The Washington Post

Millas has Nats on board for a bit of extra strategy

Catching prospect brings chess to clubhouse in bid to build camaraderi­e


WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — Last week, Drew Millas walked over to the couches in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse with a foldable chessboard in hand. He placed it on a silver table and plopped down in one chair. Reliever Zach Brzykcy sat across from him. A few other players — including Jackson Rutledge and Jake Irvin — crowded around as Brzykcy and Millas settled in with pawns and rooks, kings and queens.

Millas carries the board around whenever he travels. When he saw that the Nationals didn’t have games in the clubhouse, he brought it in to build camaraderi­e. Irvin hopped in on a game. Pitcher Matt Cronin, too. Paolo Espino told Millas he wanted to join.

“It kind of wakes me up before games, helps me hit, I think, too,” Millas said. “Ever since I’ve been doing it, I’ve been hitting well. . . . It really just activates your critical thinking. Thinking ahead, thinking before you do something.”

Brzykcy learned the game from his dad when he was a kid, then joined the chess club in high school. Irvin picked it up in his fifth-grade chess club but hadn’t played much until he saw his teammates playing. Brzykcy — who is dealing with a forearm strain and was reassigned to minor league camp Tuesday — and Millas play each other on the phone for extra practice, but Brzykcy called it “nerve-racking” in person.

“The biggest thing is, especially as pitchers and catchers, we got to be on the same page all the time,” Irvin said. “[Millas] does a really good job just interactin­g with all of us, getting to know us and what our strengths are both on and off the field.”

Millas, a 25-year-old catcher, was acquired in the 2021 trade that sent Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes to the Oakland Athletics. Keibert Ruiz, who signed an eightyear, $50 million deal Saturday,

and Riley Adams probably will start in the majors. Israel Pineda, who has a right pinkie displaceme­nt on the tip of his finger and hasn’t played since March 4, is probably behind them on the organizati­on’s catching depth chart. Yet 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 offseason reinvigora­ted his interest. Brody Nester, 19, is a freshman at Purdue who grew up near Millas, who used to give Nester’s two younger brothers baseball lessons.

Now that both are older, interactio­ns are fewer and farther between. But late on a random night this past December, Nester went over to Millas’s house to face off in chess. There was one caveat: Nester would play blindfolde­d.

Nester was impressed with Millas’s skills given his inexperien­ce and said Millas was outplaying him early in the game. But Nester used a five-move tactic to gain an advantage after Millas failed to exploit an early opportunit­y and eventually won.

“I said, ‘I can’t have that,’ ” Millas said with a laugh. “So I decided to get way into it, constant studying. 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. It’s you. That’s why I kind of like the game. It puts a lot on yourself, and you got to believe in yourself.”

Since then, Millas has significan­tly improved his elo, a point system that measures how good a chess player is compared with others. You can gain around eight elo if you win, and go down that same amount if you lose. Millas started at 500 elo for rapid games — ones that take at least 15 minutes — and 400 for blitz — matches lasting between three and 14 minutes. Now he’s at 1,000 elo in rapid games and 800 in blitz games.

“For how busy Drew is, it’s honestly super impressive that he was able to improve so fast,” Nester said. “He doesn’t have a lot of time to play. He told me he’s only able to play like one or two games a day. . . . It’s really shocking. I improved nowhere near as fast as he has.”

Now Millas sends Nester 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 so he can work on series of smaller, tactical moves that could help him in full games. Nester hopes that if they’re able to connect the next time they’re home at the same time, he and Millas can play again. And maybe Millas can beat him this time around.

Nester described Millas as someone who tries to see the best in people and bring them together, much as he’s tried to do in the Nationals’ locker room this spring training.

“He’s definitely inspired me to treat everyone with kindness and be welcoming to every person,” Nester said. “When I was younger, he still found a way to make conversati­on even though I was awkward and even though I was tough to communicat­e with. I think that’s a very hard quality to be good at.”

 ?? JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Drew Millas (81) said of chess: “It’s always your fault if you lose. It’s always your fault if you win. . . . That’s why I kind of like the game.”
JOHN MCDONNELL/THE WASHINGTON POST Drew Millas (81) said of chess: “It’s always your fault if you lose. It’s always your fault if you win. . . . That’s why I kind of like the game.”

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