My postal chess is still ongoing. In a recent blog comment it was noted that postal chess was ‘elaborate’ and ‘ornate’. I agree and I sometimes suffer from guilt when I avoid sitting down to go through the laborious process of making the moves. I also sometimes suffer from not putting in the time I should on a move and in one game I am down a piece because of this. But I still love my postal games. I think it is true to say that the love of them comes from their ornate and elaborate nature. I like the studious quality of the games and I like the idea that someone else in the world is going through the same process in response to the problems I set them. I also see them as a set of puzzles rather than a flowing game, this is because you set up a board without remembering the previous sequence of moves. This does impact thinking and it is easy to forget the concepts you and your opponents were aiming for – thought is more objective. (In tactics puzzles on computers the computer often plays the opponents last move to focus players on new possibilities). So I am enjoying my postal games and if I treat them properly I think they are a good way to improve but I do admit that my postal games are driven, to some extent, by quirkiness rather than a pure desire to improve.
My beautiful wife, who doesn’t really play chess, commented on my postal games this morning after I had spent time making two moves. She thought it was wonderful that I could spend so much time contemplating a position and inferred that it must be so rich in possibilities that puzzling out an answer must be an achievement. I chatted about how postal chess was different, it was objective, mathmatical and considerred and that, yes, the satisfaction comes from a deeply considered move.
In fact the speed of chess greatly affects my thought process. In this blog I advocate slow, considered chess, as a way to improve all of your chess but slow chess is static chess and it does kill the ‘flow’ – this is the greatest drawback of slow chess. I played some blitz games in Canberra and what I enjoyed about them was an almost thoughtless zen state where calculation nearly disappears. A move happens, the pattern of the board changes, and you adjust that pattern to improve it for yourself. The chess is based on image and intuition and I also love this aspect of chess. It reminds me of a Kung Fu fight.
I still advocate slow chess as the best way to improve but we all also need our Kung Fu intuition – so I advocate both.
Here is a clip of Kung Fu chess warriors
I currently have 4 ICCF webserver games going and 15 postal games going. I won’t take on any more new webserver games and instead I’ll focus on maintaining between 10 to 18 postal games. This translates to a couple of postcards a week which is perfect for me.
I’m still learning how best to keep track of all my postal correspondence games, my filing system is working quite well but I do like the historical ‘Postal Chess Recorder Album’ approach too. As I mentioned in an earlier post I did buy some albums from Skakhuset but they’re a bit ordinary and don’t have algebraic notation which would be useful for me. So I have decided to make my own recorder album – see image above.
I googled how to bind a book and found this http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-bind-your-own-Hardback-Book/step1/Stack-your-paper-neatly-in-at-least-4-piles-of-8-s/ which was fairly easy to understand. I then made an image file which included lines indicating printing, scoring and cutting. I sent this off to a laser cutting place and received 12 ‘pages’ which had the board, with slots, on the right hand side and slots on the left hand side into which a scoresheet could be fitted. I have since glued them onto a backing strip and I’m ready for step 8 on the tutorial. I’ll add to this soon.
I have now finished the booklet. I bought an old thin leather jacket from a charity shop and made the cover and glued the innards (the folio) into place. I’ve inserted my 12 ICCF postal games into the board slots along with the move record sheet. It’s pretty good – a bit rough and I think I can make some improvements but on the whole I’m pretty happy with it.
I am in three postal ICCF correspondence chess matches. Two matches are with four players where we each play each other as black and as white. This means 6 games per match (12 games). I am also on the Australian team playing against Sweden. I was matched with an opponent and we play each other as black and as white (2 games). Finally I am playing a casual game with someone from Texas who offered to play me via chess.com, again as black and as white (2 games). I also have 2 games on a webserver but when that is over I will concentrate on postal matches.
I have seen a few people saying that correspondence chess is dead, it has been replaced by webserver chess; it is too slow, it costs too much, it’s confusing and it’s open to cheats. I can see all these points as being valid but I still like postal chess. I like the coded postcards, I like remembering what personal snail mail is like, I like the walks to the post box, the setting up of a real board, the detailed recording of written information and the stamps.
Two of the players I am playing against, a German and a Swede, collect stamps and they have sent me beautiful stamps. In return I have gone to the post office and bought nice stamps for them. This weekend I suggested to my son that we collect the stamps that we are being sent and he liked the idea. We moistened the stamps so they’d peel off, we let them dry and pressed them, my son then divided them up into two piles, one for me and one for him, so that we could trade. It took about an hour and it was a great way to spend time with my son. The stamps teach geography, history (subject matter of some stamps) and currency. The image above shows a Czech stamp we received which shows an oil painting by the French painter L.F. Lejeune from 1808. It captures the atmosphere on the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz when Napoleon and his generals interrogate Moravian farmers. The picture is displayed at the chateau in Versailles.
I’m doing what I said I wouldn’t be doing and that is playing too many correspondence games.
I have fourteen postal games going and this looked set to be a bureaucratic nightmare if I didn’t sort out a system. Already I have misinterpreted a couple of postcards, played incorrect moves and only later discovered that I didn’t know where I was. Fortunately the moves I made weren’t blunders and at such an early point in the game they still work as openings, albeit not the openings I was trying for.
So I have set up a system. I have bought black and white A5 folders for each game corresponding to the colour I’m playing. On the spine of the folders I have a label with the event, my opponents name and the game number. Inside in the front section I have the correspondence, then a divider, a scoresheet, then a pad of paper for my analysis. I have cut up two cardboard chess logbooks (with the plastic pieces) and glued one game page to the back of each folder that I can fold out next to the pad. This allows me to look at the position while I analyse – I’ll also have my chess set with me to move pieces around.
