In the same column Howell dealt with a dispute in a game played in an Ohio vs. Michigan correspondence match. The president of the Ohio Chess Association, Dr. Van Nuys, pointed out that it involved the much abused hypothetical move and this method of speeding up the game was abused by many players resulting in frequent disputes.
Back in the days when I played postal chess, the danger of “if” moves was still present; I rarely used them no matter how obvious the opponent's reply looked.
I remember reading of one unfortunate incident in which white played 1.d4. His opponent replied 1...g6 and sent the following message: “if any, then 2...Bg7.” By “any” black probably had in mind 2.c4 or 2.e4, or possibly a N move. But, he was surprised when white played 2.Bh6 and after the obligatory 2...Bg7, white played 3.Bxg7 and black had lost a Bishop and a Rook!
This was the position in the Ohio vs. Michigan game:
Black's last move (11...Ba6) was accompanied by an “if” move. “If 12.Q moves, d5.” White accepted the “if” move and played 12.Qxa6. The Michigan player tried to weasel out of his mistake and declined to play 12...d5, claiming that 12.Qxa6 “was not a move in that sense of the word.” I assume black was a politician in real life. White, who was apparently a nice guy, said he would move 12.Qb5, but black again refused to play 12...d5. Van Nuys' question to Howell was whether or nor the “if” move meant the Q was to move to a place of safety or did white have the right to play Qxa6? Howell's reply was, basically, rules are rules and have to be adhered to.
Chess played by post cards had a lot of problems besides those “if” moves. Recording errors happened occasionally. Once in a winning position one of the top rated correspondence players in the U.S. made one against me and was forced to resign. Fortunately for him, by that time I had become a Saint and offered him a draw which he accepted.
Cards that “went astray” were another common problem, especially if a player was in time trouble...”I didn't receive your last card.” was a common excuse.
Time disputes were not uncommon. In an early ICCF postal game I mailed 1.d4 to my Russian opponent and somehow lost by time forfeit. My complaint to the Tournament Director, who happened to be an East German, fell on deaf ears. To this day I am not sure how you can exceed the time limit after playing the first move.
There was another rule: Players who expect their games to go beyond two years must notify the Postal Chess Director. Failure to report to the Director meant the game was closed out as a draw. That's a long time to play a game. I had one Canadian opponent who worked on a pipe line north of the Arctic Circle and his mail was flown in once a week. 12 moves and a year later we agreed to a draw; postal chess just wasn't working out for him!
Moves might be written on a variety of cards. Some had diagrams on them, some were standard issue cards from the post office and some were picture post cards. Some opponents were chatty, some weren't, but you could pretty safely bet that opponents sending picture post cards would talk your leg off if given the opportunity. Unlike server play today, there was no way to turn off chat on a post card, so some guys just ignored even a simple note.
For international play you could buy an international air mail sheet (air mail cost more in those days) for 10 cents. They were flimsy blue paper sheets. You wrote on one side, folded it on the dotted lines into an envelop size and wrote the address on the “back.” My German was passable and a lot of players spoke English and German, so some chit chat was possible. Conversation and addressing cards or air mail sheets was difficult if your opponent was Russian. Who knows Russian?!
Disappearing players were a problem, too. Some guys just stopped playing. That was OK if you had a winning position. Although it was a pain, you could submit the game for adjudication. However, if after a year's worth of effort and in an equal position, when a guy disappeared it was just frustrating. At least some players had the decency to notify their opponents and the TD that they were withdrawing. Even then, the problem of having wasted time and effort was still annoying, but you had to realize that life happens.
It didn't happen to me, but one postal player whose opponent wouldn't resign in a lost position wrote him a note informing him, “My physician says my heart is in excellent shape.” Meaning he wasn't going to drop dead of a heart attack any time soon, so resignation was in order. The reply, “What does your psychiatrist say?”
It was rare to actually meet a postal opponent though I did on two occasions. One at an out of state tournament and one who let me know he'd be passing through town. He got off the turnpike and we met for coffee at the local Howard Johnson restaurant. Most weren't interested in you, they just enjoyed the game. Probably the biggest enjoyment came when you got a card that said “I resign.” You could gloat all day!
I played a few opponents who were in prison. Someone once asked me if I wasn't worried about them showing up at my home with a gun after they got out. I wasn't, but some people were and when entering a tournament you could specify that you didn't want to play them. The late Jim Schroeder, who ran a fund that supplied prisoners with books and sets, always claimed the recidivism rate among prisoners who played chess was way below that of those who didn't. I don't now where his stats came from, but I always tried to help out a little and he was appreciative.
The problem with playing prisoners was that it wasn't unusual for them to get caught up in some kind of situation where they couldn't get mail for a time...who knows why? One guy told me he was caught in a shakedown and officials confiscated his chess equipment for a while. One prisoner disappeared for a couple of weeks and exceeded the time limit. I got a card from him about three weeks later telling me he had been transferred to another prison and didn't have access to his chess stuff. I hadn't claimed the game so we continued. In one rather amusing incident my opponent was incarcerated for armed robbery. About half way through our game he got paroled. When he got out he informed me he was living in a halfway house and working in a gun factory.
In between postal and server play was email. It had the best and worst features of both worlds. The following game was one of my first email tournaments, but I am nor sure which organization it was with.