Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, center, talks to incoming freshmen at Franklin High School. He studies for his Ph.D from MIT during the offseason. (Video by Kenneth K. Lam)
In the summer of 1972, in Reykjavík, Iceland, a 29-year-old from the Midwest named Bobby Fischer took on defending world chess champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union. They played 21 games over six weeks until, with Fischer leading 12 1/2-8 1/2, Spassky resigned. Fischer was named the undisputed world champion, and remained so until 1975.
The 45th anniversary of the so-called Match of the Century is in July, before most NFL training camps open. This is surely no accident. It is, in fact, a sign from the great chessboard in the sky, for another great chess reckoning is upon us.
The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have long been rivals, but until recently, the Ravens had one important off-field advantage: They had John Urschel, which means they had a certifiable chess whiz if ever a game were to be decided not by Joe Flacco's arm or Antonio Brown's hands but by Alekhine's gun.
But as it turns out, we were all just pawns. Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell also knows his rooks from his rookies. He plays three 15-minute games on SocialChess with his former Michigan State teammate three nights a week; each move typically is made in 22 seconds or less.
"If I move a piece — in my head, I'm thinking, 'I want him to take this piece so I can end up taking his piece so I'm in a better position for my next move later,' " Bell told Bleacher Report. "In football, when I break the line of scrimmage, I see a player in front of me, a defender, and already in my head I'm thinking, 'I'm going to make him miss.' So I'm already looking at the next defender like, 'OK, how can I set this guy up to get him out of position, too?' "
On Thursday, Bell shared a video on Twitter. He's "Professor Bell," and he doesn't know who Big Ben is, even though, oddly, he's dropping a lot of football terms around the members of the Pittsburgh Chess Club.
Seeing this, Urschel threw down the gauntlet like only a Ph.D. student in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can.
Bell was, as of Sunday, running up a seven-match winning streak against his SocialChess partner ... but only two games above .500 overall. Urschel once played the strongest American-born chess player ever ... and lost in less than four minutes.
For now, we're left to wonder. I'm not asking Bell and Urschel to play for weeks on end. And while the Ravens and Steelers do have a checkered rivalry, it's not like this is the Cold War. One series of games is all we need.