All the Right Moves

Throughout the 2004 season, defensive back Mike Horan ‘ had a knack for staying several moves ahead of his opponents. That skill brought him success on the football field: A first–team All–NESCAC selection his junior year, Horan co–captained the 2004 team and had made three interceptions leading up to the CBB series this fall.

But his tenacious, forward-thinking attitude also earned Horan respect from another group: the U.S. Chess Federation, which ranks him as an “expert.”

“I play Stratego, chess, Monopoly,” says the Stoughton, Mass., native. “Any game where there’s competition involved and you can get a mental edge.”

Horan, president of the Bates Chess Club, took an interest in the game in elementary school. He played with his father, uncles, and older brother, Ted. (The brotherly games got intense – neither likes to lose – so they don’t play much anymore, Mike says.)

In high school, Horan played football and baseball and also wrestled. “Chess and wrestling are similar in some ways, because they’re pure competition,” Horan says. “There’s no outside influence that can have an impact on the match.”

Indeed, at points in the 2004 football season it seemed Horan had similarly turned Garcelon Field into a mano a mano venue, him versus NESCAC receivers. One of his 2004 interceptions came when he ripped the ball from Wesleyan receiver James Wallace as the two fell to the Garcelon turf.

“He and I have been going back and forth for the past few years,” Horan says. “I crank up my intensity every time I get a chance to make a hit on him or make a play on him. I wasn’t in position for an interception, but when he caught the ball I just took it from him. I can’t explain it, I just did it.” Horan’s interceptions helped lead Bates to a 28-7 win, the first over the Cardinals since 1982.

During three recent summers, Horan taught basic chess strategy to elementary and middle-school kids. During that time, he studied chess strategies, some dating back a century. Older, more obscure strategies are useful, he says, when facing a more skilled player who would have the advantage if Horan tried a more contemporary and familiar approach.

A political science major at Bates, Horan is a student of the gridiron, too. Even at the small-college level, football regimen involves both physical and mental preparation, and each week players troop to the football offices at Merrill Gym to watch hours of video: of their last game, opponent’s games, practice sessions, and various down-and-distance and play–type clips.

“The mental challenge for a football player is to take information that the coaches give them in two dimensions and apply it on the field in three dimensions,” says Horan’s assistant coach, Steve Vashel. “Mike’s been almost religious in his approach to film study,” he adds, noting that Horan’s teammates followed their captain’s example during the 2004 season. “They were like a pack of film rats, wanting more and more information.”

It sounds counterintuitive, but loading a player with information off the field helps unburden the player when it’s time to play, Vashel says. “Mental rehearsal helps a player execute faster on the field. When Mike watches tape, he’s playing the game in his head, thinking about what he needs to do on Saturday. This is what he has done very well: He has an unusual level of awareness on the field.”

Once the ball is snapped, Horan has just a second or two to react to the offensive scheme. Preferring to play his chess at that pace too, Horan plays a lot of “speed chess,” a turbo–charged version of the game where each player has just a minute to complete all moves. Horan plays online, at, versus players from around the world: France, Brazil, Germany, Argentina. “I’ve played 10,000 games in three years,” he says. “You do the math.” (OK: that’s 10 games a day.) He also plays closer to home, like at the chess club’s winning match versus Bowdoin in 2003. Befitting a defensive back, Horan says he does better playing black—the side that has to react to white’s first move.

While Horan admits that his teammates probably don’t want to see him during the week—he’ll constantly talk football strategy—Vashel admires Horan’s single-minded approach. “The way he gathers and processes information to anticipate what his opponent will do next, I can see how Mike is drawn to chess.”

“He’s a great example to the other players,” Vashel continues. “He has the athletic ability to free-lance and make a play on his own, but he’s also aware of his responsibilities, so he’s always in a position to make a play.”

Or the right move.