Chess Is Ruining My Life
And not just because my Elo rating is stuck at 400
When it comes to my phone, I struggle with self-control. In the wake of the pandemic, when we were all scrolling more than ever in quarantine, I decided to take a more proactive approach to limiting my screen time. Using Android’s Digital Wellbeing tool (the equivalent of Screen Time on iPhone), I created strict timers for my most addictive apps.
The time limits are surprisingly effective. When I reach my daily limit for a particular app, Digital Wellbeing force closes the app, greys out its icon on my home screen, and pauses all notifications from the app until the next day. Undoing a limit requires navigating deep into the settings of my phone, an intentionally cumbersome process that gives me ample time to reconsider why I want to circumvent a limit I created for myself.
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Until recently, all my Digital Wellbeing targets were conventional social media apps like TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube — apps carefully crafted to take advantage of psychological tricks to keep users engaged and active. Additionally, the screen time limits helped me create sharper boundaries between my personal time and professional time, as I work in communications and am required to be active on social media throughout the workday. Conscious of my screen limits, I have slowly shifted my social media browsing to my work computer, creating a mental association between my feeds and my job.
None of these strategies are perfect, and I would absolutely be lying if I said I adhered to my screen limits without fail. I am prone to unlock Twitter during big news days and, since I never used a Reddit app in the first place, often find myself scrolling the site on my personal computer. But marginal improvements are still improvements, and my anxiety and focus have reaped benefits from my self-policing.
Unfortunately, many of these gains came screeching to a halt about two months ago.
On a video call with two long-time friends, I noticed the two of them kept glancing at their phones at the same time. Neither of these guys are big social media users, so I asked what was drawing their attention so frequently. “We’re in a heated chess match,” one of them said, “and I’m trying to force checkmate.”
I should have known right away that chess on my phone was a terrible idea. Chess, like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans and checkers, is a game. But unlike most other games available on your phone, chess is cloaked in a veneer of intellectualism.
Predecessors of modern chess date back to 7th century India. The game spread outward, first to Persia and then the Arab world. As Islam spread, so did chess, with the Moors introducing chess to Europe through Spain and Russia. The rise of trade routes meant chess was a global game by the late 15th century; the rules used today are largely the same as those in place during the Renaissance.
The oldest surviving chess manuscript to be conclusively dated is Repeticion de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez, published in Spain in 1497. It contains references to multiple chess strategies still in use today, including the Queen’s Gambit opening made famous by the Netflix series of the same name. In H. J. R. Murray’s 1913 tome A History of Chess, the author estimated that there had already been more than 5,000 publications dedicated to chess strategies.
The World Chess Federation (FIDE, as it is old enough to have a French name like FIFA) was formed in 1924, making organized professional chess older than professional basketball by more than 20 years. It was during these early years of structured competition that the board game cemented its reputation as an intellectual pursuit — thanks in large part to Cold War enemy number one, the Soviet Union.
The Bolsheviks, winners of the Russian Revolution, were huge proponents of chess. Early communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky saw the game of chess as emblematic of class struggle, as it is cheap, accessible across languages and cultures, and entirely dependent on skill, rather than luck. Beginning in the 1920s, the Soviet government sponsored chess schools and hosted state-funded chess tournaments, an approach very similar to how the USSR treated Olympic hockey.
Their approach paid off, as a Soviet player held the FIDE title for all but four years from the end of World War Two until the collapse of the union. Of course, early Soviet dominance spurred furious American efforts to catch up, with American Bobby Fischer’s 1972 victory over Soviet Boris Spassky taking precedence over the Democratic National Convention on US televisions.
If the Cold War cemented modern chess’ status as the definitive form of intellectual competition, the advent of computers ensured this status would outlast the Cold War itself. Since is essentially a series of calculated risks, it is a great tool for testing the capabilities of artificial intelligence programs. By 1982, standard chess software could beat most amateur chess players. It took just 14 years more for a computer, IBM’s Deep Blue, to defeat the world champion.
