Steve Lopez on the future of Internet chess

2/3/2005 – History is indeed cyclical, and our Workshop columnist thinks he's spotted another pendulum swing. Read these certain-to-be controversial comments by Steve Lopez on the (possible) future of Internet chess in the latest edition of ChessBase Workshop.

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THE FUTURE OF INTERNET CHESS?

by Steve Lopez

It's now a week into the new year and I'm still recuperating from a holiday season that dang near croaked me. So I'm still not up to writing some sort of software tutorial or product preview for ChessBase Workshop. I'll put my nose to the grindstone and have such a column for you the next time around. Instead, though, I'm going to again drag out my well-worn soapbox and try to entertain you with another of my patented editorial rants. As always, the opinions expressed are my own and don't necessarily reflect those of ChessBase GmbH, my Internet provider, or the commissioner of baseball.

Internet chess (and, as a special favor, just for this week only, I'll try to refrain from using the term "Interrant" in the interest of readability) has been around for as long as the 'Net's been here. Back in the days of stone knives and 2400 bps modems people found ways to play the game electronically over distance. In fact, the first form of Internet chess was simply correspondence chess with the moves transmitted via e-mail instead of via post card. That form's still played today, of course.

But in the mid 1990's as faster modems and broadband connections became considerably more affordable, and as Internet access became more widespread, Internet chess took on a different form. By that point you could easily play online chess in realtime (i.e. in one sitting, using clocks, just as you could play a face-to-face game down at the chess club). All you needed was a graphical user interface (i.e. GUI) of a chessboard, which allowed you to move pieces on an onscreen board, as well as a place to play (i.e. a server).

Now playing this way wasn't necessarily a really easy thing to do. Back in the day you had basically two choices for realtime online play: Telnet and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Both forms usually required additional software beyond the GUI -- IRC required a client like mIRC to be able to connect, for example. You fired up mIRC, found a chat channel devoted to online chess, and hoped somebody was there to give you a game. If somebody was there, you both launched your chess GUI programs and started the game. Telnet usually required a client program for connection and then you launched your chess GUI (in fact, Winboard's initial purpose was as an online chess GUI instead of a engine vs. engine interface which it's frequently used for today).

My first online chess experiences were with mIRC and whatever chess client I was using at the time (I don't remember which one anymore). This was back in the day when people actually used IRC as a form of communication beyond asking "Age/Sex/Location" and trying to hook up for some sexual fun and games (or just fun, or just games, or neither). Playing chess on IRC was great fun and I greatly preferred it to the Telnet servers and GUIs which required the user to learn a bewildering array of commands and switches to be able to operate them properly.

A year or two later, commercial chess software programmers had caught on to the potential of online play and began to include an online competitive component to their software offerings. The whole idea of Internet chess really caught fire with me when I discovered the Sierra program Power Chess back in 1997 and became a "regular" in their weekly knockout chess tournaments. I had a ton of fun playing in these events and the group was a "chess club" in a very real sense; you got to know your online opponents not only as players but as people. They were by and large a really decent group of folks, and after Sierra stopped supporting the program and the online competitive environment I really missed my friends there -- in fact, I still do.

The next stage in the evolution of competitive online chess was the introduction of Web-based chess servers. You visited a web site, logged in with a nickname/password, and played some chess using a GUI provided by the server (usually Java-based, but with no additional software client required in any event). This really was the start of online chess' enormous popularity because it was so easy. A player didn't have to muck about with configuring a software client or learning bucketloads of commands and switches -- you just logged in and played. You didn't have nearly the flexibility provided by Telnet-based servers, but the ease of use made up for it. I recall those days vividly: I was one of the "first" (in a relative sense) players on the Yahoo chess server shortly after its introduction in early 1998 and I had a ball. The players were generally friendly (or at least cordial) and while my rating was nothing to write home about (a solid Class B), I found that my chess was improving enormously because I could play a live person anytime I wanted a game. No waiting for "chess club night" and having to drive a few miles to a physical location; I just had to walk down a coupe of flights of stairs to my office, fire up my computer, go online, and start playing. I loved it.

But then things started to change...

It's regrettable but necessary that we take a detour here to examine the nature of the Internet (and the reason why I typically refer to it as "The Interrant" -- in fact, my Windows Desktop icon for connecting online reads "The Interrant", and with good reason).

