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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Advice on Playing Correspondence Chess

Here’s some general advice on playing correspondence chess whether it is being played by mail or, as is more popular these days, servers. The same general advice applies. This is a condensed version written by US Senior Master Mark Morss; his comments are in blue.

To begin, then, I advise that you carefully read and try to understand the rules under which you are playing. You don't have to be a stickler for the rules, but be aware that some of your opponents may be, and that the TD must be.

Indeed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard players whining because their opponent claimed the game on a timeout. Hey! That’s the rules and you can’t claim they were acting unsportsmanlike if they were playing by the rules. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was the loser who was acting in an unsportsmanlike manner. If I sign up for a tournament that requires so many moves to be made in so many days, guess what? That’s the time limit I expect everybody to abide by and if they don’t and are trying to stretch the time limit beyond what the rules call for, that’s not fair to everybody who is keeping the T/L.

Be courteous and engage in friendly banter with your opponent if he is so disposed. Be charitable if your opponent sends you a remark that you don't appreciate; he was probably not intending to irritate you. If your opponent is obnoxious, don't be obnoxious in return. Just clam up and beat him.

You should be aware that social customs and sense of humor is not the same in all cultures. That said, I have noticed with the advent of the Internet a great increase in the number of genuine, obnoxious snots who are trying to irritate you. I you run into one, don’t answer a fool in his folly.

If you are fairly sure what the right move is, don't spend a lot of time agonizing, but simply play it. Even if you are highly uncertain which move to play, often the best policy is simply to select the move most consistent with basic chess principles and play it.

Analyzing the position for three more days, or thirty, will not increase your understanding of chess. But every game does have its highly critical phases, so save your time for the really important, difficult moves, and then use fully as much time as you need. When you have a move already prepared, don't send it if some new doubt emerges, but keep it and extra day or two and check the position to resolve your doubts.

The old saying, think long, think wrong applies.

Avoid too much reliance on analysis. It is very easy to be drawn down strange, unchesslike pathways if too much of your thinking is of the "if-then" type.

I noticed this phenomenon years ago when reading Thought and Choice in Chess. It seemed as though the lower rated the player was the more indecisive they were and they tended to look at many more moves and in many cases, analyze deeper than masters. The result of all the “if I play here, he plays there” type of thinking was that more often than not they ended up thoroughly confused. Unless there are a lot of forced tactical lines that must be examined, limit your attention to the first 3-4 moves that occur to you and don’t try to analyze more than maybe 3 or 4 moves deep. It’s more important to make a correct evaluation of the position after 3-4 moves than it is to try and calculate 10 moves ahead and be wrong. Also remember that unless the two players are very strong, more often than not they are thinking along completely different lines, thus rendering pags after page of variations useless.

It is important to develop a "chess conscience" that worries you when seductive possibilities violate good chess principles. If you know a strong player who has given you instruction in the principles of chess, try to hear in your head that player's voice commenting on your candidate moves (yes, I have a strong chessfriend whose voice I imagine I hear).

My favorite player is Samuel Reshevsky and I’ve played over many, many of his games. On occasion I’ve asked myself, “What would Reshevsky play?” I’m pretty sure I’m usually wrong, but it still helps me to be objective.

Unless it is demanded by the situation, do not risk defeat by trying to force a win. It is much better to play solid, principled moves, without much immediate purpose, than to play highly purposeful but less solid moves. The duration of a correspondence game is a long, long time to suffer in a bad position, so your main task is to avoid sending a bad move. If you just shift your pieces around and do nothing unprincipled, you'll be amazed how often your opponents will send you bad moves.

This works equally well in OTB chess, too!

Do not play a move because it is beautiful or interesting, but only because it is efficient. The object of this game is to score, whether the full point or the half, and he who is wise strives to score simply.

Avoid style. Avoid Positional Syndrome, the victims of which are dead to all possibilities of sacrifice and attack. Shun too the oppositely hideous Attacker's Dementia and its extreme form, Gambit Psychosis, whose victims believe that they must play gambits or die of boredom. These and many similar, other diseases of the chess mind are typically induced by the unconscious desire to avoid learning anything more about chess.

