The future of Internet chess revisited

by ChessBase
2/27/2005 – The recent ChessBase Workshop column "The Future of Internet Chess?" has generated a large batch of e-mail from our readers. Columnist Steve Lopez dips into the mailbag for a look at the responses. You can read our readers' comments (and Steve's replies) in the latest ChessBase Workshop.

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by Steve Lopez

A prior ChessBase Workshop column, entitled "The Future of Internet Chess?" hit the Web on Feb. 3, 2005; I wasn't even aware of its appearance until I saw a post about it on a chess message board (there was about a four week lag between the time I wrote it and the time it appeared). It's just under a week later as I write this and it already bids fair to be the most comment-provoking thing I've written in my nearly eight years as a weekly ChessBase columnist. I'd intended to hold off for a couple of weeks on publishing some of the responses but my e-mail client's Inbox is filling quickly. So in this week's Workshop we'll have a look at what readers have been saying about the column.

First, though, I need to confess to what (in my opinion) is the worst mistake I've made in more than ten years of chess writing. Delbert McClinton is my favorite singer/songwriter; I can't begin to describe his influence on my development as a musician as well as his lyrics' influence on my personal outlook and philosophy. I mean, this guy's work is important to me (and when I met him about twenty years ago, I was sure to tell him so). Consequently, I was somewhat stunned when a friend of mine flicked my ear hard and said, "Y'all screwed that song title up in the column!" I went back to check and, sure enough, I had. In my defense, I'd left the CD in said friend's pickup truck and didn't have it handy when I wrote the column. At any rate, the song I quoted in "The Future of Internet Chess?" is actually titled "You Were Never Mine"; what makes it worse is that it's one of my favorite Delbert McClinton songs. So I stand both corrected and embarrassed.

Now for a roundup of some of the responses to the column in question. I received the first batch of responses literally within just a few hours of the column's appearance on the ChessBase web site. The juxtaposition of two of the e-mails (which hit my mailbox simultaneously) made me laugh out loud. The first is from Ken Jones, a fellow Yank (a.k.a. United Statesian):

I had to chuckle when I read Mr. Lopez's column about rude behavior on Internet Chess Servers. I often play as a guest on your very own and am continually cursed simply because I have an American flag appended to my status. After one loss my opponent cursed me as a "f***ing jew" (how did he deduce this, I wonder?) and there is one notorious German player who, after a win, sends repeated messages of "I F*** USA" to me. Since these people also play as guests, I suppose no punishment can be invoked--but I thought you'd like to know about it.

The second came from the U.K., from a fellow named James Campbell, who found it necessary to fashion his message into something of a personal attack. I'm not sure why he believed that a disagreement with my ideas warranted the personal comments; perhaps he'll write again and enlighten me:

I came back to chess a year ago after a hiatus of 25 years. In that year I've completed around 120 games and never once have I been subject to a rant or even a foul word. Only a few opponents have been annoying - usually those who manipulate the time rules - and about 70% have congratulated me when I've won; 20% commiserated when I've lost. Why has Steve's experience been so different? Does he suffer from a chess version of Munchausen's Syndrome? Or is he just a sad loser (of the life kind)? I'm not surprised he's an historian - looking at too many texts makes them shortsighted and judging everybody else's motives means they tend to be solipsistic.

I'll leave it to you to figure out why receiving these e-mails simultaneously left me laughing my head off.

From Gerard Smith:

I have just read your latest article. My response is

Well said.

If I am ever in your neck of the wood I would like to buy you a beer.
Gerard (a 1600 who is still trying)

Thanks, Gerard! You buy the beer, I'll spring for the barbecue.

This came in from Ken Cowcill, Vancouver B.C. Canada:

Steve's column is a very interesting read, and I found myself agreeing with it. I'm a recent comer to playing on-line (4 months) and so far I only play postal-style chess games (where I have up to 3 days to move). While I am sure some of my opponents used computer help I am not overly concerned about it because 3 days per move gives me ample time to dissect the game, and come up with advantageous positions that are beyond the search horizon of programs like Fritz. Sometimes I'll even start playing "anti-computer" Nemeth-style games just for the sheer fun of it.

