Steven Kwan launches trash-talk fueled chess club in Guardians clubhouse
The Kwan’s Gambit took over the clubhouse from the Guardians.
The clubhouse has featured a myriad of pre-match activities available to players over the years, as is the case at all league stadiums. For a time, ping pong was the contest of choice, with former reliever Dan Otero stoking a few rivalries with heated matches.
Then there’s Mario Kart, sitting near a corner of the clubhouse, which is Jose Ramirez’s realm.
Rookie outfielder Steven Kwan brought a calmer but more intense addition: chess. And he recently recruited new players thanks to the show “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix.
It really started with Guardians outfield prospect Will Benson in the spring of 2021. Benson brought a chessboard from home, and Kwan was instantly hooked. He had played before, of course, but he immersed himself in it and helped Benson along the way.
“I pretty much knew how to play, and then the competitiveness took over,” Kwan said. “We just started grinding with it, the same way [the video game] Call of Duty. We were playing around 15 games a day and it grew from there.”
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Fast forward a year, and Kwan breaks camp with the big league club, which preceded its record-breaking April. But with a historically low number of swing-and-misses, Kwan also brought his own board with him. And the Guardians now have their own chess club set up in the clubhouse.
The most common opponents have been starting pitchers Triston McKenzie and Konnor Pilkington and receivers Austin Hedges and Bryan Lavastida, who has since been moved to Triple-A Columbus.
Kwan tried to help some of them, giving advice and directions along the way without trying to be condescending. But the competition quickly escalated and the playing field was mostly leveled.
Now, this mini chess club is as much about pride as it is about strategy. And the chatter never stops.
“There are so many different levels,” Kwan said. “I think the ones that stand out are pride and ego. I like to say I’m probably one of the best in the clubhouse, but you can’t just say that, you have to prove it. You talk about this big match and then you can easily goof your queen, and there you lose because of some stupid move you made.Then you lose another piece and it goes down.
Baseball, too, is a sport that requires a short memory.
“You swing and miss a ball that was 10 feet in front of you, look terrible and then chase another pitch,” he said. “It’s the same as being able to say, ‘OK, I’m losing there, let me reset and keep my mind straight and carry on. “”
Hedges was in a chess club in elementary school, even to the point of playing chess tournaments, but hadn’t played in years until this spring when he saw Kwan in an intense match against McKenzie.
“I was like, you know what? It’s better than cards and some mindless games,” said Hedges, who also plays 2-3 games on her phone every day. “I love strategic puzzles, things that get my brain working. I think that’s kind of where it started… it keeps me spinning and I love how it makes my brain feels.”
McKenzie even likes it simply as a way to put his mind in a competitive place before his departures. What better way to prepare to take on Mike Trout or Tim Anderson than figuring out how to take your opponent’s bishop in three moves?
“I would say I use it in the mental aspect trying to lock down or get to a certain place,” McKenzie said. “And in a way, that can help me clear my mind and logically process a lot of information that I see on the chessboard, and I think I’m trying to take it to the mound with me.”
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The ultimate goal for Hedges, McKenzie and the others? Defeat Kwan. And if you do, you can sign his personal chart.
McKenzie beat Kwan a few times. Hedges only did it once, but that doesn’t stop him from constantly reminding Kwan of it.
“Oh, everyday,” Hedges said with a big smile when asked how often he reminded Kwan of his one win.
Kwan wants to keep the council as long as possible. One day it will be a memory.
“Probably like 20 years from now, 30 years from now, I imagine I’ll still be playing chess and I can just flip it over and see the signatures,” Kwan said of his board. “And in the moment it obviously hurts, but I think the reward later will be cool.”
But which is better: beating someone at chess or running at a run? Is it better to line up a double go-ahead in the right center gap or take the queen from your talkative opponent, setting them up for loss in the near future?
“I mean, I’m going to say drive in a race,” Kwan said, before adding, “but if you spoke to this person in full and they answered in full, [beating them in chess] feels pretty good. One hundred percent.”
Ryan Lewis can be contacted at [email protected] Learn more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
Royals at Guardians
Time: 6:10 p.m. Tuesday
TV: Bally Sports Great Lakes
Pitchers: Daniel Lynch (2-3, 3.92 vs. Cal Quantrill (1-3, 3.42)