Why I do not play chess online: chess as a human activity

I found out, while reading the magazine “Chess Life”, to which I am subscribed to as a member of the United States Chess Federation (USCF), that there are apparently plans to offer online chess play.

I have to confess that I have never been interested in playing chess online. I also do not like to play chess against computers, and not just because my first experience playing chess against a computer was bizarrely negative. I understand that many people take great pleasure in both of these activities, but I still restrict myself to playing chess only against humans, and face to face. Here’s why.

Growing up with chess with my father

I’ve written about some life lessons I learned from playing chess with my father, but not actually told the story of how we ended up joining the USCF and playing in rated tournaments. Here’s the story.

Taking chess more seriously in the 3rd grade because of China

I’ve mentioned getting into chess more seriously in the 2nd grade because of a strange incident at school. My story picks up from there in the 3rd grade.

One day in 1978, my father excitedly clipped out a chess game annotated in the regular chess column in the Sunday New York Times, and showed it to me playing it out. He might still have this clipping saved somewhere in a folder. It was a famous (notorious) game in which a relatively weak chess master from China, Liu Wenzhe, won against a Dutchman, Jan Hein Donner, a strong grandmaster.

You have to understand that in the 1970s, China was not taken seriously in the West. This was the first time in which a chess player of Chinese descent had scored a major upset against a Westerner. For my father, this was a big deal: he had always played a good game of Chinese chess, but never invested any time in improving at “Western” chess. Just seeing that someone of Chinese descent could play well caused him to become truly enthusiastic about Western chess. (For the curious, here is a record of the famous Donner-Liu game.)

From that day on, every time I walked off to the local store on Sunday morning to buy the New York Times to bring back home, my father and I would immediately clip out the chess column and study it together. We both got more serious about studying chess books we got from the public library.

(Update of 2013-04-15)

The author of the New York Times chess column, Robert Byrne, just died.

Fourth grade: joining the local chess club

After we moved after my third grade, my father found out that there was a chess club that met in the basement of the local community center, and he brought me there.

Cigar smoke and chess with the guys

It was quite an experience entering the chess club. The place was filled with cigar smoke and loud men slamming chess pieces around, wisecracking and swearing. Many of the guys were old, but there were younger guys also, although the youngest one was about twenty years old; I was just ten.

Somehow, in the midst of this chaos, I was welcomed to the club and enjoyed playing. Sometimes my six-year-old sister came along too, but it was clear that she didn’t really belong.


It wasn’t long before the guys told us about USCF and ratings and tournaments and encouraged us to join USCF and play in rated tournaments. So my father and I signed up and played in the Michigan Open. We both won trophies in our first tournament, and continued to play.


For me, a very shy boy who had relatively little interaction with his schoolmates outside of school, playing chess became the closest thing I had to a social life. So I have always associated chess with being social, with seeing people smile and frown, with sitting across from someone and noticing his (or very occasionally, her) changes in emotion, concentration, etc.

Playing chess against computers or by means of a computer

I never even touched a chess computer again (after my mentioned initial experience in the 2nd grade) until well into high school, when I bought a Fidelity Excellence in the 11th grade. Playing against this computer was frustrating. In the mid-1980s, an affordable chess computer or program was still rather weak. I had no real fun playing with the computer. My enjoyment of chess was tied to the human aspects of the game rather than the purely calculational aspects.

I didn’t really touch chess again after high school until twenty years later. I was surprised by how much better computers had gotten but again took no pleasure in playing against a program running on my computer. And I saw that online chess had become popular, but had no interest in participating.

Back to humanity

In 2004, I became a member again of the USCF and started receiving “Chess Life” in the mail. I opened up the first issue I received, and noticed that it had an article mentioning my old chess buddy Ben Finegold whom I first met back in the cigar-smoke chess club days in Michigan when I was ten and he was eleven. We’d played a good amount of blitz chess together as well as three rated tournament games. Unlike me, he went off to become a chess professional and one of the top chess players in the US, while my chess skill stagnated and I went to college, etc. I wondered whether to take up chess again, to see if I could continue my improvement where I left off as a kid.

While visiting my parents for Christmas in 2004, I challenged my father to a chess game for the first time in over twenty years. We played, I did well, and when I returned to Pittsburgh, I searched online and found the Pittsburgh Chess Club and stopped by for a visit. The guys were really friendly, I started playing blitz chess, like the old days, and in early January 2005, I joined the club and registered for my first tournaments in twenty years.

It was good to be back. To humanity, really, more so than to chess.


It makes me feel old-fashioned, but I have no interest in playing chess online. To me, the game simply has a deeper significance to me than some kind of intellectual puzzle, a significance rooted in its role in my life.

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