My goal in playing chess is to simply to play chess and learn lots from it. If I lose, I'll learn from it. If I win, I'll learn from it. I don't really care if I beat or am beaten by a better player or a chess program. At the heart of it, I still get to play chess.

A nice high rating is always desirable, and you get to play with better players (or better cheats??) but in the end it is just a number, and reflects nothing about your enjoyment rating of chess.

After reading Steve's article though I have no desire to start playing chess in real-time at, or ICC. Having half a dozen postal style games going at any one time and analyzing them in detail is my preference. If I want faster games, I'll join a chess club and play OTB.

Anyway, a very good and thought-provoking article. I'd be interested in hearing other readers' thoughts on particular, let's hear from the maladjusted and Jerry Springerian crowd. That will sure to be entertaining. Hope you publish some of their feedback :-)

Ken's e-mail resonated with me for a number of reasons, some of which I'll hit here (and this in some ways will be further amplification/clarification of my prior column).

Of the three types of online chess server "misbehavior" I mentioned in that previous column, computer cheaters are the least of my worries. As far as the games I play online are concerned, the computer cheating problem is more philosophical than real. If a player uses a computer against me and I neither suspect nor catch him, it's obviously a non-issue with me -- no blood, no foul. The player is just cheating himself (for reasons I delineated in the prior column). But if I do catch a player using a computer against me...well, let's look at the numbers. I own hundreds of chessplaying programs (that's not an exaggeration) -- if I want to play against a computer, I have no shortage of choices available to me. When I play online I'm desiring a game against a human opponent, because humans do things differently than computers do. I want to test my skills against a fellow carbon-based life form; I've already been practicing against computer programs. So when I catch someone using a computer in an online game while misrepresenting it as human play, I feel ripped off. Winning or losing isn't the issue; it's the fact that I wasted my time. An analogy: if I have two gallons of vanilla ice cream in my freezer, why would I want to drive across town to buy a cup of the same exact brand of ice cream at a Whizzer Mart? It just makes no sense.

Ironically, the one time I absolutely, positively, without a doubt caught a computer cheater red-handed was at an online correspondence site (of the type you described in your opening paragraph). I'd finished a game with another player and had the then-current version of Fritz do a post-game analysis. In Fritz' opinion, my opponent had made no mistakes. Double-checking the results manually, I saw that my opponent had used Fritz to generate all of his moves (after the "book" opening had run its course); he'd allowed Fritz to get to a ten-ply search depth and played the best move Fritz displayed at that point. The real proof was in what my opponent did when two or more candidate moves were evaluated as the same (down to a hundredth of a pawn) at the end of a ten-ply search: my opponent always chose the second move on the list instead of the first one listed (apparently as a means of trying to cover his tracks somewhat). A couple of friends confirmed this by getting the identical results. All of us complained to the site's administrators, but no action was ever taken. And what really hacked me off was that the site in question had a separate area in which it was legal to use chess software to generate moves -- so why wasn't the guy playing there instead?

As for your aversion to "real time" sites, it'll be mentioned on down the page in a response to another e-mail. Thank you for your e-mail, sir -- I appreciated reading your ideas and responses.

The above responses constitute what came in on the day the column was published online. I figured that it was just an initial flurry and that it would abate pretty quickly. But the responses kept coming in...

Douglas Smith from the U.K. sent this really interesting e-mail:

Steve, I read with great interest you article dated 3/2/05 and particularly your comments about computer cheating, and it seems to me that what was missing was a firm definition of just what 'cheating' means. Surely the game of chess consists of two separate sets of rules, one laying down the way the pieces are set up at the start, the way they move, aims of the game, promotion, en passant and so on. These we leave alone and they do not vary. The other set of rules govern the way the contest is to be conducted and is greatly variable. OTB with mental analysis only, touch and move played to an agreed time limit which may or may not be the same for both players, OTB with allies consulting, simultaneous play, blindfold play etc.etc. Non OTB play where the TS is not present, postal chess, email play, server play etc with a clear set of rules for the contest. Now this can vary from mental analysis only, analysis moving the pieces, consultation with other players and/or fritz to no rules at all except a general time limit. Now because of the impossibility of supervising consultation this is surely what modern CC has become, a free for all where each player simply has to make a move within the time limit. Surely cheating means breaking the rules.