Pop quiz: why was the Internet created/developed? Right: to communicate. The idea was for people to share information and ideas in a rapid manner, to facilitate the process of communication. I've been a writer for a long time; I used to write a column for a print publication in the mid-1990's and it took literally months for my words to see the light of day. I'd write an article, submit it to my editor, and it would appear two or three (monthly) issues later. That's a long lead time. Contrast that to this column -- it'll be at most a couple of weeks between this moment that I'm typing these words and the moment you read them (and that's only because ChessBase GmbH likes to have a couple of columns "in the can" before releasing a new one on the web site). If I decide to write something for my personal home page, it'll be ten minutes tops between the time I finish a piece and the time it hits the Web and visitors can read it.

Let's go back to IRC (Internet Relay Chat) for a minute. My first experience with IRC was in 1996; I was in a chat channel talking soccer with a fellow from New Zealand and another guy from Portugal simultaneously in real time. One of us would type a comment and the other two, separated on three nearly equidistant parts of the freaking globe, would read it within seconds! Now this may not seem to be a big deal for young shavers who grew up on the Internet, but for a older guy like me this was huge. A year later I was having frequent discussions on the world of Italian soccer with my buddy Giorgio who would attend the games in person and then give me detailed reports afterward. This was very useful information to me and I remember thinking "Man, this is what the Internet is all about!"

That seems like a million years ago. It was a time when people generally obtained Internet access because they wanted or needed it, not because it was "the cool thing to do". I hate to sound elitist here but anytime you get a large number of people together in any environment, you wind up with a certain level of negativity, if not outright mayhem. Just ask the pickpockets who ply their trade in Times Square every New Years' Eve.

Now look at the Internet -- what started as a means of communication has become a veritable viper's nest for the dregs of humanity. I never used a firewall program for the whole first four years I was online -- I never needed one. Now I refuse to log on to the 'Net without it. One night a few years ago, some person from Saudi Arabia tried to hack my computer over fifty times in a two hour period. And as recently as a year ago somebody (and I'm dead certain I know who it was) tried to hack my computer at two-to-five minute intervals for months from a variety of related Internet accounts, until I publicly posted some of the information I had at my disposal -- at which point the hacking attempts immediately and mysteriously ceased. It's no wonder that I have a whole suite of firewalls, anti-virus software, spyware cleaners, and cookie crushers at my disposal these days -- there's always going to be somebody out there who's going to try to snake your credit card number or other personal information, or else cause general mayhem with your machine just for the "fun" of it. You've got to try to stay a step ahead.

You see, the Internet is available to us for communication, but the forms of said communication and the results thereof aren't always positive. Another example from my personal experience: a few years ago (before I gave up on IRC as hopeless for any form of fruitful communication) I was a regular in a particular chat channel. I won't go into great detail, but it was a positive education in the interpersonal dynamics of small groups. One night after a hostile takeover of the channel had ended, we got into a discussion of B.H. Liddell Hart's military strategy of the "indirect approach" (believe it or not, it was germane to the conversation). I'd read old Basil's work and I gave a short synopsis with some historical examples. The one guy in the group who'd initially seemed the most interested left the channel in a huff; I learned later that he said that I'd made him "feel stupid". Here's those "interpersonal dynamics" at work -- the guy had seen himself as the "elder statesman" of our little group and just didn't like the fact that we'd hit a subject in which he wasn't particularly well-versed. At no time did I talk down to the guy (or the group) or insult him; I was just trying to pass on some information that I thought would be interesting and/or useful. I was simply trying to communicate.

I remember that conversation well because it was the first time (though not the last) that I'd come across a sad, hard fact of the Internet: there are hordes of people online who use the medium as a way of working out (or acting on) their own personality disfunctions. It turned out that the fellow who was "made to feel stupid" viewed himself as a "lone wolf", a guy who's alone (and lonely?) in life because of his perceived intellectual superiority to those around him. Getting online was his way to actually become the person of his self-image -- and he didn't like the (inadvertent) reminder that he wasn't a walking encyclopedia. I could theorize that this attitude is itself the reason why he was a "lone wolf" in real life, but I don't want to bog this article down more than I already have.

