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The Pens' Gambit

Chess has become the players' biggest pastime on the road this season

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

When Jake Guentzel pulled out his phone one day earlier this season, a video started playing and his teammates could hear a voice giving instructions.

"You just hear like, 'Move pawn to…'" Zach Aston-Reese recalled with a laugh.

Turns out Guentzel had been watching a YouTube tutorial on how to improve at chess, which has become the Penguins' biggest pastime this season. 

"It's just another way to be competitive with the guys," John Marino said. "You're always looking for something else to do to fill up some time. Especially on the road, when there's not that much to do. Just finding something else to kind of compete with each other about keeps us pretty busy."

The NHL's current COVID-19 protocols state that since players must remain at the team hotel when they are not at the arena, a dedicated common area or lounge should be set up for them. 

So on the first road trip of the season to Philadelphia, the Penguins wandered into a spacious conference room to discover various games and activities, like ping-pong, cornhole, Connect Four, Pac-Man…and two chess boards. 

That's where a bunch of the Penguins gravitated after watching The Queen's Gambit, a limited series released on Netflix in October about a young girl who reveals an astonishing talent for chess and begins an unlikely journey to stardom.

"I would say people might think us playing chess is pretty nerdy, but I think after that show came out, I think the popularity of chess shot up a ton," Aston-Reese said. "So as surprising as it is to hear that we play, I think that show made it a lot more popular."

And now, it's extremely popular with the team, as the list of Penguins who play currently includes Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Teddy Blueger, Evan Rodrigues, Cody Ceci, Marcus Pettersson, Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola.

The guys are constantly playing, whether it's using an actual board - the team ended up purchasing a travel-sized one that gets transported from city to city - or through the Chess.com app. 

Their obsession with the game was an eye-opener for Drew O'Connor when he was with Pittsburgh earlier in the season, who was talking with fellow rookie P.O Joseph about how much the guys are into chess.

"He was like, I don't really know how to play chess," Joseph said. "I was like, well, I think in this environment, you'll have to learn (laughs). And he actually started learning how to play."

Before Joseph got re-assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton back in February, he and Marino would battle against each other on the plane using the app. 

"I told John I did a chess tournament when I was in like fifth or sixth grade, so he was like oh, you must be good then," Joseph said. "I was like, I don't know, I haven't played much since then, but okay. Then I could never beat him (laughs). I shouldn't have mentioned the chess tournament."

The Harvard graduate's dominance comes as no surprise to Aston-Reese, who said when it comes to ranking the players in terms of ability, Marino and Letang go back and forth for the top-two spots.

"Then I'd say the rest of us fight for the three spot," Aston-Reese said. "But anybody can beat anybody no matter where they are."

Especially since, like Guentzel, many of the players use their spare time to practice regardless of their skill level coming into this season. That's helped Aston-Reese improve a lot since he first joined in on the craze. 

"I played a little bit when I was little, but nothing serious," Aston-Reese said. "Just kind of knew how the pieces moved. But like Johnny said, we're competitive. So since we started playing, I know guys are constantly on the app or watching videos."

"I know Letang is a big one for that," Marino added. "Guys will practice a lot more than you think, for sure."

The players all have the app, so they can match up against other or random people using that when they're in their hotel rooms, or whenever, really. And after completing a game, they can get their moves analyzed, which Aston-Reese said has helped him learn some of the openings.

"It tells you Sicilian Defense, King's Pawn Opening or whatever it may be," he said. "All that good stuff."

In fact, while playing against each other in person the other day, Marino recognized one of the moves Aston-Reese had done virtually.

"You did this on the app!" Marino said. "Déjà vu!" Aston-Reese laughed.

There was some pretty funny commentary and of course, plenty of chirping going on between Aston-Reese and Marino as they played, with the word "rat" getting thrown around more than once. They said in-person games on the road can sometimes get heated, especially when players have questionable moves. One mystery Penguin in particular is known for his controversial play.

"Like taking their fingers off the pieces and then realizing they're going to get caught, so they go oh, no, I didn't mean to do that," Aston-Reese said. 

"Who do you think is the biggest culprit?" Marino posited. 

"I'm not going to name any names. I don't want to start any drama. But you know who," Aston-Reese said. 

"Oh, we know," Marino said with a laugh.

The boys do dabble in speed chess from time to time. But since they don't use timers, the games are usually so slow that there aren't many big matches where everyone watches. 

"There's a couple, but sometimes the moves just take so long and they get so into it that everyone just kind of fades away," Marino said. "Like all right, you're taking too long, I'm going to walk away."

Aston-Reese said that is something he has to get on Ruhwedel about. "He takes forever," Aston-Reese said with a laugh. Whenever the team arrives in a new city, Zach and Chad like to have a best-of-three ping pong series and then a best-of-three chess series throughout the night. 

Apart from that, they claimed no one is really too superstitious or routine-driven about chess. It's just an interesting and cerebral way for them to harness their competitive spirit and do some team bonding.

"Just kill some time and be competitive," Marino said. "It's a lot of fun." 

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