scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Checkmate, Beth Harmon

Chess has become a thing, as you have no doubt been informed.


I’m taking advantage of my third sportsmanship suspension from the website to discuss my COVID-induced chess addiction. The numbers speak for themselves.

Since I joined on April 15, I have played 686 games, with 343 wins, 312 losses, and 31 draws. I play with a 20-20 clock, meaning each side has 20 minutes to finish the game or lose. The average game consumes, say, 20 minutes, so I’ve spent about nine and a half total days sparring with opponents such as SuperbPlayer (not really), Walking Potato, and TaxEvasion69.

Oh, wait. I forgot about the burner identity I created so I can play during the aforementioned suspensions. That person has played 45 games, which gets us pretty close to 10 full days at the board.


Well at least I’m not snorting cocaine or binge-watching “Nurse Jackie.”

Chess has become a thing, as you have no doubt been informed.’s daily active users have grown from 2.3 million to 3.6 million, and 125,000 new members are enrolling every day. The seven-episode miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” has attracted record audiences on Netflix, and suddenly chess sets are selling out in stores and online.

Here is what addiction looks like: I have played the 5-year-old version of Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, on the Play Magnus app, and am happy to announce that I won handily. I also defeated the 8-year-old Beth Harmon, a avatar of the fictional protagonist of “The Queen’s Gambit.” Naturally, I opened the game with the Queen’s Gambit — one of the oldest opening moves — declined, for those of you following at home. Oddly, this was an opening that Beth’s teacher, the crusty old janitor, Mr. Shaibel, hadn’t prepared her for.

The Bethbot gave me a “tense stare” when I captured her queen early in the game. “That’s not fair!” she said. “How did you beat me?” I rebooted a second game, now facing the fictional 9-year-old Beth. She won, with attitude. “You played OK, I guess,” she messaged me. “You play about as well as Mr. Shaibel.”


I am, shall we say, a bit fastidious about playing conditions. (So was Bobby Fischer!) I obsess about which background music best engenders 360-degree chess awareness. I had a run of strong wins with Brahms piano trios performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Leonidas Kavakos, but then I remembered the insipid fiddle-scraping of “Yanni at the Acropolis.” So far, it’s worked well.

Furthermore, like Nancy Reagan consulting astrologers about her husband’s career, I reserve certain parts of the day for chess. Mornings = no. Too many hyper-talented Southeast Asian players are trolling the boards, looking for victims like me. Nighttime = yes. The Eastern Hemisphere has gone to bed. North Americans often have a drink or two with dinner, which works to my advantage.

Chess addiction is occasionally discussed in member forums. “I actually suffer of a severe chess addiction,” one British member wrote in a forum posting. “This is taking away my life with girlfriend, friends, and family.” Other members offered solace but never suggested stepping back from the board, prompting an American commenter’s sardonic observation: “Usually asking other addicts to help with your addiction problem is not the best idea.”


I know: You are wondering about my alleged sportsmanship violations. A Support Team member named Josh explained: “I personally checked your account and I found that our system applied an automatic restriction on it because of a high disconnection rate. . . . The reason for this is that sometimes, people intentionally leave a game when they are about to lose, but I know this isn’t the case with you.”

Perish the thought! Pawn to d4. Your move.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.