This Month

Christian Pulisic and chess: Playing against Kante and why he’s a bishop not a rook

Around three o’clock in the morning on May 4, 2021, a 20-year-old computer-science student named Sounak Pal fired up his gaming rig at his parents’ place in Pune, near Mumbai in India. His desk had all the hallmarks of a serious video-game set-up — dual monitors, a glowing rainbow LED keyboard, a PS5 nearby for console gaming — and on some other night maybe he would have played FIFA as his favourite team, Chelsea.

During lockdown, however, like millions of people around the world, he’d gotten hooked on another game: online chess.

Pal logged onto a popular chess site and played a few random match-ups against players near his skill level (“not very good,” he says). He cruised to wins over players in Canada, Belgium, Germany, Brazil. Each game was over in a few minutes, but he would go back to analyse it afterward, reviewing the computer’s suggestions for how he could have played better.

The fifth game of the night matched Pal against an opponent whose profile had a Union Jack emoji beside a photo of a pale, brown-haired kid who looked about seven or eight years old. The opponent must have been older in real life, though, because his account showed this person was paying for a premium membership that unlocked lessons and puzzles to improve his chess.

In the match that followed, however, the extra training didn’t pay off.

While Pal developed his white pieces and controlled the centre of the board, black wasted too much time pushing pawns around — a rookie mistake. Pal used a knight to fork black’s king and rook, which should have killed off the game, but his opponent didn’t give up easily. By the midgame it looked like black might even fight his way back to win if not for his clock, which had ticked down near zero, leaving no time to think. While Pal worked methodically through the endgame, the other player rushed into errors and finally resigned.

It wasn’t until afterwards, reviewing the game as usual, that Pal noticed his opponent’s name: Christian Pulisic.

On its own, that might not have meant much. Lots of people on that site had football-inspired usernames, and it’s not like Chelsea’s No 10 and the captain of the United States men’s national team was some obscure pick. Except this wasn’t his display username, which was a typical nonsense jumble of words and numbers. It only said ‘Christian Pulisic’ in the field where users were supposed to put their actual name — a detail normally hidden unless you bothered to click through to their profile.

The longer he looked at it, the more sure Pal became that the profile picture of the brown-haired kid showed a young Pulisic. That was a little weird, too, when most fans would go for instantly recognisable photos of their favourite player hoisting a trophy or celebrating a goal.

Could a student in India have just played chess against the actual Christian Pulisic, a player for the London club he happened to support, living halfway around the world? Pal’s friends laughed at him. When he posted about the encounter online, another Chelsea fan brushed it off: “Nah, won’t have been him.”

Undeterred, Pal kept collecting evidence (he admits he spent a couple of days “a little obsessed” with the whole thing).

His opponent’s username turned out to match one of Pulisic’s social media accounts. The chess account’s friends list consisted of Americans from Pennsylvania, including people with the names of Pulisic’s family and friends, as well as footballers from Chelsea and the USMNT. The footballers’ friends lists included other footballers. Each account had played anywhere from a few games to a few thousand.

If someone was pretending to be a semi-anonymous Pulisic on a chess app, they had gone to extraordinarily boring lengths over many months, or years, to make it convincing.

“It was before the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid,” Pal remembers. “So I messaged him — I don’t think he read it — like, ‘Best of luck!’”

The next day, Pulisic came on in the 67th minute and assisted on the goal that sealed Chelsea’s trip to the Champions League final.

It had been a difficult year for Pulisic, and the 2021-22 season that followed would bring more of the same: long stretches fighting his way off the bench or recovering from injury, hints of tension with his manager, the lonely grind of an elite athlete’s life in a foreign country, and immense pressure to live up to his billing as perhaps America’s greatest male footballer ever — already, at 23 years old — and lead the United States to the World Cup after they missed out on Russia 2018.

Recently, Pulisic has started to go public about how he’s become “addicted” to online chess as a way to cope with it all.

“I don’t think there’s a problem with setting a couple hours aside during the week to play some games or whatever,” he told one podcast. “The past year, something that really helped me, and also the times that I was struggling and stuff, I started playing a lot of chess.”

According to records on what appears to be Pulisic’s chess account, “a lot” is an understatement.

Since joining the site a year and a half ago, the account has logged 1,238 untimed games, 3,659 games on the clock, and 2,115 puzzles. If each one took five minutes, that would work out to 35,060 minutes of chess, or nearly four months of 40-hour work weeks. By comparison, since the start of the 2020-21 season, he’s played 5,776 minutes of football across all competitions for club and country.