My six ICCF postal games have started and yesterday I paid for entry into yet another ICCF match of six postal games – this is as many as I plan to take on. They are classed as World Individual Open games and are designed for people who are either unrated or have ratings below 1900. I look forward to receiving mail about my next opponents. The opening white move by my Finnish opponent was 1.c4 ‘The English’. I have rarely played this, typically I play 1. e4 and steer towards a Ruy Lopez or for variety I try 1.b4 ‘Polish/ Sokolsky/ Orangutang’ opening. I am also reasonably familiar with 1.d4 since it is played against me often enough.
So I am faced with the English, never a pleasant prospect in chess or otherwise. My first step is always to think about what would be the best move but at this stage of the game it is hard to decipher what a moves impact would be. Openings have developed by trial and error into complex well studied systems and it seems that at this stage my best plan would be to familiarise myself with the opening. Here is a bit of background to the English Opening from Wikipedia.
The English Opening is a chess opening that begins with the move:
A flank opening, it is the fourth most popular and, according to various databases, anywhere from one of the two most successful to the fourth most successful of White’s twenty possible first moves. White begins the fight for the centre by staking a claim to the d5 square from the wing, in hypermodern style. Although many lines of the English have a distinct character, the opening is often used as a transpositional device in much the same way as 1.Nf3 – to avoid such highly regarded responses to 1.d4 as the Nimzo Indian and Grunfeld defences, and is considered reliable and flexible.
The English derives its name from the unofficial English world champion, Howard Staunton, who played it during his 1843 match with Saint Amant and London 1851, the first international tournament. It did not inspire Staunton’s contemporaries, and only caught on in the twentieth century. It is now recognised as a solid opening that may be used to reach both classical and hypermodern positions. Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen employed it during their world championship matches. Bobby Fischer created a stir when he switched to it from his customary 1.e4 late in his career, employing it against Lev Polugaevski and Oscar Panno at the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal in 1970 and in his 1972 world championship match against Boris Spassky.
Ideally I should, at this stage, buy books called ‘The English Opening… ‘, this would be in keeping with my luddite philosophy but I was never taught chess and have never really been comfortable with algebraic notation. When I read a series of moves it is a foreign language that I have to painstakingly translate on the board into a visual medium. Videos, databases, and book openings are much easier for me to use and they are what I can find on computers. An example would be https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVMWeenxN6M by a GM called Dereque Kelley.
In my game we have moved 1.c4 Nf6 (being the Anglo Indian Defense, Mikenas Carls Variation of the English Opening – phew – and, according to the database I’m using it is the most popular reply to 1.c4) 2. Nc3 (the third most popular move and a tenth as popular as the number one choice of 1. d4) g6 (second most popular behind e5). This position is shown at the top of the page. I chose g6 because I have been enjoying playing as black against the Grunfeld and I hope that by choosing this I can persuade my opponent to transpose into the Grunfeld though the stats of him doing this are against me. We will see.
I simultaneously started 6 games in my first ICCF webserver tournament. The tournament was the previously mentioned ‘Australian Bicycle B12’ match and the games progressed at different paces. With each game I chose moves first without reference to any material and then I sought to check whether my thoughts were accurate by reviewing book opening, watching videos about the relevant openings and studying old games in online databases. I never used a computer to analyse future moves and never intend to. Some games followed historical games for many moves and others moved out of known games fairly early on. Sometimes this was driven by opponents and at other times this was my choice.
The critical position in the game I would finish first is shown at the top of this post and I hope you can see it. It follows the moves:
I am currently playing a number of correpondence games. Five on Chess.com, six on the International Correspondence Chess Federation’s webserver, five on a webserver called Scheming Minds and, my favourites, six postal ICCF games that I previously mentioned. This is, in my opinion, too much. I have however nearly stopped playing blitz games so that has freed up some chess headspace.
Chess.com is not affiliated with FIDE as far as I know and the games, though they are mini tournaments, are casual. I am treating my games here lightly and will often move on intuition. I do sometimes take the time to use their ‘game explorer’ facility to check my thoughts on openings. My rating here, after 21 games (10w, 3d, 8l), is 1515 and my average opponent is rated 1520. Two games were against a player rated 1707 who aborted his games so my rating is inflated but it is encouraging to see that deeper thought has yielded better results.
My ICCF webserver games are only part way through. My first game was very encouraging and I felt very much in control and won. My next two were losses and I have three more that are ongoing. I don’t have a rating yet for this but I have googled my opponents and they have reasonable chess net presences so I think they are quite good.
While looking at the ICCF website to choose games I noticed a team called Scheming Minds. I googled them and discovered that they are a webserver based correspondence club and a member of the British Federation for Correspondence Chess. It is hard to resist a club called ‘Scheming Minds’ so I have joined as a trial member. The name comes from The Adventure of the Retired Colourman By Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes notes that “Amberley excelled at chess – one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind.”, there website is here: http://www.schemingmind.com/default.aspx . It has been good and I have chatted with a few players there and it seems like a friendly place. I started playing fairly seriously but that level of thought is slipping.
My plan is to wind down to 12 postal games through the ICCF and six webserver games through Scheming Minds – which is still probably too much. I will use Chess.com for their huge amount of information and to blitz games occassionally.
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.
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.