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Football More Complex Than Chess
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2005 Friday Night Lights: Defensive End With Busted Thumbs. Photo by Karnegie Musa. Copyright 2010.


I am saying what may appear laughable. And I’ll say it again. 

Football, that engine that can place a billion-dollar stadium in Arlington and that drives such a huge part of our state’s economy, is more difficult than chess.

As the intelligentsia scream, let me explain.

I once thought of football through the lens of the dumb jock Tank McNamara and his habit of leaping on anything coming loose as if it were a fumbled football.  I once thought chess as almost pure thought and certainly more convoluted and multifaceted than football.  

I taught my son to play chess when he was a toddler.  We played over the years, and by the time he reached high school, he could beat me more than 50 percent of the time. 

But he also played high school football and had a better career than most.  I still miss the Friday night lights.

During his sophomore year late in the season, we sat at a table one Saturday afternoon playing a game of chess.  I had just made the oft quoted pronouncement from Diego Rasskin-Gutman, who claims there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe.

The television was on one of the many college football games, so the transition into my son's counter-pronouncement  was smooth.  

“I guess you know football’s more complicated than chess,” he said. 

I snorted, thinking he was making a joke.

“Yeah,” I snickered. “Right.”

“Seriously,” he said. “Football’s a lot more complex.”

I rolled my eyes. I smirked.  I grinned.  

“Prove it,” I said.


First he showed me that while there are 16 pieces on each side, as compared to football, there’s only six different positions (pawn, rook, bishop, knight, king, queen).  In football, there’s 11 positions, of which at least seven are different on offense, and sometimes more depending on the type of offense lined up, and five to seven on defense, depending on the type of defense designed.  

In addition, the oval shape of the football adds an element of unpredictability to the game.  Nearly a prolate spheroid with pointed ends, the shape lends itself to beautiful spirals on the long pass, or odd bounces with players leaping in chaos.

He pulled out his then version of Madden NFL football. He loaded it up and started with offensive running plays such as up the middle, off tackle, toss, sweep, trap, counter, draw, bootleg, reverse, end-around, option, and how it blurs into the passing plays with the various routes of post, flag, out, slants, flats, screens and get open. Throw in the trick plays, and the possibilities already are exponential. 

Then he added the complications and structures of the defense with blitz, stunts, man-to-man, zone, and the endless versions of those plays.

My son was careful to point out the complications of the chess board, and the tens of thousands of moves. It’s just that football had more possibilities to consider.

“Chess is two-dimensional,” he said. “It’s on a board with nice neat squares. Football is either in good weather, heat, pouring rain or heavy winds.  And each player is an individual with abilities that can be quantified with statistics, but still unpredictable.”

Bad calls by referees affect strategy, and coaches adjust strategy, as well as the quarterback calling audibles at the line to shift the play based on the defense he sees. Each play cuts seconds off the clock, each play is considered by its geography on the field, and each play costs energy and sometimes pain from the 22 players on the field. Quarterback efficiency ratings, running back yards per play averages, angles of running plays, passing plays, and vectors of force merge into every play.

I stared at Madden NFL football choices.  I considered my son’s arguments. I considered the structure of the chess board with its ever diminishing numbers of pieces as the game progressed. 

Yes, football can and does appeal to the worst in the human spirit. The brutal side is freely acknowledged, as well as all the foibles including spying on coaches, stealing top secret playbooks, and fixed games.

But football also appeals to the best. Records that are set, technologies that go in the equipment of the game create studies of the human brain and spine and materials and designs to protect brains and spines.  Augmented reality technology brought you the yellow “first down” lines you see on television broadcasts where the yellow line is drawn over the real image by computer software and adjusts with the angle of the shot, andthe blue line for the line of scrimmage.

And sometimes you see a Troy Aikman throw five touchdown passes to beat Washington, or Vince Young become the standout in a Rose Bowl game against a team with two Heisman Trophy winners in the backfield.

After my son finished going over the numbers, the statistical variables, the physics, the geography and geometry, the meteorology and the psychology, he paused. 

 “To make this crystal clear, you have to think about all these variables all the time as much as you can,” he said. “And at the same time you’re thinking about these things, you’re getting the @#%! knocked out of you,” he said.

I conceded both the chess game and the argument.  My perception of chess and football was irrevocably changed. If there are more possible chess games than atoms in the universe, then there are more possible football games than atoms in many universes. 

 “Yes,” I said. “Football’s more complicated than chess.”