What Online Chess Taught One Teen About Digital Life

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A few weeks ago, I was out to breakfast with a bunch of my guy friends and my boyfriend, crammed into a leather booth at Orphan Andy's, a diner a couple miles from where I live. We were off school that day, and one of my friends had a recurring dream about pancakes, so there we were. Per usual, I was vaguely annoyed by the omnipresent phone-checking of my friends, though this time it was accompanied by lighthearted banter of the “You dumbass, I'm going to beat you” sort, which oddly made me feel better.

“What could possibly be so interesting?” I asked. This was met with a bombardment of mock disgust and the commandment to download Chess Time or leave Pancake Day. I suck at chess, but I already was the kid with the lame curfew, the girlfriend. Whatever. I agreed.

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  • There's always a game app. Sometimes it's Bakery Story, where you get to run a bakery in a pastel-pixelated hell world. For more game-centric people, it's Hearthstone. I don't really know what Hearthstone is, but I know the Magic: The Gathering nerds play it, and the palette is dark. There's Wordscapes for the pseudo-intellectuals. You get the point. Games are typically played while listening to music or flipping between Discord, YouTube, etc. Because when your internal landscape feels as chaotic and uncertain as teenagerdom, doing five things at once somehow makes sense.

    Attachment to my phone makes me feel like a pale, slimy larvae of a human. So I haven't let myself have any phone games. I worry I'll only end up wasting time, wasting my life. I lie to my friends, saying I don't enjoy the games. It's weird growing up in the 2010s, where self-control means avoiding social media. But this time the social media was chess—nerdy, brainy chess. People like me are supposed to be good at it.

    So I downloaded Chess Time and added my friends. Texting, I always worry I'll say or send the wrong thing. I'm that kid: As plenty of studies have shown, the internet can mess with a teenager's mental health and self-esteem. But playing chess allowed for idle contact without a need for even an emoji's worth of content. It was like Snapchat—without the pictures of friends' feet.

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    Chess Time felt like a loophole, an oasis in that ecosystem. It gives me a feeling of connection. There's no phony expectation. It's impossible to be fake if you're just playing a game. When you open the app, displayed on the screen is a list of matches, identified by the username of the people you can play with, organized by “your turn” and “their turn.” You can see how much time is left to make a move. To open a game, you tap on it. The screen becomes a chess board (colors of your choice), and you can play if it's your turn, look at moves that have been made, or message the person you're playing.

    For a while, I worried about sucking at chess. The hallway at a high school is stimulus overexposure. When everything is great, it's smiles and affectionate words, girls who smell like bubblegum nicotine and have Juuls hanging out of their bras. When it's bad, it's horrifying and lonely. It's seemingly empty people, paranoia, and the smell of a city bus festering in the sun. On bad days, I worried that if I lost at chess the people who beat me would smirk or ignore me. But instead nothing changed, which was kind of a great lesson itself.

    I'm trying to learn to care less about achievements outside of things that go on my transcript. I guess a lot of teenagers go through this, understanding when to embrace technology and when to step back. Moments of connection and mock competitiveness sprinkled across the day is relief in a world of high school teachers crying because the current political climate is just too much, and where on earth will I go to college?

    A few weeks after Orphan Andy's, at a Hitchcock movie marathon with 10 guys, including my boyfriend, somewhere around the fourth film, we started playing phone chess with each other. Yes, all at the same time. Around 11 o'clock I had to leave, because I'm that kid with the lame curfew. But this time when I got home, tired and happy, I wasn't lonely. I played Chess Time until I fell asleep.


    Hannah W. Duane lives in San Francisco. She graduates from high school in 2020.

    This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.

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