Maybe it’s time we started thinking of Pulisic as a full-time chess player with a lucrative Premier League hobby.

Seen that way, in chequered black and white, the real life of a professional footballer starts to look like a whole different game.


Mate in two

One thing everyone knows about Christian Mate Pulisic, quite possibly the world’s most famous 23-year-old American male, is that he’s from Hershey in Pennsylvania. Yes, the place with the chocolate. That’s probably why people know it.

There’s nothing special about being from Hershey, an ordinary American town, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot else to say about him off the pitch. Like his hometown’s other most famous export, the Pulisic we see in public is above all a brand: widely popular and blandly American, sweet and simple, never complex.

The reason Pulisic is from Hershey — the reason for most things in his life — is football.

His parents, Mark and Kelley, met while playing for the same US university’s teams, and his dad also played professionally for an indoor team in Harrisburg, near Hershey, before going into coaching. Though football wasn’t Christian’s only sport, it was the one he kept coming back to, working on his game with the rigour of a coach’s kid. Mark told GQ that his son would practise alone in the backyard, doing every drill twice: “OK, I’m going to do 50 with my right leg, now I’m going to do 50 with my left leg.”

When he wasn’t out in the yard, Christian learned to play chess from Mark’s dad, Mate Pulisic.

Born on the tiny Croatian island of Olib, Mate had joined a wave of immigrants from what was then Yugoslavia to New York City, bringing along an Old World love of football and chess. “I was nowhere near his level and I wish we’d played more but I’m glad we shared that,” Christian has said of chess with his grandfather. “It’s a memory I hold close to my heart.”

As he got older, football displaced most other things in Pulisic’s life, chess included, leaving him with a personality whose most salient feature in his teenage phenom years was a vague insistence on his own generic Americanness, as though after all that time training in Europe while his friends back home were doing normal Midwestern high school stuff, he just wanted to remember where he came from.

He got a bald eagle tattoo. He wore a cross on a gold chain and drank Bud Light from red Solo cups with his buddies. You know that Tom Petty song, “She’s a good girl, loves her mama / Loves Jesus and America too”? That’s pretty much Pulisic (yes, he loves horses; he hasn’t taken a public stance on Elvis).

His grandfather had given Pulisic something else besides a love of chess: eligibility for a Croatian passport, which meant he could join Borussia Dortmund at 16 rather than 18.

Those two extra years were critical for his development as a footballer but hard on a kid. It’s not like he didn’t try to fit in (he learned enough German to give interviews and can do a passable English accent, which he knows to sprinkle with “innit”) but Europe was a different world, away from his family and friends. His dad moved over to Dortmund to keep him company in his teens.

Now, in London, Pulisic lives alone and rarely goes out. Though he’s friendly with Chelsea team-mates, he appears to be closer with guys from the youth national team and friends from Pennsylvania, who he keeps in touch with through apps.

For a while, Pulisic and his friends would play Fortnite together. Like most guys his age, he enjoyed video games and TikTok, but a year or two ago he started to consciously phase them out. He worried about his screen time (as of last August, he was down to five and a half hours a day) and felt like video games were a “distraction.” Maybe he was just growing up.

Whatever the reason he decided to change hobbies, Pulisic still needed something to do when he wasn’t playing football, preferably something he could share with friends thousands of miles away.

That’s when he found online chess.

The account under Pulisic’s name was created on December 1, 2020. It was a boom time for chess apps as a wave of newcomers discovered (or rediscovered) the game thanks to pandemic boredom and the Netflix drama series The Queen’s Gambit.

Two days later, while Chelsea headed home from a Champions League win over Sevilla to face Leeds United that weekend, Pulisic played his first live game, against a Danish-flag account named Andreas Bodtker — the first and middle names of Chelsea’s Denmark international centre-back Andreas Christensen. A rusty Pulisic controlled the game but missed an obvious checkmate and ran out of time.

That week he played 32 more games, mostly against colleagues from Chelsea and the national team (he played a lot with Nick Taitague, the youth national team buddy from the red Solo cup photo below). He was already hooked.

But just as Pulisic was getting back into chess, Mate — the man who had taught him to play as a child, who had given Christian his middle name — died. It couldn’t have been easy to hear the news across an ocean, a few days before Christmas, during a week when Pulisic couldn’t fly home because he had to start three Premier League matches.

