The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deshaun Watson’s game is a mix of risk and restraint. To get better, he learned chess.

“He honestly has no fear,” says Nick Schuessler, a quarterback who played with Deshaun Watson (above) at Clemson. “It can be his best and worst quality.” (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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HOUSTON — The game begins, and Deshaun Watson considers his options. A threat could come from anywhere. He can’t just do nothing.

“Taking what the defense gives me,” the Houston Texans’ 24-year-old quarterback says, though he’s not talking about a game that has made him rich and famous and, if not the NFL’s most valuable player, his team’s most essential one.

It’s a Tuesday morning at the Texans’ facility, and Watson has agreed to a brief chess match against a reporter between workouts. He decided to learn the game this past summer, and back then he didn’t know the pieces’ values or how they move. But the game has similarities to his profession, and if he spent hours of his spare time fine-tuning his body, why not do the same with his mind?

He signed up for a 30-minute lesson with an elite chess coach, and it wound up lasting three hours. Watson and the coach had a dinner reservation, but that came and went because Watson kept wanting to learn more, kept wanting to play.

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“His ability to process, to memorize patterns, to sequence moves was outstanding,” says Seth Makowsky, the chess teacher. “It was amazing for never having picked up a chess piece before.”

Watson didn’t win that night, but that wasn’t the point. Though this has been a breakout season for the young star, in which he helped the Texans overcome a porous offensive line and injury-damaged defense to earn the AFC South title and a home playoff game Saturday against the Buffalo Bills, Watson is becoming increasingly aware that something has to change. His fearless playing style and slim frame have contributed to a long history of injuries, including two torn ACLs in four years, and he is all too aware of the NFL quarterbacks — dazzlingly talented as they were — whose careers ended or changed because of an attack they couldn’t avoid.

“He honestly has no fear,” says Nick Schuessler, a quarterback who played with Watson at Clemson. “It can be his best and worst quality.”

But Watson is too smart to just accept that, preferring to evolve, and he is trying to fully accept that his success and longevity are tied both to his physical gifts and his ability to think quickly. Because chess, like playing quarterback, is simultaneously a game of aggression and of self-preservation — play to play, move to move — and Watson, advanced as he may be, is still learning at both.

On this November morning, he considers the pieces on a foldable travel board and takes his time. It’s a casual game, though like any competitor Watson takes it seriously.

“Everything is being attacked,” he says, and that’s true here in the Texans’ press room and a few dozen yards away on the field at NRG Stadium. “It’s all about the moves.”

He slides his bishop across the board and into enemy territory. It’s clear, even a few moves in, that he prefers offense to defense. Then again, he’s good at sensing hazards.

“I see something,” he says, eyeing the board. “You’re trying to get a checkmate real quick.”

He talks as he plays, making his next move while contemplating a developing threat in his own corner. Watson is one wrong move from a catastrophe.

He sees it, sidestepping pressure and proceeding with his own advance.

“I see what you’re trying to do,” he says, reaching for his bishop.

Total recall

During Watson’s three seasons at Clemson, which included two appearances in the College Football Playoff and the 2017 national championship, some of his teammates wondered whether he had a photographic memory.

“His brain,” former Tigers linebacker Ben Boulware says, “seems to slow things down.”

By the time Watson arrived on campus in 2014, Schuessler says, the 17-year-old Watson already had mastered the team’s complex offense. He studied plays at lunch, during coaching staff meetings, in the cold tub.

If his dedication was notable, his recall was remarkable. He could watch a clip once, sometimes immediately after a practice or during a game, and identify a defense’s coverages, leverages and tendencies. After a play, and in particular after a mistake, he would stand on the sideline and get that faraway look in his eye.

“You could almost see his pupils dilate,” Schuessler says. “He hears you talking, but he's in his own world.”

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Watson says he is a visual learner, and throughout this season he has shown glimpses of that. After a loss to the Carolina Panthers in September, a reporter asked Watson about missed opportunities downfield. The quarterback spent the next minute explaining the nuances and difficulties of Carolina’s Cover-4 defense, talking with his hands, painting a picture that only he can see.

The safeties, represented by his fists, were deep. The Panthers’ cornerbacks, or Watson’s now-open hands, covered the boundaries and relied on those safeties. And off he went.

“They’re keeping everything in front,” Watson explained before opening his hands, waving them as if painting with an invisible brush. “The linebackers are playing anything that crosses.”

He turned a hand upward to signify Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly guarding the middle of the field, wiggling his fingers to show the ground Kuechly could cover. Watson lifted a thumb, closed his fist, opened his hand, waved his arm.