When your opponent sooner or later errs and you have a won or nearly won game, that is the time to bear down hard and try to find the very best moves. To win a won game is the most important task of chess. Devote more time to your won positions than your lost ones. A mistake in a lost position counts for very little, but you lose a full point if you blunder in a won position, and losing half the point is easier still.

When I have a lost or nearly lost position try to find ways to steer the game into complications. The test of a good move in a bad position is whether it sets the opponent difficult problems, not necessarily whether it saves the game. If there is absolutely no chance of its doing so. When the cause is truly lost and your opponent is strong, it is often best to give up and devote the time instead to your other games.

When, or even if you should resign, is always open to debate. Even former US CC Champions Ed Duliba advocated dragging lost games out as long as possible in an attempt to annoy or frustrate your opponent, thereby hoping they will make a mistake. Personally, it depends on my opponent when I resign. If he is lower rated, I won’t be so quick to resign, but if he is a master, once I see it’s an easy win, I have enough sense to know he can see it too. At that point there’s no point in wasting my time so I’ll congratulate him and resign.

Study of endings, study endings, study endings. Endings are extremely frequent in correspondence chess. At least they are when you get to the higher levels where people don’t make a lot of blunders.It is a serious error to think you can consult an endings reference when the situation comes up. Precisely because endings happen at the end, understanding endings is fundamental to evaluating almost any chess position.

Yes. A few years ago my 1400 rated opponent played very solid chess and we reached a R and P ending where I was having trouble finding as clear winning idea so I traded down to the Lucena Position. That’s when I broke out Basic Chess Endings only to realize I had forgotten that not all similar positions are wins and I had handed him a draw and a bunch of rating points.

At one time, my advice to correspondence players was that they spend a great deal of time preparing an openings repertoire, doing a lot of research in their databases. Now my solution has been simply to jump in and play new systems that interest me, more or less unprepared. Rather than working out answers to difficult questions in advance, I wait until problems come up in play before trying to tackle them.

The very strong correspondence chess player Stephen Ham took issue with my claim that detailed openings preparation is unnecessary. Ham wrote:

I recognize that if one's goal is merely to have fun, then this is OK. Of course rolling the dice to generate moves may be fun for some people too. If however, the goal is to win more games and improve results (which is fun in and of itself!), then I believe one MUST thoroughly research their openings prior to playing serious chess.

If I were to advise somebody who's preparing for opponents all rated at least at the master level, my advice would be: "Know your Openings". If instead, the level of opposition is weaker, this opening study should produce even greater dividends. Yes, one needs to know how to play the middle-game and endings, but all things being equal, an opening advantage conveys a head start in the race to win the game.

Personally I think this is important only at the titled level of CC play. I did a brief survey of my CC games and discovered that against masters and up we usually left the book (actually my 3 million game db) at around moves 10-12. Against lower rated players it was often moves 6 or 8! Thus, knowing the correct plan to adopt was what is really important.

I really don't think that detailed openings study is the best way to make oneself a better chess player. Nor do I agree that such study in necessary in CC.

What is important is understanding the tactical themes, strategic goals and typical formations that arise from your openings. That will carry you a long way.

One needs then to look ahead, reviewing all the games one can find, survey the theory books, and work hard to try to find new ideas for both sides.

Don't be afraid to accept a draw in an equal position! Your thinking time is probably better spent on winning good positions and saving bad ones than on trying to find ways to win an equal one. [so long as equal is understood as "flat." In positions that are equal but dynamic, you should play for the point.]

I might add that as you approach the master level in CC you are going to find players making fewer and fewer gross tactical blunders. What that means is that to successfully compete against them you have to study strategy and endings. By compete I don’t necessarily mean beat them. I’ve played some very strong CC players (I’m talking about in the days before engines when I wasn’t playing Fritz, but real humans) and I expected to lose. But I also expected to let them know they’d been in a fight and were going to have to work for the win. One of my most satisfying games was in an OTB tournament. At the time I was rated ~1700 and in the first round found myself paired against a well-known master. There were a dozen spectators throughout the whole game and we both worked very hard. Of course I ultimately lost but that wasn’t the point. He’d been a few minutes late and came in and sat down without looking at the wall chart so he was unaware of my rating. After the game he asked what it was and when I told him he said, “Are you (expletive deleted) me? I thought it was about 2000.” That was a real ego boost!

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