Correspondence Chess – Not Just for Engine Junkies

Correspondence chess (CC) has benefited and suffered from the march of computers.

It benefits from online play – particularly through the International Correspondence Chess Federation (ICCF) webserver – largely eliminating the tedious and time consuming administration of postal chess.

It also benefits from the ability to embrace computer-assisted analysis and the support of chess engines to improve the quality of play and enrich both play and personal chess education.

However, the march of computer analysis is also one of the great threats to CC play.  Many players play both CC and over the board (OTB) competitive chess.    However, when speaking to OTB players about CC chess, the topic which is almost invariably raised is along the lines of “I want to play chess, not learn about computer analysis”.   Alternatively, that there is no point in playing because CC players “cheat” through the use of computers.

Using computer support is not cheating – for most online CC, it is permitted and embraced as part of the game, but that is the perception.

So, why should an OTB player, or a player new to chess, consider playing CC?    What are the advantages and benefits?

Computer Support

Let’s start with the use of computers for assistance with analysis.     First of all, this type of computer analytical assistance isn’t compulsory! There are a substantial body of CC players who do not use computer assistance at all & still enjoy their CC. It is entirely up to the individual and how they enjoy their chess.

Computers are CC’s weakness but also its greatest strength.   Using computer analysis intelligently allows CC players (or OTB players experimenting with CC) to play chess to a higher standard and to use the computer analysis support to improve and enrich their understanding of the game, allowing improvement in OTB play as well.

The computer assessment shows hidden depths – realising that the position was lost not through the blunder on move 35 but because by move 35 there were no good moves because of strategic mistakes at move 25, exposed by the computer assessment of the play and the in depth analysis of different lines of play.   Thinking about why the assessment changes allows for learning about the strategic nuances of the position as well as spoiling a delicate position through unnecessary tactical or strategic blunders. Playing CC allows players to play much closer to “perfect” chess.

A top CC player will not simply follow a computer programme but will work with the computer to develop and strengthen his or her play; the difference between the top player and those not at that level still turns on the skill and application of the individual.

Open Book

All serious CC play is open book.    This applies not just to the opening but throughout the game.

Opening Knowledge

CC allows players to develop much deeper Opening knowledge through the use of books, databases & other chess literature. CC makes a serious contribution to the development of top-level Opening theory and this is acknowledged by chess authors & periodicals worldwide including the world of OTB chess. Increasingly, chess annotations quote CC games in the Opening phase as they appreciate their significance, and as a source of Opening novelties.

Also, CC allows plays to prepare for their opponents thoroughly using databases & viewing their recent games.

Strategic Knowledge

CC play allows a player to enhance his understanding of strategic planning & motifs. Analysing other games with similar structures is one of the key uses of computer databases.

Endgame Knowledge

It is possible to play and learn about endings to a higher standard than any but the highest level of OTB play. With the increasing use of Tablebases, “perfect” endgame play is attainable in some situations.

Time

No CC game should be lost on time.   CC play requires organisation and discipline – and surprisingly many games are decided by a flag fall – but objectively the time limits allow more than enough time for moves to be considered, reflected on and chosen.    This can happen over days rather than minutes or hours so time trouble should not be a factor ruining what would otherwise be a good game of chess.

Flexibility

CC can be played at any time of the day or night.   It can be played on holiday (although time off for holidays is permitted) or late at night after work (although beware the ability to blunder spectacularly if move decisions are made when tired).

It can be fitted around the busiest of social diaries.

As a result, it is ideal for the many people whose busy lives stop them playing OTB chess seriously (or at all).

It also suits people who have challenges with mobility – whether due to illness, infirmity or lack of a car.   It can be played from home or on the move.   With a mobile device, it can replace a book or newspaper on the commute to and from work.

CC allows you to be in contact with people from all over the world by playing in international tournaments, something which is only possible to the very best OTB players. It is also possible to communicate with your opponent during the game & one sometimes finds good long-term friends in this way.

Cost

CC is one of the cheapest way to play good quality, serious mind sports.   An annual membership of the BCCA for a UK resident costs £12.50 offering a range of benefits and several free tournaments and match play opportunities.    For someone with an existing computer and internet connection, it would be possible to play a whole season for the price of a membership.

In practice, most people will play other tournaments, but entry fees are low and there are no travel costs.

Summary

CC is different from and complementary to OTB chess.    It offers an extra dimension and requires different skills from OTB.

By Stephen Woodhouse  June 2017