The biggest chess board – hand-carved pieces and board, atop a finely finished wood table – sits near the center of the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse, not far from a leather couch and just a soft toss from the Redbird-red ping pong table.
A second smaller wood set sits on a table in one corner of the room, near the lockers of Yadier Molina, Stephen Piscotty and Jeremy Hazelbaker.
An even smaller composite set rests on a table closest to the row of the cubicles occupied by starting pitchers Michael Wacha, Mike Leake and Jaime Garcia.
The layout is reminiscent of the team’s array of playing and practice fields in spring training, their worth measured by the length of the walk the players have to take from their clubhouse.
“We have the stadium, the half-field and Field 6,” jokes reliever Seth Maness, a chess rook(ie) finding his way in a room filled with far more advanced players. “I’m lingering in the back of the pack. I’m not making the Big Dance this year.”
Such is the state of the latest team-building focus by the Cardinals, who are using manager Mike Matheny’s enthusiasm for the game to form new bonds as the long season unfolds.
“It’s terrific,” Matheny says. “There are plenty of studies out there that are showing how great a game it is for your overall mental health: Just the way you think, the problem solving. I’ve been a fan of it, and continue to hear the results even with kids, kids getting involved at even younger ages, how their test scores are improving, how their grades are improving. You can use something like the game of chess to basically help them out in life.
“And now we can use baseball as a platform to talk about things like chess that are ending up helping people. That’s kind of the end game.”
The best players in the clubhouse? Hands down, the honor is shared by Aldedmys Diaz and Brayan Pena, who have played the game since they were children in Cuba.
“It’s been good for us,” Pena said. “You bring the Koreans, the Cubans, the Americans, everybody can play together. After everybody does their (pregame) work, it’s great having this time to bond.”
Maness is still learning as he plays, not an easy task in a room filled with ultra-competitive sorts.
“I knew how the pieces moved. I didn’t know much else about it,” Maness said. “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.”
Finding the game
Matheny became a chess fan by a circuitous route. After his career ended prematurely following concussions in San Francisco, he researched ways to help him restore full mental function.
“To me, they said there were a few things: One of them was chess, one was learning a new musical instrument, and the other was learning a new language. I already knew Spanish, but I kind of kicked that into another gear,” said Matheny, whose instrument of choice was a guitar because it was transportable. “I take the guitar with me on the road and play it almost every night. Poorly, but I play it.
“And then I started in on chess. I play a little bit every night. I don’t play a lot of games because I hate to lose. But I set up boards and tactics and kind of study a problem and figure out what the best result is.”
Through appearances at charitable events in the St. Louis region, Matheny became friends with Rex Sinquefield, founder of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Sinquefield donated the large chess board and table gracing the middle of the clubhouse.
“It’s fun to watch these guys do this,” Matheny said. “Between doing that and grabbing an iPad and surfing around or playing a video game, I think there are a lot more beneficial things (to do).
“It’s causing some cohesiveness, too, as you’re playing against each other. It’s the same reason we brought the ping pong table in – so guys aren’t just sitting in their lockers, and staring at an iPad. They’re getting some interaction. There’s always positives with the ping pong hand-eye and the positives of chess and how it really challenges your mind.”
Beyond the ballpark
Some players are honing their game away from the clubhouse, playing at home on the Internet as they try to gain an edge on their teammates.
“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.”
The manager is glad to see it.
“I’m real good with that,” Matheny said. “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.
“I didn’t know exactly how guys would take to it. Now we’ve got multiple games going, and you have to put up one of those number ticket things to get on the table. They’re going home at night and I’m completely fine with them getting online and playing chess.”
Matheny concedes some of the players are more skilled than him. So much so, he has yet to match moves with Diaz.
“I haven’t taken him up on it. He knows what he’s doing,” said Matheny, who takes some gentle kidding from his players when he takes another chess loss on the chin. “They love being able to tell how quickly they can beat me. I love making people feel good about themselves.”
Include starting pitcher Mike Leake on that list – “I think it helps the brain a little bit: It gets you in thinking mode” – while reliever Tyler Lyons is regarded by his teammates as the best candidate to unseat Diaz and Pena atop the clubhouse leader board.
“It activates your mind,” Lyons said, “instead of you just playing with your phone.”
Alas, you don’t get the same view from outfielder Stephen Piscotty. Matheny thinks the Stanford engineer grad would be good at the game, but No. 55 begs to differ:
“It makes my brain hurt.”