The World of Correspondence Chess

The fascination of correspondence chess attracts hundreds of thousands of chess players world-wide. For many, it is their principal, or only, way of actively participating in the game they love. Although most keen over-the-board (OTB) players have tried a few games of postal chess at some time or other, surprisingly few of them know much about CC. The names of top correspondence players are hardly known to them and few postal games are published in mainstream chess books and magazines; for example, out of 677 principal games annotated in lnformator 61, only one was a postal game, and not a particularly brilliant or representative one either. The attitude of some OTB players to CC is sometimes little better than mild amusement, while to others it is a mystery, which is a great pity as these are exciting times in the correspondence game.

It is already widely accepted that CC can be of benefit to virtually any chess player. Blunders and oversights that mar so many OTB games by amateurs are much less frequent in CC, so that your level of satisfaction with your games is likely to be much higher. Admittedly, a little patience and organisation is required; you have to guard against clerical errors and not all opponents reply as quickly as you would like.

Roughly speaking, CC is chess played against an invisible opponent over a duration of weeks or months. It requires some means whereby you send your moves to the opponent and in return receive his replies. In the past this usually meant the postal service - and postal chess will remain very important for many years yet. However, it is wrong to use 'postal chess' as a synonym for CC. The rapid development of e-mail and fax chess is speeding up play and promises to make CC much more rewarding for its players. The broader term 'correspondence chess' is harder to define, as we shall see in the final chapter, and it is also rather a mouthful. The Germans have a word that is both more precise and concise, namely 'Fernschach' ('fern' being 'far' or 'distant' and 'Schach' meaning 'chess') but I don't think 'farchess' would ever catch on in English. Correspondence chess embraces any mode of move transmission. The actual method of sending moves is in most cases irrelevant, except that transmission times have in the past had a large bearing on the nature of CC play. The number of games a player can handle depends in part on how rapidly replies are coming back.

The essential nature of the correspondence game (as opposed to the OTB contest) derives from five principal factors:

1) the absence of the opponent;

2) free time to analyse while waiting for the reply;

3) the absence of a ticking clock at your elbow;

4) the freedom to move the pieces around and make notes while analysing;

5) and lastly the liberty to consult chess literature and databases during play.

Cynics would add a sixth factor: the ability to consult other people or strong chess-playing computers without being discovered.

The principal attractions of CC are:

a) The freedom to play chess as and when it suits you. You analyse games and decide on your moves at a time of your choosing that can be fitted into the busiest work or domestic schedule. Family life, work and other commitments often lead to OTB players dropping out of club and tournament chess in their twenties or thirties; for them CC is often the answer, b) CC is played in your own home. Apart from the obvious advantages for elderly players (there is no upper age limit) or those with poor health or mobility difficulties, taking up CC can mean enjoying the comforts of your own home instead of making an awkward journey in bad weather to some noisy, unheated and ill-Jit venue for an away league match.

c) CC offers a good route back into competitive chess for people thinking of taking up chess again after a long interval. It can even provide a new world to conquer for ambitious experts who see their chances of achieving OTB mastery fading, or for IMs seeking that elusive GM honour. Dr Jonathan Penrose, who set a record by winning the British OTB Championship ten times from 1958-69, only took up CC in the 1970s when he was recruited for the British Olympiad team. The first two English CC grandmasters, Keith Richardson and Adrian Hollis, were among the strongest OTB players of their generation at 18-21 before putting their careers first. They started CC relatively early but many players achieve their best performances after the ages of 40 or 50.

d) Wherever you live, appropriate opposition is always available. Even in a city, it may be hard to find an OTB club or other chess events that suit you. For regular OTB players, CC can set new goals and give the opportunity of playing a much greater variety of opposition.

e) CC also has social aspects, in that it is usually played through a

(national or international) club consisting of like-minded people. As a player and/or organiser, you tap into a world-wide network of enthusiasts of almost all playing strengths (from near-beginner to GMs).

f) You are not subject to various forms of distraction and 'playing the man' typical of OTB; gamesmanship or intimidation have no equivalent in CC. Playing the board is normally the order of the day in CC where, as I have seen it well put, 'one always has a poker face'. A few opponents do accompany their moves with remarks about the game, but I prefer to say as little as possible in reply and save the post-mortem for later.

g) CC is a low-stress activity, both emotionally and physically; it does make considerable mental demands, however. As they grow older, even those players who used to enjoy the time scrambles and the other tensions of OTB tend to see the attraction of playing at their own pace without the pressures that often lead to blunders marring a previously well-played game. Moreover, the longer playing sessions prevalent now in many OTB tournaments put a premium on youth and physical fitness, which makes it harder for the forty-somethings and older players to do themselves justice.