“I didn’t hit it,” he concluded, and Watson’s replaying of the scene was so unusual, so thorough, that it would be viewed nearly 6 million times on YouTube. In the end, Watson saw wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins open, though the quarterback’s mind hadn’t been quick enough, and he overthrew Hopkins.

Still, Watson didn’t just sink into his mistakes. He confronted them. That afternoon, he and Quincy Avery, Watson’s personal quarterback coach, returned to the field and replayed those moments. They worked on fundamentals and passing mechanics before disappearing into the film room. There they identified breakdowns and addressed fixes while they were fresh in Watson’s mind.

The next morning, like most Mondays, Watson didn’t relax. He swam laps to speed recovery, performed hip and shoulder exercises to get — and keep — the blood flowing to his muscles and ligaments.

“Other people aren’t doing it, but we’re trying to find an extra edge,” says Avery, a quarterbacks specialist who has worked with Watson since he was in high school. “For people like that, it’s like: How can you get them point-one percent better?”

One way, Avery decided this past summer, was to challenge the most exceptional part of Watson’s body: his brain. But how could he replicate the fast-twitch decisions and high-pressure implications of playing quarterback in the NFL? How to simulate Watson’s instinct to attack while encouraging him to protect himself?

Avery scheduled an appointment in Los Angeles with Makowsky, a celebrity chess teacher and “mind-set strategist.” Watson’s first meeting would merely be an introduction to a complex game, though when he began furiously taking notes, Makowsky suspended his expectations and his dinner plans.

As he had done in college, Watson seemed determined to master something complicated; he scrawled notes on how pawns move and attack, quick ways to compromise a king, arrows from one square to another when it came to castling. Watson asked Makowsky about openings and how to coordinate an attack, about playing without fear, about using a small move now for a devastating one later.

“Looking for the weak spot,” Makowsky would say, “in a defense.”

Watson was already good at that, and if anything the exercise was as much meant to teach him self-preservation. As his lessons advanced, Watson found himself on a football field with a chess board waiting on the sideline. Avery instructed him to run sprints, make the right step, find the open receiver. Then, without a break, Watson was to run to the board, where Makowsky had set up a puzzle for Watson to solve.

With the blood pumping and sweat dripping, Watson had to make a decision. Was he facing an opportunity or a threat? Or, as he tried to focus through the stress, was it both?

Hits take their toll

Back in the Houston press room, he is staring at the board, feeling boxed in, refusing to submit. Watson hasn’t played chess in months, having directed his mental energy on more important matters.

“Let me just try,” he says, preferring to continue attacking rather than fortifying his defense.

It’s just Watson’s way, and his determination helped push Houston into the postseason despite plenty of surprises (star defensive lineman J.J. Watt missed most of the season with a torn pectoral) and the occasional concession (the preseason trade of star pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney).

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Persistence, though, has its downsides: Watson has been sacked 44 times, and each hit takes its toll. Each time he abandons a collapsing pocket, sprints toward the end zone, decides to take on a tackler rather than step out of bounds, it’s easy to remember the time Watson crumpled to the turf with a knee injury in 2017. Or when, last season, his ribs and lungs were so battered that Watson took a 12-hour bus ride to Jacksonville as the rest of the team traveled by plane. Or in a game this season against Denver, when he lunged toward the goal line, absorbing multiple hits to the chest and helmet before helicoptering into the end zone.

“You definitely hold your breath,” Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph says. “How does he keep getting up?”

As many opponents as Watson confronts, across a chess board or a line of scrimmage, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the most exciting thing about Watson is also the most terrifying. It has made the Texans a dangerous playoff team, sure, but it’s possibly shortening his career. And though he has spent these past few months learning to identify and avoid attacks, the biggest threats to Watson’s career aren’t opposing tacklers. They’re his own instincts.

He is working on it, he insists. And he will refocus these efforts during the offseason. He will return to the pool and the film room and the chess board, attempting to sharpen his skills and strengthen his defenses — getting the most from his body and mind — before, well, checkmate.

“You always have to look forward,” he says, though for now, the end is near.

Watson doesn’t win this chess game, though that’s not the point. He confronted another opponent, entered the arena, learned something about himself. On this Tuesday, he stands and vows to improve.

He is always looking toward the next play, the next game, the next match. For one, there is Saturday’s showdown against the Bills and their stifling defense. Watson’s mind is already working and analyzing. It’s already looking forward, thinking about the next move.

Before he leaves, Watson asks for time to practice. He wants to rededicate himself to chess, to think and play and improve. Then, he says, probably by next summer, he will be ready for a rematch.