How to Learn Chess Online—and Sharpen Your Game

“I can’t play humans too close to night.” One student, an ER doctor, admitted to me during our lessons, “If I win, my heart rate goes up and I start panicking, knowing it’s only a matter of time before I lose again. If I lose, I can’t go to sleep until I win, and then the whole cycle starts again.”

I only play computers, my students, aged 5 to 65, repeatedly say. Their reasons vary, but it ultimately comes down to the same thing: Playing against other people is just too high stakes.

The problem with only playing computers is that most humans aren’t trying to learn to play chess like a computer; they’re trying to play like humans. Computers look for the “best” move. But best means something different depending on whether you’re a computer or human. For instance, Magnus Carlssen, the top player in the world—and some chess experts say ever—looks for moves that will psychologically throw his opponents, rather than the computer’s best-move pick.

If playing against a person is too stressful for you, try to sprinkle the games into your chess life, playing at least one game against a human for every three computer games.

Tips for Timers: Whereas playing against bots can be untimed, games with other humans will be timed (unless you’re playing Lichess’ Correspondance Chess, where one move can take up to 14 days). Don’t freak out; timers can be your friend. Like anything unfamiliar, they simply require getting used to.

If you’re new to playing chess online, ignore the timer at first while you focus on the game and develop your playing skills. Then switch it up—practice focusing on the timer at the expense of the game. Ideally, you’ll find a happy balance between the two. Meanwhile, you remove the stress of focusing on just winning.

How to Improve Your Game

While you can now play chess games on your phone on the subway, in a Lyft, or waiting in line at the checkout counter, I advise my students to take a few deep breaths before they begin their games and, if possible, have a glass of water at hand. We tend to hold our breath when concentrating, which doesn’t help with the nerves that often accompany games against human players. Setting an intention can also help.

While it’s natural to want to win, a more helpful intention might focus on something you want to work on that day, so that regardless of what happens with your opponent, you can still have a win. Some useful intentions could be:

  • Really pay attention to where your opponent has moved before you make your own move.
  • Piece safety!! Spend a little time making sure your pieces are safe before you move.
  • Keep your hand from circling around and around on the mouse as you play. This actually distracts your brain from the deep thinking it needs to find your move and leaves you with the feeling of a cat chasing a string toy.
  • Avoid bringing your queen out too early.
  • Get your king to safety (learn how to castle here).
  • Develop your knights and bishops at the beginning of the game. (See: Opening Theory.)

Made a Mistake? Here Are Some Tips

It’s OK to make mistakes—you’re only human! When you make a mistake (which you will) the most important thing is to slow down. We tend to run away after making mistakes, but that is when we need to be the most careful and deliberate.

Don’t freak out! Pause. Take a breath. Remember that glass of water? Now’s the time to sip it.

Remember: Chess is not solitaire

While you come up with your plans, your opponent will be doing just that too! The cool thing here is that trying to figure out what they’re up to can be challenging, but it actually helps develop empathy. You’re practicing what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes—or in this case, chess moves.

Anyone can play

Not only does chess develop (and appeal to) logical thinkers, it also aids (and appeals to) creative thinkers. While a lot of players are math or logic whizzes, most of us (myself included) are not.

Chess demands concentration, willingness, and flexibility

It’s exciting to develop the skills to make plans or combinations, but try not to get too attached. Some plans should be broken. Plans simply get you to the next right place where another plan will soon arrive.

Don’t lose sight of the forest  

I’ve seen players fixate on their plans to the extent that they lose the game. Chess games demand that you pivot quickly and adjust. So does life! The most important thing is to make the first move and start your game. If it feels overwhelming, I recommend practicing with puzzles and checkmating techniques, then try a full game again.

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