down if a coach wanted to look at, for instance, all of the fast break plays or all of the out of bounds plays. Coaches now use DVDs and computer editing to literally pick apart game footage possession by possession. “Technology has changed the game of basketball dramatically. The preparation is at a level that the average person would not or could not believe from the standpoint of how you are just trying to get an edge,” O’Brien declares. “You couldn’t even begin to explain that to somebody; it has just dramatically changed. Like any other business in the world, you have a plan and after you have been put into a situation where that plan succeeded or failed then you must immediately analyze what made it succeed or what made it fail so that you will be ready the next time.”

O’Brien adds that he is familiar with the research that indicates that chess mastery is the product of 10 years of “purposeful study” and notes that this is another way that chess mirrors basketball coaching: “People don’t understand that it takes at least 10 years of study at the level where all you are concentrating on in your life is understanding the nuances of the game and how to get that across to a team. They don’t talk about master coaches but the best ones have spent their whole lives studying the game at a level where there really has not been a whole lot else in their lives.”

It does not surprise O’Brien that many of the world’s greatest athletes, ranging from Jim Brown to Wilt Chamberlain to Lennox Lewis, became chess players. “Great athletes are great competitors and they want to constantly be in a situation where there is competition. Chess in particular is a game that really challenges your mind and your intelligence and your ability to think ahead. I think that playing chess improves your mental capabilities regardless of what sport you are involved with and that helps anybody who wants to improve as a competitor.”

O’Brien is not the only chess player in the Pacers’ organization. Mark Boyle, the team’s radio play by play announcer, played in the 1996 U.S. Open. Lester Conner, one of O’Brien’s assistant coaches, plays chess and poker. Conner, who played 13 seasons in the NBA and previously served as an assistant coach to O’Brien in Boston and Philadelphia, first learned how to play chess when he was 16. “I learned to play back on the streets of Oakland, California,” he recalls. “A bunch of my buddies back in the neighborhood—that is all that we did: play chess, dominoes, basketball. I just liked playing. I got a chess set and any time I can get a game I try to find one.”


Lester Conner Copyright NBAE 2005.
(Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images.)

Conner compares his work as a coach guiding his players to that of a master deploying his forces: “Just like you put your pieces in place for attack, you put your players in a scheme or a game plan that you try to execute against a certain team. There are different attacks that you can use in chess. There are a bunch of different strategies that you can use—you can make your opponent think that you are going to attack on one side of the board and then attack on the other side of the board. That is like a misdirection play in basketball where you start with the ball on one side of the court and then swing it back around and dump it in the post.”

He agrees with O’Brien that great athletes are drawn to chess because they love to compete and to test their minds but also adds another reason for the game’s appeal: “I think that it is a relaxing game to play during the season, just to get away from the fans and all the hoopla on and off the court. You can go in your room and have a board and sit down and play some music and just kind of relax. It’s a relaxing game as well as a competitive game.”

During his playing days, Conner often played chess against teammates Mike Woodson—currently the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks—and Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, the 1981 NBA Finals MVP. Conner says that O’Brien “is one hell of a chess player,” adding that he felt “jubilation” when he finally beat O’Brien, who modestly says, “Neither one of us is very good. He’s improved to where if we played now I think that it would be a pretty even match.”

David Friedman is a USCF expert and professional sportswriter. His short story “Wilt and Bobby: Not a Random Encounter” was published at Chess Life Online on November 10, 2006. Friedman’s work has appeared in Lindy's Pro Basketball, Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com