Hardly anyone goes by his real name. You make one up: DarkKnight. SuperQueen. KillerMate. It is the anonymity, the silence that is so seductive. You enter the club, specify the kind of action you want, and wait. It never takes long. Within seconds, someone appears who meets your requirements for speed and experience. In a flash you are alone, just the two of you, following each other's every move.
It's so satisfying it should be illegal. It's the Internet Chess Club.
I have been on only a week, and I am hooked. You log on and post how fast you want to play (five minutes for the whole game is customary) and how strong an opponent you want. Within seconds, your screen is alive. A chessboard has appeared; your opponent has already moved; your clock, posted onscreen in ominous Apollo-countdown mode, is running.
I'll admit it's not completely anonymous. A tiny window at the bottom of the board permits you to type a line or two to your opponent as you go along. The most common communication is "Oops." My most extensive so far: "You lucky bastard."
To be sure, there are computers. But apart from its being terminally onanistic, there is no thrill in beating a machine. You can't feel its pain when it loses. Or to put it slightly less misanthropically, you miss the shared astonishment and delight at a brilliant combination or desperate last-second checkmate. If a king falls in the forest and there is no one there to see it (except you and some stone-dead chess algorithm), did it ever happen? You might as well make a hole-in-one playing alone.
The need for a partner has always been the bane of chess players. While in forced isolation in the gulag, Natan Sharansky played chess against himself in his head. It kept him sane. (It had the added benefit, he likes to note, of providing him with a lift. "I always won," he recalls cheerfully.) And Bobby Fischer has been playing chess with few people other than himself ever since he quit as world champion and practically disappeared 25 years ago. But then, Fischer has the look of a paranoid schizophrenic.
Between the political prisoner and the psychotic genius lies the ordinary player. Like me. We need company. In spring I still frequent the chess tables at Washington's Dupont Circle. On Monday nights my friends still drive to my house for our weekly speed-chess round robin.
But those days may be over. As with everything else in life, the Internet is offering unbeatable competition. For chess addicts, it offers the Holy Grail: encounters with an ever available supply of partners, instantly, 24/7.
Fun it is. But is it healthy? "You have, let us say, a promising politician, a rising artist that you wish to destroy," H.G. Wells suggested long before the Net. "Dagger or bomb are archaic, clumsy, and unreliable--but teach him, inoculate him with chess." A Chilean friend quit the club and deleted the whole program from his computer after clicking on a whimsical feature that calculated "percentage of your life wasted on chess." (I paraphrase.) He found the number disturbingly high.
Perhaps my metaphor is wrong. Internet chess is less like a San Francisco bathhouse than the terminal stages of alcoholism. Playing chess first thing Sunday morning, which I confess I did last week, is about as close as you can get to drinking aftershave.