Chidobe Awuzie, the Bengals new starting cornerback who loves chess because it simulates life's daily treadmill against checkmate, prides himself on first moves. From the Sicilian Defense to the Alapin to the age-old Ponziani Opening, Awuzie has enough game to get noticed by a grand master.
But it was the Bengals' opening gambit in free agency back in March that left Awuzie the most impressed and in control of the board. They were the first to reach out with money and coaches and even with other teams getting hip and entering the auction later in the day, Awuzie had committed by the end of that first night.
"Loyalty. They were the first team to hit me up and everything made me feel like I could come in here and excel to the best of my ability and help this team win," said Awuzie after practice one day this week, recalling those first conversations with head coach Zac Taylor, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and cornerbacks coach Steven Jackson.
"One thing stuck with me when Coach Taylor told me that one thing for sure is they have all the right guys in the locker room and when I come in I'll see it for myself. So far, that hasn't been a fib or coach talk. Coach Taylor spoke the truth. That makes players more comfortable when you have a coach telling you the truth."
The truth is that Awuzie didn't know that Jackson, his position coach, also has been known to play some chess. He smiled when he heard how Awuzie compares his game at cornerback to a move at the back of the corner of the chess board.
"You could say I'm an e4 standard move that's very effective and can be very dynamic depending on what moves you make after that," Awuzie said.
Jackson says Awuzie, just two weeks removed from his 26th birthday and off solid work during his first four seasons in the league in Dallas, can be even more dangerous than that as one of the board's most lethal pieces.
"He's a bishop. He can take it all away across the board," Jackson said. "He's solid. Dependable, accountable. He's a jack of all trades and master of quite a few. Not all yet, but he works at it every day. He's always working on something. Whether its footwork, whether its hands, whatever it is, he just minds his business and does what we ask him to do."
The Bengals were all over the 6-0, 202-pound Awuzie early because they had two guys that had scouted him coming out of Colorado in 2017, when the Cowboys took him in the second round. Jackson, then with the Titans, thought the same thing then that he thinks now:
"He looks more impressive in person than he does on tape because he works so hard to get better."
Steven Radicevic, the Bengals director of pro scouting remembers, "Every time you went into Colorado, everybody raved about him. Smart. Good communicator. Great locker room guy. Great makeup."
And he's continued to play solidly, which is what got the Bengals on him in the first place. Also in the market for a double-digit sacker, there was a sense they might be able to get excellent value on Awuzie because he had been limited to eight games last year because of a hamstring injury and a stint on the COVID-19 list.
Awuzie graded out at a mere 51.9 on the Pro Football Focus list for cornerbacks and the Bengals were banking on the league having some amnesia because in the previous three seasons he had comparable grades to some big-time cornerbacks.
As a rookie Awuzie was rated 25th overall of all PFF cornerbacks, two slots ahead of future Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and 23 ahead of fellow rookie and future multiple Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey.
In 2019 he finished 35th, again ahead of Humphrey as well as two other well regarded AFC North cornerbacks in Denzel Ward and Joe Haden. Shaquill Griffin held down the 15th spot with an overall defensive grade of 77, less than five points in front of Awuzie. That was the year Bengals cornerback William Jackson III struggled to the 53.6 that nearly mirrored what Awuzie did last year.
When Griffin came out of this free agency averaging $13.3 million per year and Jackson $13.5 million, the Bengals had to feel pretty good about getting Awuzie at $7.3 million per while securing a 13.5-sacker in Trey Hendrickson and a top slot cornerback in Mike Hilton.
"I had a tough time getting into a rhythm last year with the injuries," Awuzie said. "I saw an opportunity in Cincinnati where you have a great young team with a lot of players that want to win. I just felt it in my bones about this team."
The Bengals have the same feeling about Awuzie.
"The one thing about playing cornerback in this league is you have to find a scheme and an organization that fits you and I think he's found it here," Jackson said. "He's that type of guy that wants to be on the ground floor of something that is on the way up."
That's how he got into chess. Seven years ago he was fooling around with it in the back of a rowdy class in Boulder and now he's a big user on chess.com, where one of the youngest grand masters of all time, Hikaru Nakamura, "raided,' one of Awuzie's games so all his followers could see.
With the help of Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper, Awuzie really got into it in Dallas. Awuzie learned a lot on his own, but he picked up many of the terms from Cooper and he says when Cooper would pull out the board and they'd play in person instead of on the phone that helped him, too. He also likes the fact that the sight of him and Cooper playing chess didn't fit into the NFL stereotypes he dislikes.
"Call of Duty, 2K, Madden and there was me and Amari," Awuzie says. "(Chess) is helping me in just my general life. Diagnosing things. Predicting things. Protecting important things. I think it's one of the oldest games because it relates a lot to life. They call it a game of war and life every day is pretty much a war if you want it to be or whether you know it or not. You fight for love, you fight for life, you fight for the people next to you, all of that."
When Awuzie lines up against Justin Jefferson on Opening Day, he sees the matchup against the Vikings' great young receiver (or whomever) as another day on the board. Much like a series of chess moves, Awuzie logically attaches a receiver's different moves to certain routes and then attaches those to speed.
"My brain has opened up, being able to distinguish pattern recognition, just like seeing the board," Awuzie said. "'I've seen this position before,' or 'I've played it this way. Maybe if I do this, it's a better move.'
"That's the thing I love about corner. Once you break it down, it's just you vs. them and you have to figure them out. Some people are being athletes out there. Me, I'm for having all the tools at my disposal to guard these guys."
The football field, it seems, is not much different than the board.
"There's always a better move," said Awuzie, who appreciates how the Bengals opened.