Drew Millas and his chessboard bring camaraderie to the Nats’ clubhouse


WEST PALM BEACH, Fl. – Last week, Drew Millas walked to the sofas closest to the catchers in the Washington Nationals clubhouse, a folding chessboard in hand. He placed it on a silver table and dropped into a chair. Helper Zach Brzykcy sat across from him. A few other players – including Jackson Rutledge and Jake Irvin – huddled around as Brzykcy and Millas tried to outsmart each other.

Millas always carries the board with him when he travels. When he saw that the Nationals didn’t have games in the clubhouse, he brought it along to build camaraderie. Irvin stood in at a game last Friday. Cronin played last Sunday. Paolo Espino told Millas he wanted to join eventually.

“It kind of wakes me up before games and helps me hit, I think too,” Millas said. “Since I’ve been doing it, I’ve been hitting well… It really just activates your critical thinking. Think ahead, think before you do anything.”

Brzykcy learned the game from his father as a child and then joined the chess club in high school. Irvin learned the game at his fifth grade chess club but hadn’t played much until he saw his teammates play. Brzykcy – who is struggling with a forearm strain and was transferred to minor league camp on Tuesday – and Millas are playing on the phone for extra practice, but Brzykcy personally called it “nerve-wracking”.

“The biggest thing, especially as a pitcher and catcher, is that we always have to be on the same page,” Irvin said. “(Millas) does a really good job just interacting with all of us, getting to know us and knowing our strengths on and off the pitch.”

Millas, 25, was acquired in 2021 by trade sending Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes to the Oakland Athletics. Keibert Ruiz, who signed an eight-year, $50 million deal on Saturday, and Riley Adams are likely to start in the majors. Israel Pineda, who has a dislocation of the right little finger on his fingertip and has not played since March 4, is likely behind them on the organization’s rankings. Still, Millas is still hanging around in camp after finishing last season with Class AA Harrisburg.

Wherever he goes this year, his chessboard will follow. Millas played when he was younger but a matchup against an old friend this off-season reignited his interest. Brody Nester, 19, is a freshman at Purdue who will soon be transitioning from exploratory studies to a materials engineering major. He and Millas grew up seeing each other once a week, and Millas gave baseball lessons to Nester’s two younger brothers.

Now that both are older, the interactions are fewer and further apart. But late on a random evening last December, Nester went over to Milla’s house to compete in chess. There was one caveat though. Nester played blindfolded.

Nester was impressed with Millas’ skills given his inexperience and said Millas outplayed him early in the game. But Nester used a five-move tactic to gain an advantage after Millas failed to make the most of his early lead and eventually won.

“I said, ‘I can’t have that,'” Millas said, laughing. “So I decided to dig deep and keep learning. Because it really is a game where you have to use your brain. It’s always your fault if you lose. It’s always your fault if you win. You’re the one. That’s why I kind of like the game. It demands a lot from you and you have to believe in yourself.”

Since then, Millas has significantly improved his Elo, a scoring system that measures how good a chess player is compared to others. You can gain about eight Elo when you win, but lose just as much when you lose. Millas started out with 500 Elo for rapid games – those that last at least 15 minutes – and 400 for blitz games – games that last between three and 14 minutes. Now he has 1,000 Elo in rapid games and 800 in blitz games.

“For how busy Drew is, it’s honestly super impressive that he’s been able to improve so quickly,” Nester said. “He doesn’t have much time to play. He told me he could only play one or two games a day… that’s really shocking. I haven’t improved nearly as fast as he has.”

Now Milla’s Nester sends his online game boards so he can analyze his moves and give him feedback. Nester also makes his own puzzles and sends them to Millas for him to work on a number of smaller, tactical moves that could help him in full games. Nester hopes he and Millas can play again if they can connect next time they’re home at the same time. And maybe Millas can beat him this time.

Nester described Millas as someone who tries to see the best in people and brings them together, much like he tried to do in the Nationals locker room that spring practice.

“He definitely inspired me to treat everyone kindly and to welcome everyone,” Nester said. “When I was younger, even though I was awkward and difficult to communicate with, he still found a way to converse. I think that’s a very difficult trait to be good at.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2023/03/12/drew-millas-nationals-chess-camaraderie/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_homepage Drew Millas and his chessboard bring camaraderie to the Nats’ clubhouse

Ian Walker

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