One of the oldest photos on his Instagram, from 2013, shows a 14-year-old Pulisic with his arm wrapped around his grandfather. “Had an awesome time golfing with this guy,” the caption says. “Love him so much.”


The bishop and the queen

Football, for better or worse, loves a chess metaphor.

Usually, we imagine managers as the chess players, controlling the game from the sideline with their intellect, while the players on the pitch are pieces, carefully arranged in specialised roles to carry out the tactical plan.

“Since every game of chess is different, there can be no definite right or wrong for where pieces should and shouldn’t be placed,” writes Adam Wells in 2007 book Football & Chess. “However, just as players are better suited to certain positions in football, chess pieces will likewise normally have more influence when placed on particular parts of the board.”

During his first season and a half at Chelsea, when Frank Lampard was head coach, Pulisic’s role was mostly as a left winger on the forward line of a 4-3-3 formation. He played inverted, meaning his stronger right foot was away from the sideline when he faced the opposition goal, which made it easier for him to cut inside from a wide position and shoot. Pulisic plays the same role for the US, where he’s the unquestioned star of a system designed to cater to his strengths.

In chess terms, you could think of inverted wingers as bishops, the rangy, dangerous pieces on either side of the king and queen that slice across the board in sharp diagonals. Traditional wingers or modern wing-backs are more like rooks, charging straight up the flanks to play wide crosses into the box.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Pulisic’s favourite chess piece happens to be the bishop. He loves it so much he even has a miniature bishop on the backs of his customised football boots. “I don’t know why. The look of it, or the way it moves,” he told an interviewer. “I just like the bishop.” Which, when he mentions it, makes you realise Pulisic even looks like a bishop — sort of lanky even though he’s not the tallest player on the pitch, his head just a little bit too big for his slender body.

Since chess games can only begin so many ways, and only some of those ways are a good idea, players like to study “openings” — certain sequences of starting moves honed by centuries of theory and practice.

The online account shows that, when he plays white, Pulisic’s most common opening is something called the Vienna Game, Max Lange Defence, where both sides bring out their king’s pawn followed by their queen’s knight. On his third move, Pulisic likes to develop his king’s bishop to square C4.

The position, which he’s played 201 times, looks like this:

It’s an aggressive move, giving white’s bishop a direct line to the vulnerable pawn beside black’s king. If black defends sloppily in a fast-paced blitz game, white can launch devastating attacks along that diagonal.

The bishop’s position on the left — not too wide, not too central — also gives it freedom of movement, not unlike the left half-space on a football pitch where Pulisic likes to work inside from the wing. “I definitely favour being in that left inside channel, ideally,” he has said.

Here’s an example from Pulisic’s first season at Chelsea, under Lampard:

Let’s break down the play move by move, like chess commentators would.

A long switch finds Pulisic in space on the left wing…

…but rather than dribble up the sideline to cross, as a traditional winger would, he cuts inside and heads toward goal, the way inverted wingers do. When Pulisic swings his right foot back to strike the ball, the defence is ready for a shot. Instead, he plays a clever diagonal pass to the striker on the other side of the goalkeeper.

If we want to stretch the chess metaphor here, the geometry of the move is like that white bishop that Pulisic likes to place on C4, where it can combine diagonally with another piece to attack the pawn on the other side of black’s king.

Pulisic isn’t done being a bishop in our move, however. As his team-mate shapes up to strike at goal, he continues his diagonal run off the ball — something he is among the Premier League’s most dangerous at — and arrives at the corner of the six-yard box just as the shot is conveniently deflected onto his forehead. Goal, Pulisic.

That first season, at 20 years old, Pulisic scored nine goals and provided four assists in 1,722 minutes for Chelsea. His non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes ranked 11th in the Premier League, between Jamie Vardy and Roberto Firmino. He looked like he was on a path to stardom.

A lot of football’s most celebrated attackers are inverted wingers; for example, Mohamed Salah at Liverpool and Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain. Pulisic’s ambition — the vision of his potential that persuaded Chelsea to pay £58 million to sign him from Dortmund — was to become one of them.

But in January last year, a few weeks after the death of his grandfather, Pulisic got another piece of bad news. Lampard was fired at Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel, Pulisic’s former coach at Dortmund, was coming in.

