It’s an unusual sight in a 21st century Major League clubhouse, watching players forgo fiddling on cellphones and iPads to instead engage in a strategy game that dates back to the sixth century. And yet, this is the sort of scene now commonplace in the Cardinals’ clubhouse.
A wooden board — dotted by black and cream hand-carved pieces — appeared in the clubhouse in mid-April as a gift from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Manager Mike Matheny, who appears on local billboards and commercials to promote the center, became an avid chess player after reading research that it helped manage post-concussion symptoms.
When Matheny placed the board in the clubhouse, curiosity drew his players to it. Now, they’re captivated.
“We set it in there, didn’t know exactly how guys would take to it,” Matheny said. “Now, you have to put up one of those number ticket things to get on the table.”
In fact, the Cardinals quickly supplemented the handcrafted board with two cheaper ones, allowing for three simultaneous games. Plans for a team-wide tournament are already in place, and a chess club polo shirt has been procured to go to the eventual champion.
Over the team’s recent 10-game homestand, chess fostered an atmosphere of friendly competition and cohesiveness.
“It’s been good for us,” Brayan Pena said. “You bring the Koreans, the Cubans, the Americans, everybody can play together. After everybody does their [pregame baseball] work, it’s great having this time to bond.”
Pena was one of a few players already well-versed in the game, which is a widely-used educational tool in his native Cuba. He was encouraged to play chess regularly as a boy, as was Cuban shortstop Diaz, who has quickly distinguished himself as one of the team’s most skilled at the game.
Pena stopped playing after he defected to the United States as a teenager, but he has rekindled his affinity for the game in St. Louis, a city, coincidentally, that New Yorker Magazine recently described as the country’s emerging chess hub. That’s in large part to Rex Sinquefield, retired financial executive and president of the CCSCSL. He’s also a friend of Matheny’s, the two having met years ago at a charity function.
Last November, each teamed up with one of the country’s top players — Matheny with Hikaru Nakamura and Sinquefield with Fabiano Caruana — for a friendly chess competition dubbed the Showdown in St. Louis. Sinquefield and Caruana were victorious.
But a game that Matheny initially picked up so he could sharpen his mind now has a workplace application. As he does at the chess board, Matheny must constantly be thinking many moves ahead as he manages.
“There are plenty of studies out there showing how great a game it is for your overall mental health, the way you think and problem solving,” Matheny said. “I play a little bit every night. I set up boards and tactics and study a problem to figure out what the best result is.”
His players have found similar mental benefits. Leake, who said he merely “dabbled” in chess previously, finds himself now hooked, as are his rotation mates Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
“I’m into it,” Leake said. “I think it helps the brain a little bit. It gets you in thinking mode.”
Several relievers have become caught up in the new craze, with Maness, Lyons, Matt Bowman and Seung Hwan Oh among those regularly seated at the chess board. Even Korean interpreter Eugene Koo has tried his hand.
“It’s something that is new to me,” Maness said. “I knew how the pieces moved. I didn’t know much else about it. A little out of the ordinary, I would say, to have games of chess going on in here. Any little way to strengthen your mind, I think, can be a benefit in the long run.”
Arguably the team’s best all-around athlete, Maness is only frustrated that he hasn’t yet mastered the strategy. He’s working to fix that.
“I find myself laying in bed looking at my phone at two in the morning, and I’m sitting there playing chess,” Maness said. “I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ But I don’t like losing. That’s why I want to figure it out and master it.”
“I’m real good with that,” Matheny said, grinning at the prospect of his players taking the game home. “We’ve been intentional about creating an atmosphere where they can decompress and where they can truly get away. So to create something that we believe is good for them and healthy is, I think, a win all the way around.”