Now unless a particular aid to analysis is specifically banned for the contest, whether it be moving the pieces about, phone a friend or consulting fritz then there is no cheating. Personally I like it that way and the only genuine cheating attempt I have come across (twice) is having an opponent alter the score sheet at email to make a piece en prise which previously wasn't. This can't happen of course with server play which I find quite marvellous, and although I appreciate the benefits of face to face play which you exoll, its nice to turn on the machine every morning after breakfast and find six or eight juicy moves to get stuck into, win lose or draw.

I'll confess that at first read I took Mr. Smith's comments as being something of a semantic debate. But then I went back and read them again. And again. And again...

You know, that's really a danged interesting point. Let's hit the main thrust of it again in Mr. Smith's own words:

Now unless a particular aid to analysis is specifically banned for the contest, whether it be moving the pieces about, phone a friend or consulting fritz then there is no cheating.

Ergo, "no blood, no foul" again. Your comments forced me to look at the issue from another level -- we'll call it "up" one level from that of a player's viewpoint. From the viewpoint of, say, a site administrator who hasn't posted any rules against using computer programs, your comment is dead on the money. It ain't cheating unless a rule is broken. You're right.

As I pondered this, another thought popped into my head. In considering the rules of face-to-face chess (and excluding the relatively new development of "Advanced Chess"), I can't think of a single instance of any chess federation allowing the use of computers or consultation (human or printed) in face-to-face play. The same thing applies to correspondence chess; other than a few organizations and/or special events, the use of "outside help" (from a computer program which generates a move or from another human player) is generally prohibited in correspondence chess.

But the online form of the game really doesn't have a similarly "etched in stone" (or even "generally accepted") set of ethical rules/guidelines. Some sites prohibit the use of computer chess programs, others set up special areas/rooms/events in which it's legal to use chessplaying software. Many sites take no stance at all. What's illegal at one site isn't regulated at another.

What this ultimately produces is a "balkanization" of online chess, and I foresee problems ahead. Players who are used to one set of conditions at a particular site might not be prepared for what awaits them at another. Confusion is assured; embitterment is possible. Perhaps over time we'll eventually see some form of standardization, just as we've generally seen in face-to-face and correspondence chess. Or maybe this balkanization is just another weight that'll tip the scales toward my predicted resurgence in face-to-face play.

In any case, thank you Mr. Smith for an extremely thought-provoking response; I'll readily admit that I'm still pondering the excellent points you made. There might be material for a whole column there...

Here's an e-mail from a reader in the Netherlands:

Thanks for your excellent column on the future of internet chess. I like your so-called "rants" best, and this one is, in my opinion, all too justified. I won't go into details why I think that - too boring - but I do find that nowadays, when you use the older media like some newsgroups and telnet services, for instance, you may find some of that old spirit.

In closing, a recent incident, both amusing and sad. My opponent plays Qd1-Qd7, putting his Queen en prise. Ah, so he intended Qd1xQd8. I offer a draw to solve the problem (taking back is not possible,) and am told I am a loser for not capturing the Queen when I had the chance. Why does that make me feel old? That's the scary part.

Renè Torenstra

I enjoyed this e-mail for a whole pile of reasons. The "newsgroup" comment really resonated with me; I'm an old "flame warrior" from way back who seldom posts to Usenet newsgroups anymore (and never to the chess-related ones). There was a time as recently as five years ago when guys like Jim van Dorp, Pete Galati, and myself had a ball discussing gambits (and barbecue) in the* hierarchy. But as we got older, we discovered that the occasional flame wars weren't as much fun -- we'd be having a merry time discussing something or other when somebody would jump in and start flaming us just to get a reaction. And, just like a pack of Pavlov's dogs, we'd fall for the bait and roast the guy. But the flamewars all kind of started to look like TV reruns after a while. And at some point in your life you realize that "the days ahead are fewer in number than the days behind" and it finally sinks in that your time would be better spent in pursuits more fruitful than trying to wind up some bozo who's just flamed you.

