When I saw the documentary ‘How to Win at Chess’ I was drawn to the paraphernalia that the correspondence chess players were surrounded by. I have an image of one man by a window with his chess board and a booklet in which he moved card pieces to record the position of his ongoing games. He had a notepad nearby to note the sequence of the moves and small envelopes ready to contain his moves were at the top of his desk. His opponent, in another house, perhaps in another town, had small plastic chess sets that he could record his games with. I was drawn to the equipment they used because it seemed serious, it imbued their chess decisions with rigour and I liked that.
Since starting my postal games I have also become aware of how confusing postal chess can be. Numbers on cards with varying postmarks don’t lend themselves to easy visualisation. I have therefore been googling to find out what is available so that I can play without loosing track of what’s going on.
The first visual solution, used by one of the players in the documentary, is a booklet with loose fitting flat pieces that are placed in slots. These seem to have almost disappeared. There was one, called a ‘Post-a-Log’ that resembled a Filofax that had pages with chess diagrams onto which sticky pieces were placed. Older sets were made of leather as was a new, glamourous, version (with only one game) made by Hermes. My favourite version of these was designed by Marcel Duchamp who was a very fine chess player in addition to being an important artist. Eventually I found a place in Denmark that sold a cardboard spiral bound set called ‘Rajah’. I have bought their 12 game version of this from this shop: http://www.skakhuset.com/products.asp?id=122
My alternative approach, and one I may yet consider, is to buy mini travelling chess sets. Again I have been looking through sites like eBay and Etsy and there are some fine old sets that aren’t overly expensive. The attraction for me with this approach is that each set would be different and therefore have it’s own personality. I could look at them and associate each with a game, a person and their background (given that a game could take more than a year).
I don’t claim that having equipment will improve my game in itself but the associations I make with the equipment should create a seriousness that I need. Plus I like the stuff.
So I paid my entry fee to enter a postal correspondence FIDE rated match. The format of this match allows four players to play each other as black and as white. This meant that I would be playing a total of six games. A week or so after entering the tournament online I received a letter from the ‘Tournament Director’ which gave the names of my opponents. The tournament director, or TD, is based in Luxembourg and a contact in Finland was for ‘appeals’. My three opponents all come from Europe; two from Germany and one from Finland. Already this was feeling like the Cold War where stakes were high.
The letter requested that I, as player 1, send a white move to players 2 and 4 who would then answer with a black response and a white move of their own. I would await player number 3’s letter and answer his opening white move with a black reply and my own white move. Correspondence chess has its own peculiar rules and annotations. The board is not set up algebraically, instead numbers from 1 to 8 run down both sides of the board and each square has its own number. The bottom left being 11 and the top right being 88. The kings pawn opening which algebraically would be written as e4 is written as 52-54. I discovered this when I received my first cards. My unfortunate opponents received pretty postal cards with kangaroos and other Australiana marked in algebraic notation (I have since replied with correspondence and algebraic notation). The great thing about this is that my opponents all wrote introduction notes and therefore I know that one is 75 years old, another 80, that one has a grand-daughter etc… Since the tournament started we have made a few moves each and I am launched into the world of studying openings.
The idea of playing correspondence chess came at me from two directions. The first was from a BBC documentary called “How To Win At Chess” which was part of their BBC Timeshift series. It can be seen here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x19so3x_how-to-win-at-chess_sport At the 13:30min mark there is a little vignette about correspondence chess that I found charming. I liked the quiet, pensive nature of it, I liked the ‘lite’ human connection between players and I liked the paraphernalia that was associated with the process. The second point of inspiration came from looking up an article on chess.com with the enticing title “Gain 100+ rating points quickly and start improving your chess” by someone with the moniker Aww-Rats, the article is here: http://www.chess.com/article/view/gain-100-rating-points-quickly-and-start-improving-your-chess. In this article, Mr Aww-Rats, strongly advocates correspondence chess as a way of improving and he is a Nation Master. Mad not to absorb the wisdom of older people.
