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Board games now surf the web

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

Among the snapshots my mother saved was one from the summer of '58: me among my barefoot, buzz-cut buddies — Billy Franz, Jimmy Parr and others whose names I've forgotten — grinning around a table of chessboards.

Prodigies? Oh, please.

What the photograph really commemorates is the season in which our gang of ragamuffins was enchanted by the wonder of wooden knights and kings.

There is something about chess. It has captivated nerd children for the past millennium and a half. The game causes them to wax poetic about a well-executed Ruy Lopez and even to tackle a little French now and then (in our case, with a decidedly Appalachian twang) — "hit's ‘en passant,' you-all."

I've never been a particularly good player. The term "woodpusher" seems especially apt for me. But the game has continued to drift in and out of my life over the last half century. Many nights in college, for instance, my friends and I smoked our pipes, drank our beer and pushed pawns over squares instead of pens over paper.

During those days, I developed my psychological game. I don't believe we had the term "fake-out" yet, but that was my strategy. To make up for my failings on the board itself, I cultivated a furrowed brow. I would glower as I studied my friend's latest move, then with practiced speed and resolve, I'd slap a rook into place and sit back with a grin that could make the Cheshire Cat blush.

The ruse worked a little more often than not. While my opponent could actually see what I had missed — a serious flaw in my attack or defense — he also might be rocked back just enough by my stony demeanor to demur. Afraid he was missing something, he hesitated in his reply, giving me time to fix whatever fumble I had made and rumble on.

Okay, I'm not proud of it, but hey, chess is war.

Later, though, when I tried to take my bombastic mind game on the road to chess clubs and even a few tournaments, experienced players educated me. Brutally they demonstrated how such swindles would not play uptown, no matter how I postured. To this day, I can close my eyes and still see the 14-year-old in her Girl Scout uniform, winking at me as she snapped up my unprotected bishop, then folding her little hands and waiting for me to fully appreciate the devastation she had just wreaked in my realm.

Not long ago, it all came back to me when my friend Jacob Scarr, home from college for the Christmas holidays, invited me to play a few games by the fireside. We had such a good time that he suggested we continue playing online after he returned to school in Colorado. Quickly we drew in another old friend, writer John Koenig in Austin, Texas, and our three-way interstate matches continued via computer throughout the winter. Then by spring, the games had gone global. Literally.

Chess.com is a whole new world; an Internet chess community through which people play the game around the clock from countries around the world. In 2005, entrepreneur Erik Allebest and partner Jay Severson purchased that domain name from a Berkeley, Calif., software developer and assembled a team to create the world's greatest chess portal, which they launched seven years ago. The site has been heavily promoted via social media and has quickly grown to attract mainly casual players, such as we three amigos. Last October, it acquired the Dutch-based chess news site chessvibes.com.

Nowadays, the site has more than nine million members worldwide. Accepting "open challenges" for games, I quickly found myself playing opponents in Spain, Germany, Holland, Algeria and Argentina as well as state-side with opponents in Las Vegas, New York, Miami and Bellingham, Wash.

Those who visit the site play on a live chess server in correspondence style games, also called "turn-based," at quite leisurely paces, usually a couple of moves per day. Or if you want to play against "The Machine" at a faster clip, you can take on the big "chess engines" (that is, computer chess).

The site operates a "freemium" business model. That means the main features are free, but you can pay to get additional services. For instance, premium users can take part in what are called "voting games," in which players form teams and then use the "wisdom of the crowd" to vote on the best move. Additional features include tactics training, discussion forums, news and quizzes. And there is a great database of chess openings, live broadcasts, online coaching and even a searchable collection of more than two million completed games.

As a teaching tool, chess.com is extraordinary for players at any level of experience, and the site publishes a large number of articles on topics such as strategy, openings theory and history.

Meanwhile, for the younger players, chess.com also runs a site called chesskid.com for those 13 and younger, featuring an online championship that is recognized by the U.S. Chess Federation.

But who knows? All these mental gymnastics might be especially good for us older duffers. Not long ago, a University of Iowa study funded by the National Institute on Aging found that "brain games" may in fact pay numerous and long-term dividends in the fight against memory loss and may even be a hedge against Alzheimer's disease.

I don't know about that. I just like the thought that 21st Century technology might finally help those tow-headed youngsters in Mom's old photo finally learn how to command their wooden armies.