Check swing or checkmate? Votto keeping chess habit alive

February 24th, 2023

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- On Monday nights during the baseball offseason in frigid Toronto, one of the hottest places to be might have been inside Annex Chess Club at New City Baptist Church.

Reds first baseman and chess aficionado became a regular player there each week. Until November, Votto played only online, but he started making trips into the city to match opponents face-to-face.

"I was looking for a place to get out of the house and meet some people," Votto said.

Votto first picked up chess when most places were shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. He's kept up the habit over the last couple of years. Last season, Votto often played against then-teammate .

This past offseason, chess was a distraction that provided an outlet away from a long rehabilitation from Votto's left shoulder surgery in August.

"It’s a pastime, just like watching Netflix or something," Votto said. "It takes my mind off everything but the experience."

According to the Toronto Star, the Annex opens its doors at 7 p.m. and contains 48 tables equipped with chess boards and pieces. The number of players on a given night can reach almost 100. Actor Woody Harrelson is among the celebrity players who have previously played at the club.

Votto's Instagram feed often told the tale of his matches each Monday evening. In November, he played his first in-person match and said he was "flattened by a 9-year-old." By January, he'd notched his first win and credited the barley soup he had for lunch for carrying him to victory.

At the club, Votto just fits in with the other players. Did anybody know him as one of Canada's most prolific Major League Baseball players?

"I don’t know," Votto said. "Some I’m sure probably did."

They've certainly started to recognize his chess skills.

"He’s good," fellow player Keith Denning told The Star in January. "I’ve never played him before, but he’s winning now. He managed to trap my queen."

Sometimes, Votto took his approximately 140,000 Instagram followers along for the ride -- literally -- as he rode the commuter train from home to the chess club.

"I’ve got an hour-and-a-half on the train with nothing to do," he said.

Occasionally, the video would show him hanging his head in defeat while trudging back home -- all in jest (maybe).

Votto added some drip as he raised his style game earlier in February. He posted a video that showed him arriving at the Annex in a stretch limousine. At the chess board, he wore a full Gucci outfit with large sunglasses.

Now that the offseason is over, it's back to baseball full time for Votto at Spring Training, and the trips to the chess club are on hiatus.

That hasn't stopped his chess playing, however, as Votto has a new foil across the board.

Outfielder , who was acquired by the Reds from the Guardians on Feb. 8, is a longtime chess player. The 24-year-old Benson, who has 28 Major League games logged, has been more than a worthy opponent this week to the 39-year-old Votto, who has played 1,991 MLB games.

"It’s a pretty cool experience," Benson said of playing against Votto. "I’m very thankful to have it. I’ve been playing since I was a kid, playing with my mom. I played a lot."

Benson kept his chess skills sharp as his pro baseball career took off, often playing with teammate when the two were in Double-A in the Guardians' system.

When Votto and Benson play at a table inside the Reds' clubhouse, some teammates often gather to watch.

Earlier in the week, the two battled to a draw. On Thursday afternoon, Benson defeated Votto.

So, who is the better player?

"We play quick time control when he wants to play. I play longer time controls," Votto explained. "There’s a time element to it. As far as who is better, we’ll be able to tell in the next bit of time."