My online chess addiction was ruining my life. Something had to change | Stuart Kenny

PMaybe it was when I missed my bus stop so I could finish a three-minute game of online chess that I realized I had a problem. Or when, instead of getting off at the next stop, I started another game on I certainly had no qualms about completing the resulting half-hour walk, narrowly avoiding streetlights while continuing to line up ill-fated pre-moves against anonymous opponents.

Goof. Resign. New game.

I was addicted to online chess.

I started playing chess in 2019, having only played as a child. I loved the reasoning, the creativity… and of course, the fact that people mistakenly think you’re smart if you play. The problem was that I had no one to play with. When a friend introduced me to online chess, that changed.

I started playing regularly – incredibly regularly – and loved every bit of it. I had planned to join a local club, but lockdown hit, so I got into online gaming.

Learning by losing, I’ve mastered the basics – develop your pieces, mad forward knights, control the center. Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit brought millions more to the servers, and I reveled in beating them with knight pitchforks, discovering attacks and sacrifices. I devoured every episode of The Chess Pit Podcast and became a follower of popular YouTube tutor Gotham Chess.

Chess skill is measured on the Elo rating system. Beginners have an Elo of less than 1200. A club player has an Elo of around 1600, while Grandmasters are rated over 2500. If my rating was close to a round number, for example a ranking of 1500 or 1600, I would delay sleep until I hit the next hundred milestone. But sometimes the milestone never came – and neither did the sleep. I couldn’t stop playing after a win, because one often leads to the other, and I absolutely could not end in defeat.

I was mainly playing blitz, a format where each player gets three minutes per game, and started winning more often due to my opponents running out of time rather than tactical mastery. You can earn a lot of Elo points by running through time – sprinting with a king and two pawns while your furious opponent is chasing you – but that doesn’t really improve your game.

Plus, it attracts more than a few angry messages. An aggrieved, albeit melodramatic, Aussie slipped into my DMs to tell me, “Greed and worthless pursuits are your legacy.” I remain a little worried today that my family may now be cursed.

Bobby Fischer once said that “the chess blitz kills your ideas”, and that’s what happened to me. Blitz was rotting my brain. I wasn’t learning anymore, but I was moving pieces quickly in the hope that my opponent would run out of time – and I was completely losing my attention span. When a game ended, a new one started. Doorbells went unanswered and phone calls were missed due to my inability to multitask while playing these matches. I didn’t like the person online chess made me – online or not.

It was time to change.

One day I noticed nine chess books in the window of a local charity shop. I bought them all and deleted both chess apps from my phone. I would focus on learning, not an arbitrary Elo number. Slowly, learning the Catalan opening theory, the calm and mystique of chess returned.

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

A good friend also caught the chess bug and we played on the set near Water of Leith until the wee hours of one night – a far more sociable event than the dark and drab online alternative.

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

I’ve now played over 20,000 games online since 2019, against players from 208 countries, but the on-board connection is meaningful and beautiful, in a way that online chess could never be.

It’s all too easy to get lost in algorithms and forget that the world keeps turning when you’re playing chess, or anything else, online. It’s only when you put the phone down or close the laptop screen that you remember the allure of the real world.

  • Stuart Kenny is a freelance travel journalist and editor

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