I laughed pretty hard at the "Queen en prise" anecdote. You can only shake your head and wonder what's wrong with some people. And then order up another beer.

Another reason I loved this e-mail was that I had to look up the HTML code for an accent grave so I could get your name right. I learned something new today and that always makes for a good day. So thank you for writing!

From Andrew Donovan-Shead in Oklahoma:

I much enjoyed Steve Lopez' article; in it I saw shadows of myself and felt the angst and anguish. I don't play much chess on-line, but when I do I am a silent opponent. Loss is easier to bear when one is anonymous and silent.

These days I play email-chess with a few friends, cutting and pasting the move-list between email and WinBoard. Though we are geographically separated we know each other and keep in touch by winning and losing games among us and chatting as we exchange moves. We promise each other to be unassisted. Sometimes we meet face to face for a game or two. Overall it is relaxed, friendly, and sociable. And I like the temporal shift provided by email -- I'm not chained to the board for the duration of the game.

The line "Loss is easier to bear when one is anonymous and silent." is priceless; I laughed like mad when I read it. You, sir, are a poet! And I wholeheartedly agree with you about the pace of correspondence chess. It sounds like you have a great little online chess club going; I envy you.

Time to get pretty serious...

This one's from Todd Bryant. He gave his age and location, so I'll make an assumption: University of Maryland student? If so, we're almost neighbors.

I just read Steve Lopez's February 3rd article, "The Future of Internet Chess?" and am extremely disappointed with the unfair, warped view of internet chess it broadcast to your thousands of readers.

I have been playing internet chess for four years now, and it has been an immensely positive experience. When I began, I was rated about 1200 USCF--now I am pushing 2000. The opportunity to play people from all over the world, from all over the spectrum of chess style, has been invaluable to my improvement. The internet introduced me to exclusive communities of strong variant players, and I gained an understanding of suicide, crazyhouse, bughouse, wild 5, and others that are impossible to find face to face. Through internet chess I've met and played grandmasters, up and coming prodigies, and some of my better friends. The advent of the Internet has changed the face of the planet, and its impact on the world of chess has been nothing short of tremendous.

Lopez's article, however, gives the reader a completely different impression--he'd have you believe Internet chess sites are dens of computer cheaters and nasty fifteen year olds, that you can't get on the net and play a casual game without being cursed when you win. Not the case! Like so many others, I began playing chess on the internet in a genuine effort to improve my game. Four years and twenty thousand games later, I can count the number of computer cheaters I've encountered without taking off my shoes. Sure, I've come across my share of jerks, but that's not the internet's fault--that's humanity. Anywhere you go, anything you do, you're going to meet a handful of rotten apples. Big deal. They've only succeeded in anything if they actually get to you and ruin your fun.

I would be extremely appreciative if you'd post my response or some similar counter argument on your site--it's frustrating to think of how many people either new or foreign to the concept of internet chess read Lopez's article and are now turned off to what could be a wonderful experience waiting to happen.

I hate to dissect this e-mail point-by-point, but I'll touch on a few in a moment. I'll say this right out of the gate: if that's been your overall Internet chess experience you've been well and truly blessed -- I say this sincerely, with no trace of irony or sarcasm.

"unfair, warped view of internet chess" -- That column reflected what has been my experience, so how can it be "unfair" and "warped", simply because the experience described isn't identical to your own?

"he'd have you believe Internet chess sites are dens of computer cheaters and nasty fifteen year olds, that you can't get on the net and play a casual game without being cursed when you win." -- Implicit but not stated as such; in fact, I reflected on some of my positive Internet chess experiences as well. I strongly suspect that you and I have been playing at completely different sites; at the sites I played on, I would place the ratio of being sworn at or insulted (win or lose) at about one game in three.

