What an obscure game of chess reveals about the Spurs' success

Matt King

I've learned a lot playing chess. Sometimes the key to winning is initiative, or forcing your opponent's hand. Gregg Popovich does the same by controlling the pace of the game.

Chess is often compared to other aspects of life, which range from war to politics to basketball. As an avid chess player, I usually see these analogies as loosely relevant, clichéd, or simply misinformed about the fundamental ideals of chess. Considering how compelling the game of chess can be, it really is a shame how poor these analogies occasionally are. Jalen Rose once said, "Gregg Popovich is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers," and so it seems only logical for me to contribute my own analogy for chess with respect to basketball and the Spurs.

When I was four or five years old, my grandmother introduced me to chess. The idea that every position offered an opportunity for creativity, for a chance to find what no one else had found before, hooked me. I started playing chess regularly, devouring books and clambering the metaphorical chess mountains to become a grand master (which of course made me a pretty cool guy in elementary school).

Whether it was my general juvenile naivety or my basing life values on Pokémon, I actually believed I could be the world's greatest. I played chess in regional, state, and national tournaments, moving on up in the chess world. But as the years went by, the more and more I realized that there was no hope for me. Some people could simply devote more time to studying chess than I could and computer chess engines were improving at a rate that no man had any chance of winning.

This isn't to say that chess is a pointless game. In a lifetime filled with changing extracurriculars, schools, friends, and houses, chess has developed into one of the few constants in my life. And while I will never be even close to one of the best chess players in the world, the game has taught me so many significant life lessons that I wouldn't be able to learn anywhere else. Ironically, one variant of chess, bughouse, has taught me more about basketball than any game I have seen throughout my NBA fandom.

Bughouse is a variation of chess, which is played on two boards in teams of two. The rules are similar to that of normal chess (see here if you want more info), but the strategy is entirely different. When one teammate captures a piece, the partner can place the piece on the other board. This leads to an enormous number of possibilities, many of which lead to complex scenarios. While bughouse is stuffed with many tactics and theories, the guide to winning can essentially be summed up in one word: initiative.

Initiative is the idea that you want to force your opponent into making particular moves. By seizing the initiative, you control both sides of the board because your opponent is only given a few options to respond to your threats. You minimize the time your opponent has to beat you while you beat them. Seizing the initiative is such a dominant philosophy in bughouse that it is often reasonable to sacrifice major material for it. And while I hope that Coach Pop never decides to sacrifice his players, the fundamental concept behind the initiative can be directly applied to winning basketball.

Initiative is the bughouse chess equivalent of tempo in basketball, and the comparisons extend far beyond their similar names. Barring something extraordinary, you seldom lose when you have the initiative. It's difficult to quantify such an idea at any point in a game, though its presence can certainly be felt.

As J. Gomez recently pointed out, the only major changes for the Spurs during the win streak are "pace and space." In bughouse, the initiative can only be maintained by understanding the symbiosis between the player and the pieces (and the same can undoubtedly be said in basketball). If a coach doesn't understand the limitations of his roster, then he won't be able to hold on to the initiative. What great coaches like Pop do to control the tempo is maximize their roster potential by minimizing their flaws. Pop understands where each of his players excels, and he uses that to space the floor, run the offense, and break teams down.

However, controlling tempo isn't a technique solely employed on the offensive end of the floor. It's why teams like the Bulls have had even a modicum of success this season. Despite their limited roster, Chicago controls the pace of most games with their clampdown defensive presence. Thibodeau has excelled this season because he understands the strengths and major weaknesses of his roster. He maximizes his initiative on the defensive end, and hopes the offense gets dragged along the way.

Chess isn't a game for everyone, and I certainly don't expect basketball fans to suddenly fall in love with it. However, chess provides lots of lessons about life, love, and even basketball. Give chess a try, and you may just learn them, too.

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