By combining international competition, the timeless struggle of man versus machine, and centuries of theorizing and debating, chess elevated its reputation. The teenager who plays League of Legends for four hours each day is seen as lazy, while one who dedicated similar time to chess would be seen as academic and high-minded. The media trope Smart People Play Chess, where a character is shown to be smart by having them excel at chess, has dozens of examples = across movies, TV, and literature.
In reality, chess is a game like any other. People with strong math and logic skills may have natural abilities at chess, but most psychologists today believe chess masters achieve their success through a combination of thousands of hours of practice and strong chunking skills; this is the same combination that helps one excel at certain athletic positions, like pitcher or quarterback. If you played Monopoly for thousands of hours and learned to recognize strings of dice rolls, you could become the world’s first Monopoly grandmaster the same as you can with chess.
Unfortunately, that logical fallacy is easy to forget — or ignore. Chess is more accessible now than ever, with the free site Chess.com reporting more than 100 million users worldwide. The company’s app enables chess play while on the bus or when waiting in line at the grocery store. In other words, I can play chess in the same places I am most likely to mindlessly scroll through Twitter or TikTok.
As I dove deeper and deeper into my chess app, committed to increasing my player rating and finally defeating my friends, my phone screen time shot up. Two weeks into my new obsession, I checked my weekly screen time report in my phone’s Digital Wellbeing hub. I was shocked to see that I had recorded more than an hour of usage of my chess app multiple times that week, numbers I only hit on social media during peak depressive phases or critical world events.
I assuaged my concerns, buying into the chess hype outlined throughout this post. I convinced myself that while Twitter scrolling is a waste of time, gaming on Chess.com’s app is productive because it makes me smarter.
But as time went on, I realized that I felt the same way about mobile chess as I had about more traditional video games in the past. I wanted to be good at chess because I wanted to win. I was excusing the (frankly ridiculous) amount of time I was spending on the app by telling myself that practicing chess was boosting my intelligence. I had bought the hype.
I finally gave in and established a screen time limit for my Chess.com app. Presently, it is the only non-social media app on my phone with a limit. I’m happy with this decision for two big reasons.
The first is that I caught myself falling into the elitist trap that surrounds certain hobbies. Things like playing chess or solving crosswords are viewed by many as valuable mental pursuits, as if moving pieces around a board is somehow contributing to society in a way that moving candy around a grid is not. Chess is a game. It’s one I happen to enjoy — despite being quite awful — but a game, nonetheless.
Perhaps more importantly, I attacked the all-too-common trap that all my time must be spent being “productive” to be valid. Between the rise of the gig economy and its commodification of our free time to the glut of LinkedIn posts guilting you for not having a side hustle and a small business in the works on top of a full-time job, there is a pervasive attitude in the United States, especially among younger people, that all of our time must be spent bettering ourselves.
I hate this belief, even if I too fall prey to productivity culture constantly. One person’s post-work TikTok session to relax is no better or worse than my current habit of playing a game or three of rapid chess online. It is valid and necessary to have some activities you do solely because they are fun.
Despite my near-obsession and time spent doing the app’s practice scenarios and random online matchups, I still lag far behind the original two friends at chess, with each of them rated about 300 points higher than I am. But after my mental reset, I welcome the uphill climb as a fun and healthy way to maintain our competitive spirit while staying in touch, rather than some productive pursuit of mental sharpening. After all, hobbies are meant to be enjoyable, not stressful.
Things I Enjoyed This Week
Field Trippin’ | Metro Santa Cruz (archive)
FBI Paid a Violent Felon to Infiltrate Racial Justice Movement | The Intercept
New Lives in the City: How Taleban have experienced life in Kabul | Afghanistan Analysts Network
Thank you as always for reading. If you have a Chess.com account, leave a comment so we can add each other and play.
Have a great start to the week!