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Monday, October 15, 2012

Can I Continue to Play Correspondence?

Having entered a major CC event on LSS where engines are allowed, I have been giving some thought about playing chess this way. Places like ICCF, FICGS and LSS all allow engine use. The claim of all serious top-rated CC players is that chess engines have not and will not kill CC; they have just changed it. Maybe engines have not killed chess for them or for lower-rated players, but for some of us in-between players, that may not be the case.

      I started to play CC in the postal age using post cards and Glicher postal recorder albums. When computers entered the game I quit for a number of years and when I returned engines were playing at my level and I quickly discovered that even on sites which disallow them, most players at the expert and master level were using engines at least to some extent.
      I really like playing CC and at first did pretty good without the aid of engines, maintaining an CCLA/ICCF rating of around 2050. That was in the days of Fritz 5 but as engines got better and better, I have discovered that even with massive databases and refined opening books, in order to be really successful you need a more powerful computer than my two year old dual core laptop and you need the positional judgment of a 2300+ OTB player. It is also very time and money consuming. Obviously engines still have their weaknesses but it takes a very strong OTB player to ferret them out.
      The use of engines in CC is not cheating, whatever OTB players might think, if their use is allowed by the rules. CC is a game of analysis, and engines are now standard for that. In fact, conducting serious analysis nowadays without a computer is impossible even for world champions. Play over any game from pre-computer days and see how many analytical errors the annotator made.
      My problem is that engines are now far stronger than the people using them and as a result most CC games end up being simply engine matches. Now that engines are stronger than me, I simply can’t come up with anything better than the engines suggest and my dual core laptop isn’t powerful enough to compete with the stronger machines.
      Experience proves an average player like myself using an engine will not play as well as a GM using an engine. Engines still have a few weaknesses and GMs are good at taking advantage of them, but not me. Engines do not have perfect positional understanding no matter how long they think and if they have several moves of about equal value there is always a chance they will recommend an inferior one but how would I know? In the ICCF World Championships the usage of computers is allowed but you find very few relatively weak players doing well; the vast majority of top rated players are also very strong OTB. Obviously only a strong OTB player can understand and use the information coming out of the engine.
      Strong players can find moves that Houdini doesn't like but 5-10 moves down the road it may determine it is a good move. For me to do that, I’d have to experiment with dozens of moves and let the laptop run overnight to check each one, all of which is not practical time wise. In one of my current games on LSS against a player rated nearly 2300, Houdini and Critter show the top 4-5 moves as being nearly equal in value. I even tried out several different moves of my own. The result: both engines rated them equal with their own top recommendations. So, I have a choice of about a dozen moves the engines all rate about the same. How am I to know which is really the best? I don’t, but my 2300-rated opponent probably does.
      2400-rated players may talk about how easy it is to beat players who take an engine’s top few moves and simply play them, but for me, I have rarely been able to improve on an engine’s suggestions. As a result my LSS rating is gradually drifting downward and I see no hope of stopping it. Oh, sure, I’ve won a couple of games against titled CC players, but to offset that, have drawn or lost a few to players rated quite a bit below me and the results are about half my games are drawn and I have a measly +2 overall score for my efforts.

I am starting to have thoughts that CC may no longer be a feasible pastime for me.


  1. i am around 2250 otb and a little higher iccf and have same problem. i do not see much future for me in cc either. seems you have to be low rated and play people not using computers or be really strong else there is not much you can do.

  2. I don't regard centaur CC play as serious one, IMO it is good for computer geeks and theory nerds but not for real chess fighters. For the same reason I don't recognize last internal ICCF mickey-mouse champions as true CC champions. The real and the only right way of CC play is the without computers, of course with anti-cheating policy in place.