Thanks to the pandemic and hit Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, interest in virtual chess has spiked. More Americans now play chess than tennis and golf combined, and most of that is online. In the past, chess players used snail mail to play their correspondence games, some lasting two years as they sent moves one at a time across the world. Now we can access partners anywhere with one click of our mouse, and games can begin right away.
I first fell in love with chess when I was 5 years old—in 1982, before AOL had even been invented—when I saw a beautiful wooden board across the room. My father caved to my obsession, buying a red and black cardboard set from CVS. We learned to play together on the living room floor of our rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment. Neither of us knew that chess would end up becoming my livelihood (I still teach to this day) or that a short time later I’d become a scholastic champion. During the pandemic my classes have moved, like everything else, to the virtual world. Here are the sites I recommend for players of all experience levels.
With 77 million users, this is the most popular site. It’s subscription-based, which means your daily puzzles, lessons, and more are limited without a paid membership. For $14 per month or $99 per year, Diamond accounts offer everything included in Basic, Gold, and Platinum accounts plus unlimited lessons in all sections.
Here you can access the daily puzzles and chess lessons mentioned above, but you’ll also find coaches, tournaments, computer analysis of your games, and human opponents and bots to play against.
- Pros: Everything you need is right here, and there’s always someone available to play live.
- Cons: Advertisements abound, and there’s the membership fee. You may also experience the very occasional glitch (if that happens, open chess.com in your browser rather than the app).
With approximately 20 million users, Lichess is not as well known. An open source chess server powered by volunteers and donations, it is completely free (and the server software is free as well, so you can run it on your own) and has no ads or trackers. Lichess tends to rate players’ strengths a little higher than chess.com does, which doesn’t result in easier games, but once your rating stabilizes, you’ll be playing competition at your own level. Like chess.com, there are also tournaments, puzzles, lessons, analysis, and games with humans or bots.
- Pros: I find the layout more user-friendly. I also like Lichess’s analysis board better than chess.com’s (it has a more in-depth move-to-move analysis), as well as the lesson section. Plus I’m partial to the lack of advertisements or fees. Having the space around the board or puzzles free of adverts helps me focus. Additionally, when you click on your piece to move it, a series of green dots shows you all the squares the pieces can go to. This might annoy more experienced players, but it is helpful for beginners.
- Cons: Occasionally it’s hard to find someone to play, but you can always play the bot until a player shows up.
One of the few child-safe chess sites out there, Chesskid is owned by chess.com. There’s a fun study section with video tutorials, as well as everything offered by the other two sites. Chesskid includes online report cards that allow me to easily track my students’ progress. This is what I use when I teach my scholastc classes. It also offers the ability to form clubs (as do the other two sites), so you can create a group for your kids and their friends, or for your students. There’s also a weekly teaching guide and a more video game-like subsection called Chess Adventure for early players.
- Pros: It’s kid-friendly, safe, educational, and fun.
- Cons: Occasionally glitchy, I was advised that opening it in my browser can work better than in the app. Sometimes there’s no one to play—but the bot is always available.
Practice: I generally advise my students that learning chess is like learning a language: Practice is key. Doing a few puzzles a day is important. So is playing.
Avoid Speed Chess: A little speed is all right. But playing blitz (which consists of five-minute games or shorter) or simply doing a puzzle rush instead of a site’s untimed daily puzzle is going to give you bad habits. Treat these like a decadent dessert; a little will go a long way. Try to play fewer, longer games instead to develop your skills and strategies. Consider 15 minutes per side a generally healthy time control.
Play Humans: The temptation to skip playing humans and simply play bots is totally, well, human.