So what does this have to do with online chess? In short, everything. I remember a time when some players feared for the very existence of face-to-face chess (chess clubs, rated tournaments, coffeehouse/tavern get-togethers, etc.) because of the sudden and overwhelming popularity of the online form of the game -- the ease of getting a game with thousands of players worldwide had the appearance (at the time) of the death knell of face-to-face chessplay.

But if you give some human beings the chance to prove themselves to be part of the lowest common denominator, the dregs of humanity, you can be guaranteed that some of them will sink to the challenge.

It impacted online play in a variety of ways. The first one we noticed was the "computer cheater": players who use chess computer programs to "help" them make better moves or, in extreme cases, to play the entire game for them. This, in turn, led to the "anti-cheater cheaters": people who generally don't use chess software for "help" unless they think their opponent is using a computer program -- then they fire up their own program as a means of "combatting" their opponent's cheating. The latter example is, in many ways, more insidious than the first; it can become self-justifying behavior at its worst. We've all met people in real life who seem to be able to justify their own bad behavior in light of what they perceive as the bad behavior of others: the spouse who has an affair because he/she thinks their partner is doing it, or an employee who steals from the company because he claims that his employer has withheld some of his monthly commission, etc. In fact, this sort of thing is the very core of televised dreck like The Jerry Springer Show and is, in other ways, directly connected to the Machiavellian machinations of participants in "reality show" competitions. The "anti-cheater cheater" won't use a computer until the point at which he thinks his opponent is using one (often the point at which the "anti-cheater cheater" finds himself starting to lose) at which point he says, "Hey, he's cheating! So it's OK for me to do it!"

The reason I say that this case is "more insidious" than outright cheating is because of the effect it's had on the online game: I've talked to literally dozens of players who say they regularly and routinely use a computer to generate their moves "because everybody's doing it these days". Do they see themselves as "cheaters"? Nope -- they describe their behavior as "staying competitive".

There's a subtle but significant difference between the two kinds of computer cheaters. The former is trying to fool his opponent, but at least he's not kidding himself. He knows he's doing something dishonest -- he just doesn't care. In a weird way, he's more "honest" in his dishonesty when compared to the other player who cheats but tells himself that it's somehow "OK". In this latter case, everybody gets hurt, and it's possibly the "self-justifying cheater" who's damaged worst of all. It reminds me of a line from "I Never Lost You", a Delbert McClinton song: "...it's a sin to tell yourself a lie".

Another form of online cheating is as old as online chess itself: software/GUI manipulation. Way back in the days of IRC chess, one of the software clients had a bad bug: a third party could manipulate the pieces in a game he was watching. You'd be playing a game while a third person watched, be contemplating your move, and suddenly ZIP! -- your Queen would suddenly move en prise. The spectator had moved your Queen. Although a third piece of software, running in the background, eliminated this bug it pretty much killed the IRC form of the game.

Guess what? Covert manipulation still happens today. You'll recall that I mentioned that Yahoo Chess used to be a pretty good place to play. It was, until some enterprising fifteen year old learned how to hack the Yahoo Chess Javascript and started spreading the information around online. These days when you sit down to a 20/10 Fischer time control game at Yahoo Chess and make your first move as White, you'll as likely as not have the time control suddenly change to 1/0 -- without you noticing it. Sixty seconds into your clock time your flag falls and your opponent pockets the win. That's why I find the Yahoo Chess message board posts bragging about the poster's rating to be so hilarious; the poster might not even know how to play chess, but he does know how to hack the Javascript to get that 3100+ Elo rating. It's not a phenominon unique to Yahoo, either: a variety of Web chess hosts are hackable and the knowledge of how to accomplish this isn't hard to obtain.

Moderated and proprietary (i.e. specific to a commercial company or piece of software) servers fare much better here; measures are in place to prevent hacking and punish players who use computer programs to cheat.

But there's the third kind of anti-social behavior that's crippling online chess: abusive language. It's probably a 60/40 shot that you'll be called every name in the book if you beat someone in an online game. And heaven forbid that you say "Good game" as a pleasantry after you win -- your opponent will think you're mocking him, call you every filthy (although hilariously misspelled) epithet he can think of, and then instantly be off to the nearest message board to accuse you of being a computer cheat and/or to make wild allegations about your legal status, family heritage, or sexual preference -- all just because he lost a chess game to you. It eventually got so bad that I didn't say anything before, during, or after a game; then I was called a jerk (or worse) because I chose to remain mute.