So I sought to find out where and how I could play correspondence chess. Chess.com has a feature called ‘Online Chess’ which is web-based correspondence chess and I have started games here but I wanted something that I could view more seriously. I googled and found the Correspondence Chess League of Australia which confusingly has, at this time, two different websites. The correct one being http://www.ccla.net.au/ It wouldn’t be described as a welcoming site being hard to use and out of date in many areas but there it was, the official, FIDE endorsed, portal to national correspondence chess. So I joined and was entered into a match called Australian BICYCLE B12 (Bicycle because it didn’t permit chess engines). This is a web-based match against 7 other players. Further to this I asked to be entered into a friendly postal match and I was. The match is an ICCF Promotion Tournament called WT/0/150. The title is suitably austere and information came to me via snail mail.
A correspondence chess game was thought to be played between the Emperor Nicephorus and the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid (763-809), in the 9th century but it wasn’t until the late 1700 that we really see it starting. In the early 1820’s a number of national clubs challenged each other, the most well known being the games between London and Edinburgh. Naturally Edinburgh won. Half a century later correspondence chess was played ubiquitously by all sorts of people (In 1883 Cambridge University played a postal match with some of the chess players at the Bedlam insane asylum. Naturally Bedlam won). In 1949 FIDE formed the International Correspondence Chess Association with the motto ‘Amici Sumus’ or ‘We are Friends’ in English.
The idea with correspondence chess was that you could take whatever time you needed, within reason, to make a move. You could look up past games, review opening theory, analyse by moving pieces and carry out research with a view to playing the best possible game. But this all changed when computers reared their clever heads. It changed for three reasons.
Firstly email could be used. This would seem like a tool for making correspondence chess easier but with ease come a loss of preciousness. I believe that this made games less important for some people. And while older correspondence players may have continued their deep analysis methodology I believe some players would have shifted their thinking towards viewing the games as more disposable. Emails, and now webservers, are cheap and efficient but I wonder if they inspire the same concentration as sending a postcard via the mail.
Secondly the speed of email transfers and the size of the chess population meant that there was an abundance of players ready to play instantly so why would you choose the slow, plodding path of correspondence chess over the gratification of a live game. This has meant that fewer people are taking up correspondence chess and many that did enjoy it have left.
Thirdly and most problematically is the fact that computers can now make better moves than humans. This has led to the spectre of cheating shadowing correspondence chess. It is impossible to be certain that people won’t cheat. It is so impossible that FIDE now permits computer engine analysis in most of the rated games – it therefore becomes a battle of machines guided by software engineers and gigabytes. I see the role of the chess player becoming less and less important in this form of correspondence chess. Again I see this as a reason for it’s decline.
I do, however, believe that there is still scope for correspondence chess to help me improve my chess providing I take a more historical approach to it.
Luddites, to my mind, are people who eschew technology believing that their lifestyle will improve. I have some sympathies with this. My job means that I use computers a lot. At home I find myself on technology too often, playing with addictive games, being on facebook, and general googling. All of which, including blogging about Ludditism is very un-Ludditish. The better, or more technical, definition of Ludditism comes from Wikipedia and can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite
I partly blame my relationship with technology with my inability to improve at chess. When I use computers I know I can usually undo what I do; I can cut and paste documents, save, amend, re-save, print, review, alter. Information is cheap, alterable, deletable and saveable. This is different to earlier modes of ‘doing’ where ideas had to be considered carefully before committing to execution. Think of the difference between a monk writing out a bible versus someone writing a blog entry – one would be truly annoyed if they misspelt something. One of these two would have to think very carefully before doing.
I therefore want to expand the way I think about chess by taking a more considered approach to my moves. This would seem a simple thing to do, just slow down. I think this is right, my problem though is that when I play a slow game I still think quickly and do intuitive moves rather than calculated moves. Perhaps this is something that practice will change but what I want to explore is slow chess, and the slowest is correspondence chess.