My online chess addiction was ruining my life. Had to change something | Stuart Kenny | So Good News


PMaybe I missed my stop, I realized I had a problem with completing a three-minute online blitz chess game. Or when you start another game on instead of getting off at the next stop. I, of course, had no qualms about the half-hour walk home, avoiding lampposts as I continued to kneel down tough pre-emptive moves against anonymous opponents.

Blunder. Resign. New game.

I am addicted to online chess.

I started playing chess in 2019, I used to play it as a child. I liked the thinking, the creativity… and of course, the fact that people mistakenly thought you were smart if you played. The problem was, I had no one to play with. Everything changed when a friend introduced me to online chess.

I started playing regularly – incredibly regularly – and loved every moment of it. I planned to join a local club, but then I got blocked and threw myself into an online game.

After the defeat, I stuck with the basics – developing your own pieces, knights before bishops, center control. Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit brought millions to the servers, and I was happy to beat them with knight’s pitchforks, finding attacks and sacrifices. I ate every series The Chess Pit Podcast and became a disciple of popular YouTube instructor Gotham Chess.

Chess skill is measured by the Elo rating system. Beginners have an Elo below 1200. A club player has about 1,600 Elo, while a grandmaster is rated at over 2,500. If my rating was close to a round number, say 1500 or 1600, I would delay my sleep until I hit the next hundred marks. But sometimes the stage never comes – and sleep never comes. I couldn’t stop playing after a win because one often leads to the other, and so did I definitely could not end in defeat.

I mainly played blitz, a format in which each player gets three minutes per match, and started to win more by running down my opponents’ time than by tactical skill. You can get a lot of Elo points by running around with a king and two pawns while your angry opponent chases, but it doesn’t improve your game at all.

Not only that, it attracts angry messages. “Greed and futile pursuits are your lot,” an Aussie wrote to me in a sad, if melodramatic, DM. I am now a little worried that my family may be cursed.

Bobby Fischer once said “blitz chess kills your ideas” and this seems to be the case for me. Blitz was rotting my brain. I was no longer learning, instead I was moving pieces quickly in hopes that my opponent would time out, and I was losing focus completely. When one match ends, a new one begins. Doorbells go unanswered and phone calls go unanswered because you can’t multitask while playing these matches. I was not liked by anyone who played chess online – online or offline.

It’s time for a change.

One day I saw nine chess books in the window of a local charity shop. I bought them all and deleted both the chess app from my phone. I would focus on learning rather than arbitrary Elo count. Gradually, through the learning of Catalan opening theory, the peace and mystique of chess returned.

The opening of the world also helped. I joined the Edinburgh Chess Club, the second oldest club in the world. My love of chess has turned into a love of spending time with friends and family, getting to the board and teaching them the game and the tricks and pitfalls that come with it.

A close friend also caught the chess bug, and we played until the wee hours one night on the banks of the Water of Leith – a far more social event than the dark and grimy online alternative.

Like football, chess is a universal language. In Zurich, I played a best-of-five game against a local player on the giant chessboards at Lindenhofplatz, and I also played in El Retiro Park in Madrid.

I’ve now played over 20,000 games online since 2019, against players from 208 countries, but connecting through the board is more meaningful and beautiful than online chess ever could be.

It’s all too easy to lose yourself in the algorithms and forget that the world is turning when you’re playing online chess or whatever. Only when you put down the phone or close the laptop screen do you remember the attraction of the real world.

  • Stuart Kenny is a freelance travel journalist and editor

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