h> In CC, one's ego is less at stake. This may be less true as you ascend the ladder towards international honours, but losing a game at CC (while disappointing) is rarely as painful as an OTB loss. I would not go so far as to say that CC is 'all passion spent' but certainly it is normally far less public; sometimes only your opponent and the tournament controller know the result. Although the occasional crushing move does come out of the blue, you have days or weeks to get used to defeat before you actually resign. Victories, particularly when well-earned, are still very sweet and there is nothing like a resignation card from an opponent to make your day.

i) Probably the most important of all the advantages of CC, and the one that attracts strong players who could achieve or have already achieved a fair degree of OTB success, is the way that it improves your level of understanding, and hence enjoyment, of chess. Book study can be well-motivated by the desire to achieve better results in games now in progress or about to begin. CC also improves your weak points in the middlegame and endgame. If you lose a game, since you cannot blame noise, time trouble or a headache, you have to find the real reason things went wrong and make sure it does not happen again.

It is generally recognised that, all the way up the scale, players who take CC seriously can achieve CC ratings well in advance of their OTB ratings and find they can beat some opponents to whom they lose OTB. A club player of 1500 can attain at least 1800 at CC after a few years' experience, while an 1800 OTB player with a good opening repertoire can approach 2200 standard at CC. Strong OTB players of 2200-2300 standard are capable of earning the correspondence IM title if they are determined. Ireland's two CC international masters, Tony Doyle and Alan Ludgate, both achieved far more consistent success once they switched to the postal game. There are many like them in other countries while British OTB IMs Nigel Povah and Simon Webb have achieved GM titles in CC - and the latter is now playing in the world championship final tournament.

Progress made at CC can feed back into an improved OTB performance also. While postal players can get rusty if they only play OTB occasionally, thinking about chess and deciding on moves nearly every day of your life should be a help, whereas the average player may only think about chess once a week when he is at a club.

Several OTB grandmasters have used postal games, especially in their teenage years, to improve their analytical skills and opening knowledge and to deepen their general understanding of chess. When I interviewed Boris Spassky in Dublin in 1991, I asked him what advice he would offer to a young player wanting to improve. 'Play correspondence chess!' Spassky immediately replied. He was doubtless thinking of his old adversary Paul Keres, but a more recent example would be England's Mark Hebden (now an OTB grandmaster) who won the three-round BPCF 1st Grand Open played between 1978 and 1981 before earning his FIDE spurs. Some GMs have continued to play CC in their mature years although for today's itinerant professionals that is less practicable than for grandmasters in the late 19th century or earlier 20th century when top tournaments and matches were fewer and further between.

Apart from nervous players and time-trouble addicts, the types of player who will benefit most by switching from OTB to CC, or from adding CC to their OTB activities, include players with a poor memory who have difficulty at the board in remembering variations that they had spent hours studying. Less obviously, there are many players who have good chess understanding and judgement but are not so strong in the visualisation of positions arising when they calculate tactical variations. They benefit most of all from the freedom to move the pieces in analysis so that every position that arises in their analysis comes before their eyes.

In CC, complicated positions can be subjected to very deep scrutiny. In practice, where the players are both strong, this means that the one subtle flaw in an unsound attack can be detected in CC, whereas the limitations imposed by the clock might prevent the same player from finding it under OTB conditions. This does not mean the defender has an advantage in CC, however. An attack that is soundly based but not easy to conduct may more easily be carried through to victory in CC than in OTB chess.

It is high time I showed a game, and where better to start than a fine win by grandmaster Dr Jonathan Penrose, who has for many years been among the world's top-ranked CC players?

J. Penrose - Borislav Vukcevic

9th CC OL Final 1982

The Arkhangelsk Variation is asking for trouble against a classical attacking player like Penrose.

After his incautious 11th move, the Yugoslav top board may already be lost.

12 a4 exd4 13 axb5 axb5 14 flxa8 &xa8 15 cxd4 Ee816 ^c3 g5 17 Wd2!

A very dangerous piece offer, aiming to get the queen to h6.

17...£>a5 18 £c2 b4 19 &xg5 bxc3 20 W(4 &xd4 21 £\h7! (D)

The attack reaches its climax. The queen will reach her destination, after which Black has no satisfactory defence.

21...£e522 Wxh6 Ee6 23 £xf6+ Sxf6 24 i.xf6 ii.xf6 25 2e3

White brings up the reserve army. It is amazing what the highly mobile queen and rook now accomplish, aided by Black's exposed kingside.

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