"I can count the number of computer cheaters I've encountered without taking off my shoes." -- I can do it on one hand, so I guess I get to keep a mitten on. The main thesis of my article, though, was the trend I'm seeing toward players expressing a preference for "real life" games over Internet ones for the reasons I stated in my column. While encountering computer cheaters hasn't been a frequent experience of mine, I do hear it expressed all the time by other players who've grown disenchanted with online chess (moreso, in fact, than the experience of encountering GUI manipulators and/or encountering general incivility).

Upon reflection, though, I can see where the main thrust of the article could easily have been obscured. I covered a lot of interrelated topics in support of my main thesis, and any of those topics could have been a separate column. So I'll cop to a bit of mea culpa on that point.

"Sure, I've come across my share of jerks, but that's not the internet's fault--that's humanity. Anywhere you go, anything you do, you're going to meet a handful of rotten apples." -- And that was precisely my secondary thesis. The anonymity of the Internet just makes it easier for these folks.

Thank you for writing, seriously. And just as seriously, if your online chess career has indeed been as you've related, you have been blessed. Truly. I wish you much more of the same in the future.

And let me clarify: I was in no way trying to dissuade people from playing online chess. I figure that 99% of my readership has already played online and is already familiar with that environment, for good or ill. A few years ago I heard an overwhelming majority of comments about how great the online environment was. In the last year or so, the majority of the comments I've heard have swung in the opposite direction. I thought that was worthy of some comment in a ChessBase Workshop column. The additional social commentary was provided at no extra charge.

From David Graham:

I have just finished reading your latest workshop on The introductory blurb they provided said something about it being controversial; I don't see how, as every word is true, and I commiserate sincerely.

I was one of the PC 98 crowd, too, and I remember how pleasant everybody there was. I don't think I ever had a bad experience on that site other than the painful (but legitimate and sportsmanlike) losses I suffered. I miss it, and it makes me sad to think about it.

PC 98 is still one of my favorite chess programs, and I haven't quite given up trying to get the XP compatability wizard on my new computer to run it. No luck yet, though.

I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone in your misery.

Thanks, David! That was a great server back in the day. I wrote a CD about computer chess programs and was very complimentary toward Power Chess; it had the greatest "hook" ever in a chess program: that sultry-voiced Queen teaching you how to beat her husband at chess. By the way, Power Chess never ran right on anything after Windows 95, and that program is one of the reasons I never scrapped my old Win95 machine.

Now for two related e-mails. The first is from Jasper, Canada. He began the e-mail by quoting from my column:

"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."

After quoting my words, Jasper says:

Some concerns:
1. Miscreant is a pretty strong word to describe anyone with a mental health concern.
2. Steve is presumably a doctor or psychiatrist able to make such diagnosis, over the internet of all things, without meeting the person or having a focussed conversation.
3. Why did he choose to pick on people with Borderline personality, and not those who are narcisists, addicted, obsesive compulsive, etc.

Sure Steve is allowed to have his (biased) opinions and nothing keeps you from publishing them. I guess the real question might be if you wish to be associated with such an unpopular expression.

My responses:

The terms "miscreant" and "borderline" aren't conjoined; all people with borderline personalities aren't miscreants, any more than all miscreants are borderline personalities. You're reading something into the phrase that wasn't intended (or really even present).

You're correct in your comment that I could have used any number of other descriptive terms. I chose the first that sprang to mind. I'll admit that my use of the term "borderline" was incorrect; better would have been the more general phrase "with a mental or emotional problem". And if that's still offensive to some folks, sorry. If a person can't control their behavior, online or off, then they need to seek help. Period. I don't buy into the "perpetrator as victim" crap that seems to have become prevalent in society (and was the basis for my "Jerry Springer" comments in that column). Whether or not a person has some sort of mental or emotional malady, whether or not they're in control of their behavior, the boundaries of their rights stop at the point at which they infringe on the rights of others.

