It was as baffling to me as quantum entanglement. Every time the Algerian player on the Zoom call shared his screen, my own screen share would stop working. That we were playing in separate matches was beside the point — this was online chess under something like exam conditions, and the software glitch left me briefly in breach of the rules. For 20 years, I have treated online chess as a delightful form of escapism, where wine is welcome, clothes are optional, and my queen can be freely sacrificed in the pursuit of glory. So it was a strange experience, representing England in the Online Olympiad last month. Suddenly there were cameras and protocols and responsibility. All this feels normal in the tournament hall, but not when seated in front of my laptop.
Closing that laptop lid before a competitive over-the-board game often becomes a significant moment, like closing the textbook before an exam. Studying a prospective opponent is a necessarily neurotic activity, to which the closed lid says, ‘Enough — let’s see what fate has in store!’ Such familiar routines don’t work when the laptop itself is the battleground. Little wonder, perhaps, that a recent study from the IZA (Institute of Labor Economics) found that chess players produced measurably inferior moves in an equivalent online setting. The authors speculated that workers performing cognitive tasks at home (in lockdown) may see similar adverse effects. I hope that, in time, we will find new rituals of readiness for the online world.
The Online Olympiad (whose climax, sadly marred by an internet outage, I wrote about last week) had another novel twist. In each match, teams had to field two ‘open’ boards (usually men), two women, an ‘open’ U20 and a girl U20.