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

Perhaps it was when I missed my bus stop so I could finish a three-minute game of online blitz chess that I realised 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 the resulting half-hour walk home, narrowly avoiding lamp-posts as I continued to line up ill-fated pre-moves against anonymous opponents.

Blunder. Resign. New game.

I was addicted to online chess.

I started playing chess in 2019, having previously only played as a child. I loved the reasoning, the creativity … and of course, the fact that people mistakenly think you’re intelligent if you play. The problem was, I had nobody to play with. When a friend introduced me to online chess, that changed.

I began to play regularly – incredibly regularly – and loved every moment. I planned to join a local club, but then lockdown hit, so I threw myself into online play.

Learning by losing, I got to grips with the basics – develop your pieces, knights before bishops, control the centre. Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit brought millions more on to the servers, and I revelled in beating them with knight forks, discovered attacks and sacrifices. I devoured every episode of The Chess Pit podcast and became a disciple of Gotham Chess, a popular YouTube tutor.

Chess skill is measured on the Elo rating system. Beginners have an Elo below 1,200. A club player has an Elo of about 1,600, while grandmasters are rated over 2,500. If my rating was anywhere near a round number, for example a ranking of 1,500 or 1,600, I would delay sleep until I got to the next hundred-mark milestone. But sometimes the milestone would never come – and so neither would the sleep. I couldn’t stop playing after a win, because one often leads to another, and I definitely couldn’t end on a defeat.

I was primarily playing blitz, a format where each player gets three minutes a match, and I began to win more often due to my opponents running out of time rather than by any tactical mastery. You can gain plenty of Elo points by running down the clock – sprinting around with a king and two pawns while your infuriated opponent chases you – but it doesn’t exactly improve your game.

What’s more, it attracts more than a few angry messages. One aggrieved, if melodramatic, Australian slid into my DMs to tell me: “Greed and worthless pursuits are your inheritance.” I remain a little concerned today that my family may now be cursed.

Bobby Fischer once said “blitz chess kills your ideas”, and that seemed to be what was happening to me. Blitz was rotting my brain. I was no longer learning, instead speedily moving pieces around in the hope that my opponent would run out of time – and I was losing my attention span entirely. When one match ended, a new one would begin. 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 was making me – online or off it.

It was time for a 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, through learning the Catalan opening theory, the calm and mystique of chess returned.

The world opening back up helped too. I joined Edinburgh Chess Club, the world’s second oldest club. My love of chess grew into a love of spending time with friends and family, catching up over the board and teaching them the game, and the tricks and traps that come with it.

A good friend also caught the chess bug, and we played on-the-board by the Water of Leith till the early hours one night – a far more sociable event than the dark and dingy online alternative.

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

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

It’s all too easy to lose yourself to the algorithms and forget that the world keeps turning when you play chess, or anything else, online. It’s only when you put the phone down or close the laptop screen that you remember the pull of the real world.

  • Stuart Kenny is a freelance travel journalist and editor

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