And I fully recognize that most people who act like jerks online do so just for the sheer ever-lovin' hell of it, not because of some deeper underlying problem. There's no point in commenting on those folks -- they're beneath contempt.

The second e-mail came from a lady from San Francisco, California (I've purposely withheld her name, as well as her husband's). It's my favorite of all the e-mails I've received so far, for reasons I'll clarify in a moment...

Two quick comments on Steve's column. First, my husband has Borderline Personality Disorder and he's worked very hard for nearly a decade to learn to manage it and to have more positive and fruitful relationships. If he'd have read this column, it would probably send him to bed for a week. [He] is not the "dregs of humanity". In fact, he's a very gifted man who works half time performing at benefits for substance abuse centers and for homeless service agencies.

Which reinforces my earlier comment: that "borderline" and "miscreant" aren't conjoined terms.

I do sincerely apologize to you for the use of the word "borderline" and any offense inadvertantly given.

Her second paragraph made me laugh until the tears flowed:

Second, I wish Steve would teach me chess! I'm an older sponge but love learning new things!

Man, if writing an e-mail was like driving a car, you'd heard the gears grind for blocks after that rapid shift! I rolled! Thanks for making my day! You've somewhat restored my faith in adult humanity's willingness to learn for the sheer joy of learning. If not for this damned geography thing, I'd give some serious consideration to your request for my tutelage (poor as my tutelage would be).

That was a great e-mail and I wish you both the best in everything.

Finally, here's an e-mail from Amin Abari in Libreville, Gabon. I don't believe I've ever received an e-mail from that part of the globe before. That novelty aside, my correspondent brings up an interesting idea:

One way to deal with the abuse on the ChessBase servers is to not allow people to create anonymous identities. They can continue to log on anonymously but if they want to have continuity then they should be required to join using their REAL first and last name. This information can be verified using a credit card or by requesting a fax of a picture ID. Granted cheats will sneak in but 99 percent of the members will be real.

In a chess forum you should not have many balking at divulging their identity and the ones that do would be better served by following their interest elsewhere.

People are less likely to be rude and abusive when they are not incognito!

Hmmmm...that's an interesting idea and it caused me to dredge up a couple of thoughts.

A few years ago, someone claiming to be me (who even used my name as his/her login) ran tournaments on Pogo's chess server. I can assure you that it wasn't me -- I have never used my name as a login on a chessplaying server. More on this in a moment, but we're already seeing one side of the coin: another benefit of requiring a verified real identity as a login would prevent this sort of "chess identity theft".

Now for the other side of the coin. As far as chess goes, I'm actually two people: Steve Lopez the chess writer and Steve Lopez the chess player. And I try as much as possible to keep the two separate, but some folks just won't seem to let me do that.

It's the main reason I quit playing in USCF face-to-face tournaments. In one particularly horrendous example, I was playing a game in the final round of a tournament when someone came up to me in the middle of my game and demanded that I answer his software questions right then and there. I told him that I was playing a game and would be happy to answer his questions afterward. He stated that he was leaving and needed his questions answered right now. I repeated that I would be happy to help him when my game was finished. He insisted that I had to help him now. Finally my opponent (God bless him) stopped the clocks and told me to "take care of it". I took the guy aside, gave him a phone number, and told him to call me at a more appropriate time. This seemed to satisfy him and I was able to continue with my game.

I've had a couple of experiences like that online at Yahoo Chess back when I was a "regular" there and my Yahoo nick was pretty well-known; people would ask me software questions in the middle of our games. So I learned my lesson -- if I want to keep my two "chess hats" separate, I have to play anonymously. I really have no choice.

So I'm on the fence regarding this interesting suggestion. I see the logic and the potential benefits, but there are also drawbacks for folks like me. I'm still pondering this e-mail...

I want to thank everyone who took the time to write responses to the column "The Future of Internet Chess?" -- thanks for reading it and thanks for responding. I read all of your responses, and all of them made me think. And that's not a bad thing at all.

Until next week, have fun!

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

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