“It’s funny. People just assume, because you had a coach in the past, they’re like, ‘Oh, then it’ll be perfect for you. It’ll go great’,” Pulisic later said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that.”

Overnight, Pulisic went from regular Premier League starter to substitute. Even worse, when he did come off the bench, it was no longer as an inverted left winger — that role does not exist in Tuchel’s preferred 3-4-3 formation.

In his first game under the new manager, Pulisic appeared for just 14 minutes as a right wing-back, instructed to defend and dribble up the sideline to provide service for other players instead of cutting in from the left to score. It felt like a humiliating demotion.

That winter in London, caught between troubles on and off the pitch, Pulisic broke down.

He took time away from Chelsea for “personal issues” and retreated to the house where he lived alone in Wimbledon, south west London.

The GQ profile that people were making fun of Pulisic for at the time described his living space as “a modernist cube clad in black wood, the inside all open-plan spaces and tasteful, if slightly depressing, shades of grey. There’s a framed Chelsea jersey on the kitchen wall, a few loose family photos on a hall shelf, but otherwise little in the way of personal touches, giving the place the feel of an oversized hotel suite.”

Later, Pulisic would speak openly about his mental health. “I thought that I was too tough to need help. When it’s all on you, it can really feel like a lot,” he said. “I reached out to a therapist, and that’s not something that anyone should ever be ashamed of.”

Through it all, Pulisic kept playing chess.

In the three weeks between February 7, when he dropped out of Chelsea’s squad, and February 28, when he next appeared in a Premier League match, his online account logged 241 live matches. And he was getting better all the time — his blitz rating climbed from an all-time low of 622 early that month to 754 by the end of it.

For the rest of Chelsea’s 2020-21 season, his chess improved steadily, buoyed by the training tools he paid a premium rate for and endless daily reps. Win or lose, one more game could always make him a better player.


Pulisic’s blitz chess rating climbed steadily from its low point in February 2020.

David Foster Wallace once wrote about how great athletes’ difficulty explaining their gift is bound up with their ability to ignore distractions — including their own brain — under pressure. “How can they bypass the head and simply and superbly act?” he wondered. “How, at the critical moment, can they invoke for themselves a cliche as trite as, ‘One ball at a time’, or, ‘Gotta concentrate here’, and mean it, and then do it?”

The answer, of course, is practice. “OK, I’m going to do 50 with my right leg, now I’m going to do 50 with my left leg” — do that every day for a lifetime until your brain obeys your body instead of the other way around. “They can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will,” Wallace wrote, “such that agent and action are one.”

Pulisic is no stranger to cliches. Tattooed in flowery script on his left arm, just above the elbow, is a quote from American self-help author Napoleon Hill that you might see on a motivational Instagram post: “Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.”

His desire was to find a way back into Chelsea’s team under Tuchel, and the way he achieved it was the same way he did everything, with boring, level-headed commitment and daily hard work. “Obviously, I wasn’t playing right from the start when he came in,” Pulisic said. “That doesn’t mean we have a bad relationship in any way, but I had to earn a spot — just like I always do.”

By the April, he was a starter again. Chelsea were a better team in Tuchel’s 3-4-3, and even though Pulisic’s preferred position didn’t exist anymore, he at least convinced the coach to play him in various attacking roles instead of at wing-back. To earn minutes wherever he could, he trained to become a more versatile player.

When Chelsea faced Manchester City in the Champions League final the following month, Pulisic came on as a substitute midway through the second half and played mostly on the right, but it didn’t matter — he was on the pitch, the first American ever to appear in the most important club game in the world and, when the final whistle blew, the first to win it. He donned a grey USA sweatshirt to celebrate the biggest achievement of his life on the pitch with his dad.

Less than 24 hours later, Pulisic showed up at a tattoo shop down the road from Stamford Bridge, still wearing his Champions League medal.

On his left forearm, under the motivational quote, the tattoo artist drew a giant chess piece — a queen, the most powerful, most versatile piece in the game.

Below the queen is one word: Mate.


Unimaginable speed

Chelsea players love chess. Besides Pulisic, the list of current and former club team-mates known to play includes, at a minimum, Christensen, Jorginho, Ben Chilwell, Reece James, Mason Mount, Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham.

But the club’s undisputed chess champion in 2020-21 was the French midfielder N’Golo Kante.

Pulisic made it his mission to beat Kante, and as his rating climbed over months of practice, they developed a friendly rivalry. “I think if you ask him he’ll give you a different answer,” Pulisic said recently, “but I like to say I’m a little bit better.”

