San Francisco 49ers

A lover of chess, 49ers’ Robert Saleh now playing with bigger board

Robert Saleh, seen here with defensive end Elvis Dumervil, is entering his first year as 49ers defensive coordinator. Last year the team finished 32nd is nearly every major defensive category.
Robert Saleh, seen here with defensive end Elvis Dumervil, is entering his first year as 49ers defensive coordinator. Last year the team finished 32nd is nearly every major defensive category. Sacramento Bee file

They started with the type of plastic chess set you can find in any drugstore. If they were missing a piece they’d use a checker as a substitute or simply write “rook” on a scrap of paper.

Robert Saleh, the 49ers’ new defensive coordinator, used to have epic matches with his brother, David, who is four years older. David dominated their early encounters. But at some point, when they were teens, the tally evened out. And soon after that Robert pulled into the lead.

“We don’t like to lose to one another,” David, 41, said. “Sometimes you wouldn’t let the other get up from the table unless we played again.”

Robert has had no formal training and has taken no classes, but his chess rating has grown to 1950, just below that of an expert (2000-2199).

“He’s very, very meticulous, very methodical,” David said of his brother’s game. “He really thinks everything out. As a matter of fact, that’s why I can’t play him in person anymore. He’ll take 20, 30 minutes to make a move.”

Robert, of course, now is playing with a much bigger board and with more expensive pieces.

After the 49ers finished the 2016 season with two victories, they hired Kyle Shanahan, one of the sharpest offensive minds in the game, as their head coach. But San Francisco’s defense was a far greater problem last year. It finished at the bottom of nearly every category and broke a 70-year franchise record in the most elemental principle of the game: stopping the run.

Like last year’s defensive coordinator, Jim O’Neil, Saleh is in his mid-30s. Unlike O’Neil, he’s never been a defensive coordinator.

The 49ers looked at several veteran options before making the hire, including former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley and Vic Fangio, whose San Francisco defenses finished in the NFL’s top five from 2011-14. Fangio, however, couldn’t get out of his contract with the Chicago Bears. Bradley was hired to run the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense.

So the 49ers ended up with a guy no one had heard of.

Who is Robert Saleh? If you ask Shanahan, he’s a lot like him.

The two first met when they were young assistants with the Houston Texans. Shanahan started as the team’s wide receivers coach in 2006. At that time, Saleh was what the Texans called a defensive assistant.

“I was really just a little intern,” Saleh said.

The two were the same age and Shanahan said he was impressed with the speed and skill with which Saleh took in the team’s defensive schemes and incorporated them into Vizio, the computer program teams had begun using for their playbooks. If Shanahan had questions about defense, he went to Saleh.

“He thinks through everything,” Shanahan said. “I always thought he was extremely intelligent in how he’d explain it and – he was so good with computers and stuff – he was pretty off the chart in his preparation and organization.”

Said Kailee Wong, a former Stanford linebacker who was with the Texans at the time: “He had an incredible work ethic. He had a lot of good defensive coaches around him at the time. But you noticed that he was the one who worked the hardest.”

Saleh grew up in Dearborn, Mich., where he was part of a large Middle Eastern population that’s been drawn to jobs in the automotive industry since the 1920s. His mother was born in Lebanon. His father, Sam, was born in Michigan after a civil war in Lebanon forced his family to flee to the United States in the late 1940s.

The Arabs, Assyrians and other groups who moved to Dearborn had no background in American football, but they immediately were drawn to the sport.

“A lot of people say they play football because they’re angry,” Sam Saleh said. “I don’t think that’s true at all. I think it’s a way to express their freedom to have fun in a country that allows them to do whatever they want to do and choose what they want to do. But the immigrants who come here certainly embrace football and basketball very quickly.”

Sam, big and bald-headed like his son, was a high school linebacker and nose guard in the 1960s and earned a scholarship to Eastern Michigan. Robert, meanwhile, was a tight end who was talented enough to get attention from Lloyd Carr, then the head coach at the most renowned football school in the state, Michigan.

He also was recruited by Northern Michigan, a Division II program. When he was 18, he visited the school over a three-day weekend and returned to Dearborn with a surprise announcement: He had committed to attend Northern Michigan instead of Michigan.

“I was livid,” Sam recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘What did you do?’ I kind of hollered at him. And he went upstairs in his bedroom and he laid awake crying. And my daughter said, ‘What is wrong with you, Ba? How can you do that, Dad?’ Even today I get a lump in my throat when I think about it.”

What Sam would learn is that his son does not make decisions without an exhaustive amount of thought.

In his community, young men became doctors, lawyers or financiers. That’s what Robert did after college, landing a job as a credit analyst at a bank that paid him $800 a week, excellent money for someone in his early 20s. But Robert hated it. He eventually realized his passion was football and that he would become a coach.

“He’s deep thinker,” Sam said. “I always said Robert took after my dad in one way. He was a calculated mover as well. He would tell us, ‘Before you make a decision, think about it. Then think about it two, three hundred more times. Then if you feel good about it, do it.’ 

Deep thinking also is what drew Robert to chess. Looking five, seven, 10 steps ahead is challenging, fun – even cathartic – to him.

“It’s training your mind to see farther and farther,” Robert said. “It’s a game that you can actually improve in, not because you trick people, but because you can see farther than they do.”

Wong said that during the Texans’ road trips, the two used to take a chess set to the back of the plane and settle in. The flight would take off from Houston and land in, say, Chicago and they’d just be wrapping up their first match.

Wong said Saleh’s game is built on strategy and patience and controlled aggression. He wasn’t the type of player who’d bring out his queen early and attack in one mad rush. He played like an older man.

“He was very organized,” Wong said. “He was very strategic. He would just pressure – he always would put pressure on you. It was constant pressure. You didn’t know exactly what he was trying to do. He’d just always be making small, strategic moves to advance his cause.”

For Robert and David, who were close but highly competitive brothers, chess also was a way of staying in contact when they went off to their respective colleges and, after that, started careers and families. The two would play over the computer and, of course, Robert usually was the winner.

With one exception.

“One day, miraculously, he absolutely crushes me,” Robert said. “And he was like, ‘I guess I was in the zone.’ Then he does it again. And again. And I’m like, ‘Something’s up.’ 

It turned out that David was plugging his brother’s moves into a computer program, one that was set to Grandmaster level.

“It would tell me what move to make and I would wax him that way,” David said, laughing at the memory.

Said Robert: “And I’m like, ‘This son-of-a-gun! At least set it to intermediate.’ 

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at

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