I could write a full thesis on the topic -- it's the "Me Generation" run amok. A sizable portion of the general population runs around thinking, "It's all about me!" They buy the biggest honking vehicles they can find in a misguided attempt to "rule the road"; when was the last time you saw someone in a big SUV actually yield the right of way, even when the traffic sign instructs them to do so? Little kids in Pop Warner football leagues spike the ball and do end zone dances to taunt their opponents, just like the big boys. I once coached a kids' soccer team in which one particular set of parents thought their kids were "too good" to come to team practices (they weren't) but got very torqued when their little darlings didn't get to stay on the pitch for the full match; hey, if you want them to be treated like they're on the team, then come to practice. And, of course, there's the aforementioned Jerry Springer Show, in which it's not unusual for some guest to say with a perfectly straight face that it's "OK" for him to be in the neighbor's yard diddling their dog because his wife kicked him out of bed -- instead of telling the truth, that he always had fantasies about a woman with eight nipples.

It comes down to two things: the attitude of "It's OK for me to do anything, while it's not OK for you to do the same thing!" and the fact that people have forgotten how to make mistakes, live with their losses, and learn from them -- a misguided few can't even stand the thought that another person is more knowledgable or accomplished at anything than they are. While many of us live in "egalitarian" societies, many folks have misconstrued what that term means. "Egalitarian" (at least in the American experience) means that everyone is born equal; there are no feudal hereditary privileges here. Everyone (at least in theory) is born equal and has an equal right to go as far as their skills, talents, and ambitions will take them. That latter point is important. It means that you're allowed to try. It doesn't guarantee you success; in fact, you might fail miserably. But at least you have a shot at success. And it doesn't mean that everyone stays 100% equal in every aspect of daily life. Yes, each citizen has equal rights under the law, has one vote in an election, isn't more important than anyone else in a civic sense. But, straight up and no varnish here, there are always going to be some very accomplished people in the world who are better than you and I in a variety of pursuits and endeavors.

Does this mean that a scientist with a PhD who specializes in quantum physics is "better" than me? In a legal sense, no. In an educational sense, definitely. In a moral sense, most likely so if he's also a churchgoer and civic volunteer -- in fact, my money's on him in such a case. What it certainly means is that he's better than I am at quantum physics -- more educated, more accomplished. And I respect that. If I'm lucky, he might even be willing to share some of his knowledge and expertise with me, to help me become better educated and more accomplished.

People have by and large forgotten that point somewhere along the way. If you frequent Internet message boards/groups dedicated to history or science, let me ask you a question. How often do you see a famous historian or scientist participating in such a group if it's unmoderated? Right -- never. And I'm sure you can guess why; they're either tired of getting flamed by know-nothings who want to make themselves feel better about their lack of knowledge or else they want to avoid the occurrance of that scenario. Going back to chess, I've seen a couple of grandmasters post to public chess message boards, but they don't stick around long. There's always some poor maladjusted soul who jumps on them at every opportunity and drives them away.

That's what happens far too often in online chess servers. I've discussed this in a previous article a few years ago, so I won't beat it to death. But the proper procedure when you lose an online game is to congratulate your opponent, not berate him. You lost. He's a better player than you. Live with it. Try to learn from it. That's how online chess helped me become a better player back in the days when the online environment was less hostile -- I took my losses, analyzed them, and learned from them. That's why I feel so ripped off that online chess has become by and large an ugly experience over the last four or five years; it's depriving me of an opportunity to become better though the process of an opponent showing me that he's better.

Chess is perhaps the ultimate egalitarian game. Luck plays no part. Players can excel regardless of age or gender. It's a game in which you can truly go as far as your skills, talents, and propensities for hard work and learning will take you. There are no real excuses when you lose a chess game -- you lost because you lost, and it's almost always because you dug yourself a hole you couldn't get out of.

