I love playing chess. I’m not good, but it’s a game my dad taught me when I was really young, and I vividly remember the first time I beat him at around age 13. There’s a good chance he let me win, but it’s a fond memory all the same.
I’m a casual player. I don’t know a ton of strategies or the names of the various opening moves. I loved watching The Queen’s Gambit and Searching for Bobby Fischer, but I’ve never felt the need to go on a quest for chess domination. I just wish I could play the game more. My chessboard has been collecting dust under my coffee table, and I can count the number of times I’ve used it over the past two years on my fingers. Finding opponents is hard.
Even with the luxury of a thriving chess scene at Washington Square Park here in New York City, I’m a little too shy to play with complete strangers in the open air. And yes, I’ve played chess online, but it’s not the same. I deeply love the physicality of the board game—picking up and moving the pieces, looking at the board, and trying to outwit the person sitting across from me. That’s why I’ve fallen in love with the Square Off Pro. It’s a physical chessboard you can roll up and take anywhere, and because it connects to the internet, you can play against people around the world.
Knight to H3
Photograph: Square Off
The Square Off Pro isn’t the first internet-connected chessboard I’ve tried. My first was actually from the same company, Square Off’s Grand Kingdom Set, which is a massive board with pieces that can slide across the surface by themselves. It’s not unlike Wizard’s Chess in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, thanks to the clever use of magnets inside the chessboard. You can play with people online using the Square Off app and see their moves in real time on the board.
The problem is that it’s so large you need a dedicated space for it in your home, and you can’t really take it anywhere. The Square Off Pro doesn’t have those flaws. It’s a lightweight, rollable chessboard, aka a silicone mat, and the large pieces come in two mesh pouches. It’s much more portable and easy to stow when you’re done using it.
This does mean it sacrifices the automatically moving pieces, which is a shame because it’s truly magical when you see a pawn moving out of the way for a bishop. Instead, each square on the silicone mat has LEDs that indicate your opponent’s move, and you just move their piece for them. The board connects to your phone via Bluetooth. Through Square Off’s app, you can connect to your Chess.com and Lichess.org accounts to play with anyone on those platforms, or use Square Off’s own network. (I mostly stuck with Chess.com since I already had an account.) Square Off also has an AI you can play against to keep things offline.
I did run into a few issues here and there where the board wouldn’t register some of my movements and required me to redo the move until it registered. This can be frustrating when you’re on the clock, as all the online matches are timed, but it only happened a few times. The board is usually pretty responsive, with beeps to indicate when you make a move that’s not allowed (like when you move a pawn without realizing your king is in check). You can play by just looking at the board, or you can keep the app open during the game to see the virtual board and details about your opponent (and even message them).
I won one game on the Square Off Pro, and it all went downhill from there. But it doesn’t really matter—I’m having a ton of fun. Sure, there’s no player sitting directly across from me, but that hasn’t stopped my partner from overhearing me cuss and frantically yell, “No, no, no, no, no, no!” And I have nothing but admiration when I lose. It’s awesome seeing how other people play the game and the moves they use to outwit me.
I’d like to think that just like physically writing notes in school can help with retention, physically moving chess pieces helps me learn the game a little better, but I can’t say for sure. I just find it a lot more fun than clicking a mouse or tapping a finger on a screen.
The Square Off Pro isn’t just about playing games either. You can recreate matches from current tournaments and see how they played out on the board, or even analyze your own games. Hooray, I can see all the stupid mistakes I made that led to my demise. I’m not salty, I swear.
It’s much more transportable than Square Off’s original chess set, but I wish it came with a more travel-friendly kit. Right now, you roll up the chessboard, put it in a cylindrical cloth case, and then store the pieces in two separate mesh pouches—the carrying bag and pouches are only included due to a sale the company is running. It’d be nice if I could store everything together in one kit.
Other than that, it’s hard to find much fault with the Square Off Pro. It’s gotten me playing chess a lot more lately, and that’s all I ever wanted.
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