What I learned playing chess online

In a book I have been writing about technology I used the example of online chess as way of signalling the power and sophistication of computing. If you follow the debates over the past 30 or 40 years we have gone from wondering if a computer could ever play a decent game of chess to a situation when a freely downloadable programme can beat all but the very strongest players, with each move taking little more than a blink of the eye [1]. Equally impressive if we stop to think about it is the power that to play anyone – well anyone looking for a game – via the internet. 

Chess has turned out to be a quiet phenomenon in recent years with growing numbers around the world playing the game. Some of this rise has been credited to the hit series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ about a young woman’s journey to chess stardom while beating her demons on the way [2], a story that has been credited in particular for  attracting girls and women into playing the game. Chess like other board games also proved popular during the COVID lockdown as a distraction from being cooped up all day and night. But perhaps the key element in the new found popularity of chess has been the greater exposure of the game via the internet and the ease of playing online.  

Chess.com is I think the most popular online chess site, but there are others offering similar opportunities [3].  Chess.com boosts 100 million members world-wide. Registering is free and only a proportion of members are likely to be active but nonetheless this points to a huge chess playing public. Membership gives you access to playing online (either against a computer or a ‘real person’)  but if you want to review games, get feedback on moves and follow tutorials there is – as far as these things go – a very modest cost ($4 a month). In most chess sites there are also forums,  access to live games, tutorials and at times online tournaments. 

I have been member of Chess.com since November and first thing I noticed is how well the site – and I guess other sites – work. Games against computer avatars are really helpful for learning more about the game as you can take moves back, see suggested strategies and practise new openings without jeopardy. Of course, the algorithms to which the programs work are not fool proof – sometimes the avatar you are playing against will adjust to your level by making a deliberately bad move, like throwing away a piece, rather than letting you develop a devious strategy of your own. However, this will not matter too much to the learner player.

Playing other people feels completely different from playing the computer as there is a definite competitive edge. This is interesting as you do not see your opponent, only their avatar, and for that matter you would not know if you were playing against a computer program, rather than a person. However, the competitive urge is there and it is more about battling yourself to play better.  If you lose, it is not bad luck or chance, you simply have to recognise that your opponent was better than you.   A feature of these online chess sites is that you get a grade based on your playing record so that you are usually playing against people at more or less similar levels. In fact in Chess.com I have won about as many games as I have lost which is ideal. 

There are downsides to playing online. Perhaps the biggest limitation is the representation of the board which is, of course, two dimensional and, depending on screen size, smaller than a physical board. The diagonal plays do not seem so clear, at least to me, and this can lead to mistakes. In addition, you can also find yourself inadvertently letting go of the mouse button on the wrong square and quickly lose a game. One issue that excites members is the idea that other players may be cheating and using AI programmes to calculate their moves.  Chess sites claim they can detect cheating using data analytics and will suspend accounts. But unless you are playing at an elite level I cannot see why you would want to cheat – there is no money at stake and you would simply end up with a higher rating and more skilled opponents than you could handle. 

One thing that has surprised me is how ‘addictive’ playing online is. I put the word in italics as I have seen hundreds of newspaper articles and academic papers about technology which describe internet addiction in a very loose way [4] . Such a thing, of course, exists but what is described as addiction is in many cases something that falls far short of the cravings those giving up cigarettes, drink or drug feel. What is certainly true is that you can get carried away playing online chess. This is more likely to be in the ‘blitz’ versions of the games in which you have up to three minutes to make your moves.  Once I played perhaps ten short games in a row and lost each. Looking back I should have seen that I was muddled that day and should not have been playing, but by some kind of twisted logic  I noticed I was losing by blunders rather than mistaken strategies. Blunders were much more rectifiable than shortcomings in knowledge of openings and strategy. Just one more game and all would be well. But it wasn’t and I kept on losing. This is the closest I can imagine to online gambling and the warped process of reasoning that leads you to think next time it will be different.  Of course playing too many chess games online is within reason harmless, there is no money involved and you will at some point reach a sense of exhaustion but it was disturbing as an experience.  

Overall, I have enjoyed playing online and the impetus it has given to my chess. I played in school competitions when young but I did not see myself a chess player and dropped it. I used to win a great many games by playing the same two or three openings for which I knew the most likely counters and waited for the opponent to make a mistake.  I think I got bored. I needed to vary my repertoire and I wanted to be more attacking but I was not good enough. Playing online has enabled me to improve, take risks and broaden my game. I have learnt to be more respectful of opponents too and really don’t mind losing – perhaps that is just age. The internet is always a balance of opportunities and risks but online chess is an example of how technology and artificial intelligence can make a difference.


[1] The breakthrough in chess programs seems to have come about through the rapid processing and enhanced data storage but also through working to ideal states of play, see, for example: Jackson, B. (2019). Doomed to draw. London Review of Books, 41(11), 34– 36.

[2] You can catch episodes on streaming services (and some episodes uploaded onto You Tube), but here is the official trailer:

[3] Chess.com is probably the market leader but there are of course many other sites, see for example:  Chess Strategy Online (n.d.) The 10 best places to play chess online [Online]https://www.chessstrategyonline.com/play-chess-online

[4] A case in point is an article by Stuart Kenny ‘My online chess addiction was ruining my life’ (2022). This recounts how much Stuart was getting carried away playing the blitz version of game and only re-found his love of the game through playing in chess clubs. This sets up a division between online and offline play but there is every reason to believe that playing online may stimulate interest in playing in physical settings and vice versa, i.e. they are not exclusive spheres:

Kenny, S. (2022) ‘My online chess addiction was ruining my life. Something had to change’, Guardian, 5 September, 2022 [Online] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/sep/05/online-chess-addiction-ruining-life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s