It's not an environment for the "me" types. Chess demands that we face a simple truth -- there's always someone better at it than we are. And if you play, you will lose -- at least occasionally. The "me" types can't handle that; they're not emotionally equipped for failure. It's why I won't teach chess to adults anymore. I love teaching kids -- they're like little sponges and they gleefully soak up every bit of info and knowledge you'll give them. They haven't yet been corrupted by the idea that they're somehow better than everyone else just because they say so. The majority of adults I've tried to teach over the last fifteen years or so are the exact opposite. To learn something, a person has to accept, no -- embrace the fact that the teacher knows more about the subject than he or she does. But (in my experience) the majority of adults just can't take that first simple step; with them, it's "show me the moves so that I can show you I'm a prodigy". They don't want to lose a game and learn something new when you show them where they made a mistake (they view this as "making them feel stupid") -- they want to win and win and win (and even expect you to "throw" games to them) and then go out and brag that they "beat the chess guy". Forget it; I'll stick with teaching kids -- children want to learn, not have their egos stroked.

I've said this publicly many times before: the dark side of the Internet is that it allows people to "act out" in ways that they never could publicly. Some people daily and routinely say things online to others that would get them punched in the eye if they ever dared to say them face-to-face (let's face it -- we're animals, and the threat of physical violence and/or the consequences thereof is at heart what keeps a lot of people in line during normal daily face-to-face social intercourse). The distance and anonymity of the online environment, which should have been two of its great strengths, have mutated into its greatest weaknesses.

I'm a historian. As part of that, I look for trends and cycles; history is very cyclical. And I'm starting to notice a curious trend right now. You'll recall my mentioning that back in the day a number of chessplayers were seriously afraid that online chess would somehow kill face-to-face versions of the game. I talk to a lot of chessplayers and I'm noticing that the pendulum is starting to swing in the opposite direction: many players disgusted with online cheaters, manipulators, and poor sports have started to prefer live, face-to-face chess again. A lot of folks have decided that the negative aspects of online chess outweigh the positive ones and are returning to chess clubs and live tournaments.

I don't see the trend abating anytime soon; in fact (and I may well be wrong), I think it'll accelerate. A lot of "serious" players (i.e. the ones who actually love chess and give a damn about the game, not about bragging rights over a high rating) who are fed up with a frequently hostile online chess environment are starting to sit down and play the game in person again. And in a world in which we're increasingly severing our connections with our neighbors and fellow man, I think that's a damned fine thing.

Do I think online chess will vanish? Heck, no -- it's become very firmly entrenched over the last decade. Nor do I want to see it vanish. My hope is for the opposite: that the script kiddies and computer cheats will find something else to do with their time and let us have the Web servers back, or let us play on Telnet or proprietary servers without getting verbally abused when we win a game here and there. Damn it, I want to play! But I don't want to be insulted -- God knows I have enough ex-girlfriends who are more than willing to do that; I don't need to log on to a chess server to get that kind of abuse.

A few years ago, Cliff Stoll wrote a truly dreadful book called Silicon Snake Oil in which he tried to make the case that people should get off of the Internet and go out to live their lives. He badly overstated the case in that book, but as I get older and reflect on more than a decade utilizing the online environment, I'm starting to see a kernel of wisdom in his thesis. It's not the message that was bad; it was his presentation.

The Internet isn't real life; in fact, it's a truly crappy substitute. These days I'd rather be outside hiking a Civil War battlefield than reading an online account (even a firsthand one, digitized from some archives) of said battle. I'd rather be out drinking a few brews with friends in person, laughing, spinning yarns, and "doing the dozens" than be sitting in some IRC chat channel talking with strangers. And I'd much rather play chess face to face with a friend, where I can see him, crack a joke, and shake his hand, than play a virtual game across cyberspace.

I truly think the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction from its motion just six or seven years ago. I think there will be more and more people (like me) who will wait for a game in person rather than get the instant (but dubious) gratification of an online game, unwilling to sacrifice the joy of playing chess because of some miscreant with a borderline personality disorder and an Internet account. Sure, you still run the risk of encountering the maladjusted in "real life" but the odds are much more in your favor there than they are on the 'Net.

But (and in life there's always a "but") I think that the metaphorical pendulum will eventually settle somewhere in the middle. Then we'll have a ton of pleasant options -- we'll play down at the chess club weekly (or, in my case, weakly) and in monthly rated tournaments. And when it's 2 AM and we can't sleep and we feel like having a friendly game, we'll be able to go online and play a little chess without worrying about playing against someone's computer or having the clocks manipulated after the game starts or being called a "dirty m*$%#*%&#$*§" by some doofus when we beat him after he hangs his Queen on move eight.

Yeah, maybe it's just a dream; it's probably just a dream.

But it's one worth holding on to...

Until next week, have fun!


© 2005, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.


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