The Warriors’ Key Chess Piece Is Also a Chess Fanatic
NBA playoff series are chess matches. So it’s a good thing that Klay Thompson really, really loves chess.
By Ben Cohen
Updated May 30, 2018 11:56 a.m. ET
After a recent Golden State Warriors game, Klay Thompson opened the Chess with Friends app on his phone. He wanted to show a match he was playing against teammate Andre Iguodala to someone he’d never met waiting for him outside the locker room. Thompson thought Magnus Carlsen might be able to offer some assistance.
Magnus Carlsen is the best chess player in the world, according to the official rankings of the sport’s governing body. Klay Thompson introduced himself to Carlsen as the best chess player on the Warriors, according to the official rankings of Klay Thompson.
“Based on loose facts,” he said, “but whatever.”
Thompson plays chess as often as he plays basketball: almost every day. “It’s a great game,” he said. He owns multiple chess boards at home. He carries a magnetic chess set on road trips. And he juggles several chess games on his phone, which is a problem for Thompson: He’s not good at chess on his phone.
“In person, I’m real nice,” he said. “On the phone, I’ll make a couple moves, put my phone down for a couple of days, forget my strategy and think: Why the hell did I do that?”
He added: “You can learn a lot about someone playing chess.”
His childhood friend Seth Tarver, who now works for Thompson’s foundation, knows his chess habits better than anyone and offered this scouting report about Thompson’s game: “One thing about Klay is that he’s at his best when you back him into a corner. He’ll be playing loose, but once I show I’m a threat, he can really lock in.”
Which means Thompson plays basketball the way he plays chess.
The Warriors were down 3-2 in Game 6 of the 2016 conference finals when he scored 41 points to rescue their season. It was a once-in-a-lifetime game. Until it happened again. The Warriors were down 3-2 in Game 6 of the conference final last week when Thompson scored 35 points and sparked another epic comeback. Golden State wouldn’t be in the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers for the fourth consecutive season without him.
Thompson is their rook. He’s the quietly crucial piece of this potential Warriors dynasty.
He doesn’t seem to mind that he’s an understated All-Star who will never get the glory of Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant. He prefers it that way. Golden State coach Steve Kerr calls Thompson “the most low-maintenance guy on earth.”
Everyone on the Warriors understands his value to their bid for a third championship in four years. His talents fit this team. They don’t need another ballhandler, and he scores the most points in the league off screens. They do need a ball-stopper, and he defends the other team’s best guard. The Warriors are perfect for Thompson, and he is perfect for the Warriors.
But there is nothing about Klay Thompson that screams chess player. This is someone who simply missed practice the day before he erupted for 60 points in 29 minutes. Why? Because he was sleeping. It was more characteristic of Thompson when the Warriors were in New York and he gave one local television station a man-on-the-street interview to discuss his thoughts about…scaffolding. He was identified by his name and occupation: “NBA player.” He might be the spaciest NBA player of his generation.
This is another classic Klay Thompson story. It was the end of the fourth quarter of a tie game in 2012, and the Warriors had the ball and could’ve held it for the last possession. Thompson was completely oblivious to the time, score and situation, though, and he launched a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left. Any chess player would’ve identified it for what it was: a blunder. The shot was inexcusable even before Thompson missed it, and Golden State’s horrified coaches attempted to explain why as he walked back to the bench.
“My bad,” Thompson said. “I’ll make it next time.”
The roots of his fascination with chess were also unexpected. It started in seventh-grade in Portland, Oregon. Riverdale Grade School’s chess teacher, Carl Haessler, a local securities broker who is also a United States Chess Federation Life Master and five-time Oregon state champion, taught his students to be cerebral. “I’m big on the Socratic method,” he said.
He wanted them to know how to think rather than what to think. “How to look down at this thing of all these pieces going every which way,” he said, “and cut out the white noise, look at what’s relevant, assess the position, come to a conclusion, make a plan based upon that conclusion and then make specific moves that fit the plan.”
This is not what Thompson was expecting from chess class.
“I took it as an elective just to waste time,” he said.
The other thing he was not expecting was that he would become obsessed with chess.
“And then I realized, wow, this is actually really fun,” Thompson said. “Just for an hour, to be with your friends, hang out and play chess. It was probably the best class I’ve ever had.”
What he appreciates most about chess are the moments when he can feel the advantage tipping. That sense is familiar to anyone who has watched the Warriors use a sliver of an opening to destroy other teams over the last four years. “I just love how there can be so many swings,” Thompson said, “and it can take one move to mess up the whole flow.”
Thompson is still with his friends, hanging out and playing chess. They abide by the rules of pickup basketball. There is no clock, and the winner of one match getting the advantage of playing white in the next match is their equivalent of make it, take it.
Tarver used to lose so often that he spent time studying why he was losing. “He knows some good tactics,” Tarver said. “I had to learn on the fly. I learned through him beating me.”
He stopped losing soon enough, and he declined to reveal too much about his current strategies against Thompson because they play nearly every day.
“I don’t know who’s better now,” he said. “He’ll probably tell you it’s him.”
Except if they’re playing on their phones. They’re evenly matched in person, when Thompson can devote his full attention to a physical chessboard even as his English bulldog, Rocco, attempts to play with him. But he gets so distracted online that Tarver has to nudge Thompson in person to make a move with his phone.
He’s not the only person who talks chess with Thompson. At one Warriors dinner this season, enough players and coaches were discussing chess that Golden State decided it would be a good idea to invite Carlsen to meet with the team. As it turned out, the reigning world champion is a maniacal NBA fan. He flew to Houston for the conference finals against the Rockets, and the Warriors arranged for Carlsen to have tickets. (Carlsen woke up Tuesday morning and watched Game 7 from Norway.)
Thompson was impressed by Carlsen. “That guy’s smart,” he said. “Understatement that he’s smart. He’s a genius.” And he took advantage of the opportunity to request advice on his openings. “He said he’d sit down and teach me some things one day,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who once compared Ping-Pong games with Roger Federer, thought better of challenging maybe the greatest chess player of all time.
“He’d play blindfolded and backward,” Thompson said, “and still beat me.”