PlayStation is pass�. Dominoes are dead. Card games are so five minutes ago. The latest locker room activity for jocks with downtime: chess. Among the pros who've been known to sacrifice a pawn or two are NBA players Steve Smith, Erick Strickland and Chris Webber, North Carolina basketball guard Joe Forte, big league pitchers Rick Reed and Pete Harnisch, and nearly the entire roster of the Knicks. ( Larry Johnson is considered the most avid player on the team, Latrell Sprewell the best.)
Why are athletes suddenly seeing the world in black and white? "There are parallels between chess and sports strategy," says Forte. "Different pieces have different strengths just as different players have different strengths. Outthinking your opponent applies in both areas." For Johnson the game's appeal is simpler: "I picked it up for relaxation. I can sit down, get into the game and escape."
Of course, pro athletes haven't necessarily adopted all the formal playing customs usually associated with the rarefied game. Knicks forward Kurt Thomas is an unabashed trash talker when he pulls up to a board, and Harnisch doesn't exactly respect his opponent's fallen men. "When he captures your pieces," says Joe Ausanio, a former major league reliever who's now a member of the United States Chess Federation, "he puts them in his nose."