POINT GUARD, A GAME OF CHESS
There is an innate similarity between a chess prodigy and a point guard: precision, calculation, recognition, visualization and timing among other qualities.
Perhaps the two are both visionaries within their craft. Observe a matchup of the best chess players and it is as though they can see patterns, or moves, inherent in their game before anybody else in the world. They are seemingly a couple of moves ahead of their opponent, and light years ahead of the rest of us.
It is not unlike that in the NBA. And it’s becoming more and more ostensible in what is emerging as the golden age of point guards. Whether it’s a superstar like Chris Paul or Tony Parker, a point guard entering his prime like Mike Conley or Ty Lawson, or a role player like Darren Collison or Luke Ridnour, the league is dotted with chess players and athletes at the position alike.
“This league has an abundance of point guards that can kill you any night,” Conley said. “This is the pinnacle of the basketball world, you know, in the NBA you’re playing against the best guys in the world, and best defensive players in the world, so you have to be able to outthink them and make the right decisions.”
That’s where the chess aspect of the position emerges. It’s a point guard thing.
Jerry Yee, Tournament Director for more than six years at the West Valley Chess Club in West Hills, Calif. and a coach for the American Chess Academy, described the number one tenant of an elite chess player.
“It’s the ability to recognize patterns quickly,” Yee said. “Even though chess seems like an infinite game as far as the different combinations and types of games you could end up with, there are a finite number of patterns during the learning process.
“A prodigy picks up on those patterns a lot quicker, almost instantaneous compared to someone who doesn’t have the gift.”
There are 90 active players who have registered point-guard minutes this season. Of those, only 60 have been in the league at least three seasons. Sticking at the position is hard.
“We’re looking at the court as X’s and O’s and plays that can happen, two three steps ahead of time,” said Conley, who is in the middle of his seventh year in the league. “That’s what the best point guards do. As you grow into a point guard that’s what you learn, and eventually, you tend to grasp that.”
In chess, it’s not so much about foretelling the future, something Yee referred to as calculation. It’s about precision. Consider Paul, who perennially leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. Words like prober have been used to describe him, but so have words like genius and master craftsman.
The play Paul made to get Jared Dudley an open 3-pointer on Dec. 22 against the Minnesota Timberwolves is a prime example. Paul dribbled along the baseline, knew where Dudley was going to emerge on the opposite wing and threw a one-handed pass across his body to find Dudley in rhythm for a go-ahead shot.
“There is an exactness, as far as accuracy of moves, in a chess game,” Yee said. “The wrong move, you can get punished immediately by your opponent. So, the player who makes the almost perfect move every time it is his turn is likely to win a lot of games.
“The other part of it is knowing that if I make this move and it’s a forcing move then I can kind of know that my opponent has to do this other move to react to it. That’s how important my move is in relation to the position.”
Collison seemed to instantly connect chess to the position when asked, linking the knowledge of your personnel’s strengths and weaknesses to those of the pieces on the board.
“Just like you know every piece on the board, you’ve got to know your own personnel,” Collison said. “Who can shoot, who’s a good driver, who hasn’t scored, who needs to score to get themselves going on the defensive end.”
In that way, chess is about finding advantages or mismatches and exploiting them. Again, it’s the same kind of things a point guard looks to exploit.
“In chess a lot of times it depends on evaluating who’s got the better position or even winning or has an advantage,” Yee said. “If you are the one who’s winning or has the advantage and it’s your turn, your job is to keep the advantage the same or make it even bigger.
“Because of your advantage you can create some threat and after you’ve created a new threat or established one when it’s your turn. Your opponent only has a couple of options. He either ignores your threat, which is not good, or he addresses your threat. And that’s the part, when you’re the side creating the threat that’s what you’re thinking about.”
Collison agreed: “Especially if a team is playing you a certain way, it’s easy to get yourself a bucket. But you’ve got to come down and foresee how you can get somebody else involved first and then you can score. Then when you score, they might try to switch it up and you try to adjust to their adjustments.”
Point guards are often called coaches on the floor. While a coach may make a substitution or lineup change or draw up a play to exploit a matchup, a point guard is responsible for seeing it in real time. That’s the visualization aspect of the position, being able to see the adjustments, as Collison alluded to, and make them on the fly.
Yee explained how that works in the world of chess: “As an example: you create a threat by pushing a tiny pawn to create to try and threaten an opponent’s queen. You know, when you’re visualizing and calculating you know that it would be great if didn’t see the threat and you just took his queen, but you’ve got to play like he sees it. So if he sees the pawn attacking the queen, you probably know protecting the queen with another piece is not a good move because the pawn taking the queen is a great deal, it’s the best deal on the board. The best move for the opponent is to move the queen. Then it’s just a matter of deduction which squares are good, which squares are dangerous. The chessboard is like a minefield, you’ve just go to narrow it down.”