This past May found me at a hospital in Fort Worth for most of a week, watching my 80 year old mother die. During the hours that she slept and the morphine had its effect, I sought distraction by playing chess on my phone.
Sometimes I played against the app Play Magnus but mostly I played against people through an app called Social Chess. Independent of the result, what stands out is the difference in the emotional experience of playing with an actual person versus playing against a piece of software.
When you play against a human opponent you have to wait for them to move, sometimes for days, almost always for hours. Playing at that pace gives you plenty of time to wonder what they’re thinking and to question how the game must look from their side of the board. You speculate on whether they meant to make a particularly questionable move or if they’re seeing something you aren’t. You find out where they live and often as not, learn that they’re on the other side of the world in Russia or Pakistan or maybe Norway. And when it’s over, if you both speak English, you thank them for the game and they thank you back.
By contrast, you don’t feel any of that playing against an app. Playing against a computer you never wonder about your opponent — who they are, where they live, what type of player they are. Win or lose the experience is sterile and seemingly predetermined, as though the game is some sort of slow moving math problem revealing itself over time.
Obviously chess is a game of calculated logic but it’s also more than that. Across the course of forty-plus moves there are dozens of times when two or more options are equally good choices and in those moments intuition, style, and personality come into play – the result being an expression of both subjective aesthetics and objective rationality.
I didn’t fully appreciate it in the moment but from the perspective of a few months later, it’s clear that those games and strangers are inextricably linked with the memory of my mother’s death. And it’s led me to realize that while it’s easy and perhaps comforting to isolate ourselves from one another through the distraction our technology offers – the moments we most cherish, the memories that carry the most meaning, the times we feel most connected – those moments require interactions with one another.
I’ve been reminded that there is something unique and precious about a human connection – even when it’s mediated through an unfathomable layer of technology.
And to whoever it was that played those games with me, thank you for spending the time.