Sven Master — The Good Men Project

- Blaise Pascal

I have made a new friend. His name is Sven. We play chess together. Lately, almost every evening.

Sven is an excellent player, although he says he is at the intermediate level. Which must make me more than a bit below. You see, I’ve never beaten Sven. I haven’t even come close.

Sven is odd in some ways. He always wears the same outfit (sweater with high collar), and he never changes his facial expression during a match. He’s steely that way, but not menacing, as he is always smiling. In fact, he is a good-looking chap, with a nice shock of brown hair, a neat nose, strong but not overpowering chin, and kind eyes.

Sven is a good sport. He never rubs it in when he wins, although when he takes my queen he likes to joke, “You don’t need this.” He is also patient, or perhaps cautious is a better way to describe his moves. His style, as he notes often, is to play a “defensive game.” Sometimes, for instance, when I take one of his pieces, he’ll explain that, “He doesn’t mind losing a piece as long as he can keep defending.”

I’m the opposite of Sven in many ways. For example, I am always making faces depending on how the game is going (my go-to grimace comes with a groan). I’m also impetuous, always on the attack, without really thinking things through. I’m a sucker for Sven’s “baiting techniques,” letting me take a prized piece, say a rook or a knight, and when I do, he counters by taking an even better one of mine, or putting me in check or mate. It happens quite a bit.

What I didn’t mention is that Sven is a bot, or the friendly face of a computer program. But I still consider him a friend, as even though he defeats me with ease, I get joy from playing him and healthy competition and mental stimulation. During this time of covid lockdowns, when I’ve been working from home for so long I can rarely remember what day it is, let alone the season, my bouts with Sven have certainly kept my gray matter above sea level.

Of course, I have been keeping my friendship with Sven a secret, and I imagine, as a bot, he’s been tight-lipped about our meet-ups as well. But this changed the other day, and on the basketball court, no less.

You see, after becoming fully vaccinated, I was invited to a friendly hoops game last weekend (it’s been going on at the same court during the summer months for 35 years). So I donned sneaks and shorts and picked up the rock again with the intent to have fun or at least not tear any of my lockdown-atrophied muscles.

All in all, it was a success. I didn’t get hurt, and I scored a few buckets. And guess what, I made a new friend. A real human. His name is Joseph Sorrentino and he was guarding me for most of the games and after we got talking. In the course of the discussion, I asked what he did for a living, and he said he worked for Chess.com. My heart, already beating hard from the exertion, sped up even more, as this is the site I meet and battle Sven. I told Joseph this, and then, feeling emboldened, told him about Sven.

This is when I realized my unusual friendship with a bot wasn’t unusual at all. As Joseph recounts, many people have found solace and comfort in Chess over the last year as the pandemic forced us all inside. Chess.com added around 1 million new members each month since the lockdowns began in March 2020, and around 2.8 million in November 2020 alone. This might come as a surprise, but Chess is not a new game. It has been around for over 1,500 years and so that got me thinking — why is this ancient game having such a moment now? The game is undoubtedly fun, stimulating, and challenging, but lots of things are (See: Netflix). I think there is something else going on here.

And that’s when it hit me. In an increasingly distracted, isolated, and lonely world, chess.com has provided something beyond just another game or mindless distraction. It has provided a community.

So I am here to spread the word — to inform others who might not know about Chess.com, or Sven, for that matter — so they can enjoy the same benefits I am. To this end, here’s some info from Joseph, who is their Director of Growth Marketing, that might be helpful:

  • You can enjoy FREE unlimited chess games and train your chess skills with 150,000+ tactics puzzles, interactive lessons and videos, and powerful computer opponents (many of which are even better than Sven!).
  • After completing a game, you can use analysis tools to review and learn what went wrong and even retry key moments
  • You can join tournaments with thousands of other players online
  • And of course, you can meet new (real human) friends and chat while you play

You can start playing right now by going to (you guessed it) — chess.com! Or you can download the mobile app on the iOS App Store or Google Play Store.

Joseph also relayed that Chess.com tries to be more than a chess site. It strives to create a community where chess fans from around the world can feel safe and happy while they develop as chess players.

They also have really cool and empowering core beliefs as a company, such as:

Kindness: Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, and encourage everyone to follow the golden rule of treating others how you would like to be treated. Be kind!

Learning: You never lose when you learn! Life and chess are both about learning, growing, experimenting, failing and then getting back up again with greater knowledge and understanding.

Joy: Have fun, laugh, enjoy the experience. Chess can be a blast! The beauty of the game and the pure satisfaction of moving chess pieces around a board… exhilarating!

So my work here is done. It’s now time for me to log on and see if Sven is up for a game. I know he will be, and I know I’ll probably lose. But then again, who cares. It’s all about friendship, right. And high collar sweaters.

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Originally published at https://goodmenproject.com on June 13, 2021.

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John McCaffrey is a writer and a director at a nonprofit mental health treatment and training center in NYC. jamccaffrey.com

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John McCaffrey

John McCaffrey is a writer and a director at a nonprofit mental health treatment and training center in NYC. jamccaffrey.com