Unless he’s got a well-disguised account, Kante doesn’t show up in Pulisic’s online chess friends, which probably means they’re playing over the board, possibly without a clock. That would be a very different game than the blitz matches Pulisic trains on, where players have to make each move in a few seconds.

When people learn about Pulisic’s chess obsession, they always ask whether it helps him play football. Instead of reaching for some airy tactical metaphor about how inverted wingers are like bishops, he talks about mental agility: “It can really help you to stay sharp in your head — you have to think very quickly.”

The hard part of blitz chess, like elite football, is picking the right move under insane time pressure, almost faster than you can think.

“It’s an incredible game that can help you with a lot of things, like problem-solving or seeing different patterns,” Pulisic says of chess. “I’m not saying it directly correlates to me being a better footballer but it’s certainly better than staring at a screen, gaming.” (as in, video games such as Fortnite — never mind that he’s also literally describing online chess.)

This is right about the point where your standard-issue analogy between football managers and chess players starts to break down. Football is fast and fluid, not contemplative and turn-based, and anyone who’s heard of Ajax can tell you that positions are more a suggestion than a rule. Most importantly, football’s pieces think for themselves — the players are the players.

Unlike chess, where each side’s strategy unfolds step by step from a single mind, football tactics are an emergent phenomenon that comes from a lot of people making a lot of interlocking choices very fast. Maybe that’s why footballers like to test their decision-making against the clock in online blitz games. Footballing genius, according to Jorge Valdano, lies in “the ability to analyse and solve problems creatively under pressure at unimaginable speed”.

More than finding the right tactical role, Pulisic’s biggest challenge at Chelsea has been learning to make decisions at a Premier League pace. When he’s good, he’s a speedy, shifty, dazzlingly creative player, the kind of player any coach would dream of. When he’s bad, he’s a turnover machine, dribbling down dead-ends and picking all the wrong passes.

It’s the same story playing for the US, where the pressure on Pulisic has less to do with time and space (it’s international football, after all) than the weight of expectations. “I’m going into it thinking, ‘I need to overperform and do something to save the team’, but there’s no need for that because we have a very strong team,” he admitted during this year’s World Cup qualifiers. “I think at times I was overthinking it and trying to be too good in a way that’s not necessary. I don’t need to, whatever, overcomplicate things.”

He’s not lying about the strength of the team. The USMNT are shockingly young — Pulisic doesn’t turn 24 until September but qualifies as a veteran — but more talented than ever before, are stocked with promising players from some of Europe’s top clubs. By any measure other than their own lofty expectations, the team have been good lately, qualifying for the World Cup this November and December and winning two trophies against their confederation’s traditional power, Mexico.

Still, they’ve been inconsistent, and no one more so than their captain and star player. Even against international minnows, Pulisic still dribbles into dead ends, still picks the wrong passes, still tries to do too much and accomplishes too little. The talent and hard work are there but overthinking keeps getting in the way. He can’t bypass the head and “simply and superbly act”.

You can probably guess what he’s thinking about.

Four years ago, Pulisic was the youngest player on the field when the US failed to qualify for the previous World Cup. It was the first crushing setback in what had been, until then, a fairytale rise to stardom.

Now, matured by hard, lonely professional seasons, he has a chance to put all that to rest in Qatar.

Compared to what a star turn at the World Cup would mean for his career — for his entire country, really — nothing back in London matters.

As the US prepare to play their last competitive match tonight (Tuesday) before their tournament begins against Wales on November 21, however, Pulisic still hasn’t shown that he’s ready to lead them.

His dreams, like his decisions on the chessboard and the pitch, are on a short clock, and time is ticking down.


Chess, but with dice

In March, Pulisic played his first public game of chess, a charity match against a computer simulation of how the reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen would have played at 10 years old. (The real Carlsen is a huge football fan and once briefly held the No 1 ranking in Fantasy Premier League.)

Aside from one or two blunders, Pulisic’s decision-making was solid. “Christian’s blocking everything so far!” exclaimed the grandmaster host David Howell. But he was blocking things too slowly, overthinking each move, and he lost on the 25th move when his clock ran out.

Even in professional chess tournaments, where games can drag on for hours, there’s just not enough time or brainpower to calculate the optimal move in every situation. Players have to make decisions based on their gut feeling about how a position will play out. Carlsen is among the greatest of all time not just because he can memorise openings and play through tactical lines in his head, but also because of his superhuman intuition. “There are actually not many things in chess that I am absolutely certain about,” he has said.

