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A Chess Grandmaster Predicted the Irving-for-Thomas Trade

According to Jan Gustafsson, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas are just pawns in the game.
Image courtesy of Jan Gustafsson

The basketball world was lit ablaze by the megastar trade deal inked out by the Celtics and the Cavs yesterday. Former Cavs guard Kyrie Irving—who was desperately trying to smash his second fiddle to LeBron—was sent over to the Celtics in exchange for Boston's Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić, and a 2018 draft pick Boston had acquired from the Brooklyn Nets. In a league that already bears so much witness to superteam reconstructive surgery, this was a deep cut that seemingly came out of nowhere.


Though this wasn't exactly as on point as a couple of dudes with Butt-related names calling out the terms of the Jose Quintana deal between the Chicago Cubs and White sox, hours before the Kyri-IT trade actually went down, someone predicted it nearly to perfection. He said the Celtics should offer the Cleveland Cavaliers Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, "and one of your 80,000 draft picks" for Kyrie Irving. The only things missing were specificity on the draft pick, and Žižić.

So what kind of omniscient genius could possibly have predicted this insane, left-field power swap, intricacies and all? What kind of person has the foresight, the knowledge of the pieces of the game, and the mind-reading ability to get inside opponents' heads? Why, a chess grandmaster…GM for short. Duh.

38-year-old chess Grand Master Jan Gustafsson of Germany called the trade while shooting the shit with an opponent on an online chess platform who he noticed had a Boston Celtics avatar. As a big NBA fan thanks to Dirk Nowitzki, he keeps up on all the news around the league and started talking about what the Celts were going to do with Thomas, when he just started spitballing his own personal theory. Hours later, his theory basically was the trade.

We decided to catch up with Gustafsson to chat about his prediction. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

VICE Sports: How did you become an NBA fan?

Jan Gustafsson: I started watching games regularly thanks to our boy Dirk Nowitzki when Dallas was in the finals against LeBron in 2011, when a lot of people in Germany were watching all the finals. Ever since, I've been watching League Pass and listening to all the podcasts and reading all the sites, so I'm well informed on stuff.


…Chess players are very much into basketball, like much more than the average population. If you look at the top ten chess players, all the guys are heavily following basketball, and looking at stats. They're all serious experts. Like, World Champion Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, all the world's best players—they're serious basketball nerds. So it's funny that we're all really into it, while people aren't that much into soccer, as you're supposed to be as a European.

VS: How on earth did you craft this prediction about I.T. and Kyrie Irving?

JG: I'm just a basketball fan, so I do all these regular chess streams, and I enjoy going off on some tangents and talking basketball. Had I not played a dude with a Celtics avatar, I don't think I would have talked about it during the show. But of course, I was as surprised as anybody when I woke up this morning and saw that this trade had actually happened. It was fun to see.

VS: Are you worried about becoming Paul, the wildly successful, German World Cup match-predicting octopus, stuck in a tank and choosing the fates of NBA teams for the rest of your life?

JG: I was just talking to my friend about Paul after my video got shared. The funny thing is that I'm a professional chess commentator, but I'm famous for being terrible at making predictions for chess games. So this is a new, welcome change.

VS: At the risk of overdoing it, do you have any other NBA predictions?


JG: I think I should rest on my laurels for a couple of days before I stretch my neck out with the next one. It's sort of a low-percentage game.

VS: If Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving were chess pieces, which ones would they be?

JG: They gotta be the same piece, right? Both attackers, that defend very poorly. They're both not very tall. I gotta say, they're both pawns. And that's not meant offensively. But pawns can't move backwards in chess. I feel like these guys, they're not very good at defense. You have to choose guys who only move forward.

VS: I thought you were going to say they were bishops or knights or something—unpredictable, x-factors…

JG: No, a knight can jump over their opponents, and I've never seen Isaiah or Kyrie jump over anything.