Let’s start with an apposite fact: I’m kinda dogshit at chess.
Prior to the pandemic, I had only played chess a handful of times. Then, at the beginning of “our new reality,” I dropped my aged phone one time too many and needed to upgrade. My new phone, I decided, would not have social media on it—an attempt to cold turkey cut myself off from the familiar thumb motion of tapping in my pin code, swiping right, and pressing the jolly light-blue Twitter button.
In lieu of social meds, I installed the chess.com app. And, like an alcoholic who turns to cigarettes, traded one habit for another.
To describe my journey thus far, about a year in, it has felt like this:
First: revelation. The motion of chess pieces, and the satisfaction of coordinating them, is hard to overstate. So as not to throw yourself directly to the wolves (i.e. other chess players) the chess.com app offers many “chess bots.” These AI opponents range in difficulty from “drunk grandpa” to “unfathomable superbrain.” They were my introduction to the joy of creating plans and taking advantage of my opponent’s mistakes.
Second: hubris. I worked my way through chess bots of increasing difficulty, I watched pedagogic videos on Youtube (there are a TON of “chess streamers” out there, and they put out a lot of content). I even became a paying member of the chess.com app and started taking lessons. I saw improvement. I got online under the moniker “Goboguy” which I picked both because it sounded funny, and I thought it would perturb people to lose to a player named Goboguy. And I beat some online opponents, too. I thought, Brett old boy, perhaps you are a secret chess genius.
Third: reality. How good you are at chess is defined by a number rating called ELO. (Fun fact, ELO is not an acronym; it is a rating system devised by Hungarian chess master Arpad Elo.) I worked up to being able to reliably beat chess bots with an ELO of around 1300. But, dear reader, computers aren’t people. Currently, I still get just humiliated by people with a 600 ELO rating.
Playing bots is a very different experience from playing a random person. On chess.com, you simply click “game with random person” and it will automatically match you to a player with a similar ELO, and off you go. There are varying types of chess games, from “Rapid” to “Bullet” to “Blitz.” The only difference being that you have a different set amount of time to make your moves in each. I prefer “Rapid,” which gives each player ten minutes, total, to make their moves. It makes for a brisk game that still allows for some contemplation.
Every time I play online vs. a person, my heart gets to beating. My precious ELO, my self-confidence and self worth, is at stake. A win sees a couple of points added on, a loss, a couple subtracted. And, let me be clear here, playing people in chess is invariably a humbling experience.
A pertinent aside re: being humbled. When Garry Kasparov played the chess supercomputer, Deep Blue in 1997, after defeating it in 1996, the games were mostly logical. But, in one game, Deep Blue played a move that stumped Kasparov. It was so diabolical, so unexpected, that Garry couldn’t see how a computer could have devised it (and this is coming from a guy that literally played against the world and did not lose). In fact, Kasparov actually accused the computer of cheating, saying that some other grandmaster must have somehow supplied the move. The reality, it turns out, was that the computer made a mistake; it made a weird calculation that Kasparov could have taken advantage of to get a draw, instead of losing. Two points that I’m trying to underline here: bots make weird moves that ultimately don’t prepare you to play against real people; and, even if you’re the best in the world, being humbled is fundamental to the playing of chess.
Watch the commentary on any top-level match. Common phrases you’ll hear: “What Nepomniachtchi couldn’t see was…” “Now, here is where Duda blundered.” “And when he could have won, Magnus misses it!” The world of International Master and Grandmaster chess is basically schadenfreude theater.
Today, nobody—literally no human with a soft, stinky body—is now spared from feeling inferior. The current world champion of chess is named Stockfish. Its avatar is what looks like a dead trout on top of a chessboard. It’s an AI. Remember Deep Blue? That computer’s ELO is estimated at around 2,700. Garry Kasparov topped out at an ELO of 2,851. Magnus Carlsen, the current number one player in the world, has achieved an ELO of 2,882.
Stockfish has an ELO of 3,546.
But I think there is an excellent lesson here, since we are basically now incapable of being better than computers at chess. Chess, for the vast majority of people who play, is not a game about being the best. It is about getting better.
And to significantly improve at chess, not even shoot to be “da best,” one basically has to dedicate all of their free time to study. You need to memorize openings: the Ruy Lopez, the Gioco Piano (the Italian Game), the Sicilian, the English, the French defense, the accelerated dragon, the slav defense, and on and on. The top chess games, often, go into the 20th or so move without any new position being discovered. That means that for 20 moves, you have to know, by the books, which exact move of your 16 pieces is best. That’s not fun; that’s a grind.
So chess, for me, has become about small improvement, not mastery. It has become about making myself a little bit fuller of a person. Robert A. Heinlein, from his novel “Time Enough For Love”, has a memorable quote about this:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
- Robert Heinlein
But, sorry Robby, the reality is that our society pushes us to specialize. Natural selection is killing off the handymen. And, on the opposite side of the spectrum, being the best—or even making a novel contribution in any one particular area of life—requires that you dedicate all of your mental and physical energy to that single thing. That you lose nearly all roundness of character and become a bug, as Heinlein puts it.
Which is why, of course, I would like to be better at chess, but probably never will be. I refuse. I will continue to isolate pawns, hang rooks, miss opportunities, and basically blunder my way to a generally middling understanding of the game.
Let’s go back to my original intent: I saw myself wasting my time just flipping through Twitter, gorging myself on whatever spleen “the discourse” consisted of. It sucked. I wanted to do something more productive. So, has my time with chess been productive?
I can discern between a Scotch and a Bongcloud opening (there are so, so many openings). I look for ways to fork and skewer my opponent’s pieces. I try to develop my pieces in a natural way. I have beaten Nelson, one of chess.com’s biggest sonuvabitch bots—he brings out his queen early and, if you’re not prepared, simply shreds you apart. Fuck you, Nelson. You absolute piece of shit.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t report that chess can sometimes also make you feel like a world-beating superbrain. There are times, rare though they may be, that a plan comes to beautiful fruition, and you see your opponent stepping haplessly into a trap that you’ve set. There are times that you spot an unexpected opportunity, after being on the ropes, and completely turn the game on its head. There are times, oh there are times, that you make a move that elicits the little “bootledoop” noise of checkmate, and you get to ruefully chuckle at your opponent’s inadequacy.
But those times, oh they’re few.
And I have indeed won a few hard-fought games against real people. I now feel confident that I could sit down with a good player and give them at least an interesting match. In the end, I’d say chess is a much better way to pass the time than casting yourself adrift in the sea of online opinions. But then again, you’ll be forced to face your own limitations in a very, very stark way, which, I understand, is not how most folks prefer to spend their free time.
IN SHORT: Chess will make you feel like a resplendent god before reminding you that you are, in fact, a filth-covered idiot.