There’s a famous saying about football that the sport is “chess, but with dice”. Actually, even chess is chess with dice. The best player will prevail only in the long run, over who knows how many games, and there’s no guarantee that the run will be long enough to find out.

Footballers’ lives are sort of like that. No matter how hard you work, so many things are beyond your control.

New owners. Managerial appointments. Squad turnover. Your friends could be transferred at any time (Abraham to Roma last summer, Christensen imminently to Barcelona). Newer signings could eat away at your minutes (Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Romelu Lukaku).

Training and instinct may tell you to put your head down and keep competing, but each season you stay in a bad situation is another roll of the dice. Careers are short.

They can be cut even shorter by injuries, and Pulisic’s medical history is worrying.

Transfermarkt’s list of reasons he has appeared on the injury list reads like somebody trying to brainstorm all the ways a body can be battered without breaking: muscular problems, muscle injury, muscle bruise, torn muscle fibre, tear in the abductor muscle, abdominal influenza, regular influenza, quarantine, coronavirus, groin injury, hamstring injury, calf injury, ankle injury, arch pain, calf strain, “infection,” “ill,” and “knock.”

Every time he gets a good run of form, as happened this spring, when Pulisic-Havertz-Mount briefly looked like Chelsea’s best front three, another injury interrupts and he winds up back on the bench.

Even when he stays fit, Pulisic can’t seem to catch a break.

Although his career goal numbers are in line with his expected-goals figure, lately he’s gotten a bad rap for memorable misses.

There was a flubbed shot in that Champions League final against City, which didn’t wind up mattering; there was another late in last season’s quarter-final elimination by Real Madrid that did. He missed a big chance in the Carabao Cup final defeat against Liverpool in February. He missed one against Leicester last month that Tuchel called “more than a chance”.

Tuchel knows about expected goals and how getting good shots off is a more reliable skill than scoring them, but you get the feeling that the xG on those chances didn’t help Pulisic’s standing with his boss.

When he talks about why he likes chess, Pulisic can sound almost wistful. “I love games that involve a lot of skill,” he said before that charity match with Carlsen, “and I feel like you can’t just get lucky in chess all the time. The better player is normally going to win.”

As far as his future as a Chelsea starter… right now, Pulisic doesn’t appear to be winning.

That’s a major concern for not only his club career but also his endorsements (last summer, he left Nike for a “record-breaking” deal with Puma) and, critically, his preparation for the World Cup. With two seasons left on his contract, now is the time for Chelsea to either sign Pulisic to an extension or start thinking about a transfer. The latter looks a lot more likely.

If his dad’s infamous deleted tweet last month is any indication, Pulisic has assessed his position and sensed that it’s time to move on.

“The sad thing is he loves the club, teammates, and London…. puts his heart and soul into being a pro,” Mark Pulisic wrote, not very cryptically. “Onwards and upwards my boy…big six months ahead.. 💪”


The endgame

The summer that will determine where Pulisic’s career goes from here officially kicked off on June 1, when he assisted the first goal as the US won 3-0 in a friendly against Morocco. It was the most promising the team have looked in a long time. A couple of days later, during afternoon downtime at the national team camp, he opened the chess app and played seven quick games in an hour.

Then something unusual happened: he logged off.

For the next week, Pulisic played no online chess at all, an almost unprecedented break in his 18-month obsession. Instead, he played football.

He wasn’t alone in London any more; he was back home with his friends, the guys he’d grown up with on youth national teams, representing the country he loves on the one team that can never transfer him away. He seemed happy.

That week, he got a goofy summer bleach job on his hair — the kind people do when they’re going through big life changes.

He did normal human stuff, like playing with team-mate Walker Zimmerman’s baby.

Finally, on June 10, he reopened the chess app.

Pulisic and Zimmerman started an online game, just like they had first done over a year ago, when the former was playing his way out of his mental health struggles. This was just a friendly game, nothing serious — Pulisic is a much stronger player — so it was no big deal when, 10 moves in, they closed the app in the middle of the game and never came back to it.

Maybe the national team called them away. Maybe family or friends did.

Who needed a reason, really?

It was a sunny day in America. Chess could wait.

(Top photo: Getty Images; Design by Sam Richardson for The Athletic)



Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button