The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"The Campbell Report" - September/October 1994

The Illegal Use of Computers in Postal Chess

Several times in the past I've received notes from postal chess competitors worried about the use of computers by their opponents and about what the chess computer meant to the future of postal chess. The rule against receiving help is almost self-administrating when it comes to human helpers. After all, how often is a person willing to help someone else with a postal chess game. However, with a computer things are different. You can plug the position into your computer and let it run all night calculating the best move. And you can do this on every move, not just occasionally as with a human helper. With computers constantly getting stronger the advantage of using a computer to help in a postal chess game is getting greater all the time.

Even with an inexpensive, simple chess computer or commercially available software program a weaker postal player may improve play considerably by eliminating simple oversights, such as leaving a piece hanging or allowing a fork. By using the computer as a "practice opponent" you can test your play many times constantly refining and expanding your understanding of the position. While this is a wonderful way to use a computer to work on your opening selections and to improve your overall play this is still strictly against the rules when the position is from a game in progress.

The situation is clouded, in my opinion, by the traditional use of books and other reference materials by the postal chess competitor. This practice is legal under all rules of postal play that I've ever seen. By extension the use of computer databases for opening research is generally deemed legal since it is little different from using books and magazines. It is clear that the player with a large database to search has a big advantage over a less fortunate player. OTB players have no similar extension to their approach to play since the use of reference material of any sort during the game is strictly forbidden. Computers may affect the way OTB adjournments are handled, but they can't help a player during the game.

I am a fan of computer software for studying chess, training, record-keeping, correspondence and enjoying chess. My letter-writing has gone up 25-fold since I started using a word processor. Until recently I didn't share some of my fellow postalites' concerns about the impact of chess computers on postal competition. But now I'm not so sure. The fact that it is impossible to enforce any rules concerning the use of computers creates difficulties for the maker of the rules of play. Maxwell J. Lawrence, founder and tournament director of the Transcendental Chess organization, eliminated the potential problem in his organization by explicitly allowing the use of computers in TC competitions.

Most organizations do not allow the use of computers to analyze current game positions. I feel this is appropriate. However, the player who "bends" the rules can obtain an unfair advantage over his opponent. I think it is likely that many postal competitors illegally make use of computers to help them determine their moves. However, I don't understand the pleasure of unfairly winning in this way. It is possible that postal chess organizations will have to accept the reality of the situation and allow the use of computers, at least in some tournaments. Maybe we'll have a situation like the body-builders who have separate competitions for those who don't use steroids and those who do. I believe there should be some legal outlet for those who like to use computers in competition. Do any readers have opinions on this topic?

I would like to add some comments about the use of computer software to keep track of positions and deal with the record-keeping required in postal chess competition. This is a topic covered several times in past columns. I believe very strongly in the benefits of this kind of software. Indeed, some of the ideas contributed by readers to this column will find their way into the software package on which I'm currently working. I'm hoping to finish it before my next column, but that will be a difficult goal to reach. The logic for determining the legality of an entered move and generating the appropriate chess notation for every legal move has been challenging and educational. I'm also going to support TC chess rules for those that enjoy that variant. Thanks to everyone who sent their thoughtful suggestions for such a software package.

My software package will run under Windows, which requires a fairly powerful PC system. For those who use less powerful systems or want a mature software package there is EGA Chess, a system I've had recommended to me by another APCT member. This system has been around for quite a while so the bugs should all be worked out by now. I have a review copy of the program and hope to have a review of this product for my next column.

If you're anxious to get more information right away about EGA Chess please contact Mr. Lloyd L. Land at the following address: Cube Microsystems, P. O. Box 26064, Overland Park, KS 66225. The program is available on either 3.5 or 5.25 diskettes and requires EGA/VGA or Hercules graphics and at least 512K memory. EGA Chess is a chess recording/playback system with a postal chess feature allowing updating your game position and printing addresses, the last five moves made and a simple diagram of the position on standard printer labels for sticking onto postcards. The price is $36.95 including postage. Order from the address given above.

My Chess Set Is Almost Dead!

Most postal chess players probably have a routine they follow to analyze their current positions. I certainly have mine. I keep all my current positions in a Post-A-Log notebook and only make moves in the notebook that have actually been made in the game. To analyze a position I transfer it to a small magnetic set. At any time I can return the magnetic set position to the current position by looking at the Post-A-Log diagram. I've used the same little magnetic set for at least the last 15 years and ones of the same design for years before that. I've bought replacement sets but I always return to the old set. The new ones are made of inferior materials, the little disk pieces are just stamped instead of solid color with molded pieces glued to the disks. The new boards tend to tear or buckle and the disk pieces don't immediately differentiate from one another. And there is never enough extra space for the captured pieces. Who designs these things? ... certainly not serious c hess players who have to use them!

So now I'm facing a serious problem. My little folding 8"x7" chess board marked "Made in England" with red disks with white molded pieces and white disks with black molded pieces (1/2-inch in diameter) is coming apart. My attempts to find a replacement have been total failures. The other designs of hand-held sets I've tried, such as peg sets and three-dimensional magnetic sets, have been inferior in some way, such as the pieces haven't been easily differentiated or the pieces wouldn't stay put. I demand the clarity of a well-printed chess diagram and ease of use. For analysis sitting at my desk I should find my new postal chess software package ideal (when finished). But for those times I want to analyze on my living room couch, in bed or out of the house I need my prized magnetic set. I suspect many of you will understand when I say I feel like I'm losing an old friend!

"Taking Back Moves" Discussion Continues

A recent addition to the APCT family William T. Alexander of Birmingham, Alabama sent me the following:

"I enjoy reading "The Campbell Report." I'm new to APCT (1/31/94) but have purchased many back issues and have read all your work in those. I wanted to put my 2 worth in on "Taking Back Moves."

"I ask myself why I play chess. I enjoy it and (play) to win. There are basically two ways to win: outplaying your opponent or getting a point. I don't want you to give me a point, I want to beat it out of you.

"I feel no satisfaction winning without trying whether the game is a sport or an art. I play to prove my ideas and strategy are better than my opponent's, not that I can keep records better. If I win my way, oh, how sweet it is. But if someone drops his Queen on move five that's too bitter for me to swallow. I'll spit that serving out and ask for another."

Thanks for your comments, fellow APCT'er. I believe many other members will agree completely with your well-stated position. And I'm glad you went to the trouble to read a number of back issues. I think the APCT membership is well served by this excellent magazine. I also received the following from APCT'er Michael C. Mays of Bellevue, WA:

"Your articles in APCT News Bulletin re postal chess rules on taking back moves compels me to comment with more 'food for thought.' Last year I lost a USCF semi-final game due to - without a doubt - a most obvious notational error. Playing white in an opening transition to middle game, my plan was to double rooks utilizing open file - hence Rd1 to d3 & Rfd1. Inadvertently, I wrote down 'Rd6' for an easy pawn captures Rook which ruined the game for white and me. My opponent - one of the APCT Top Thirty - insisted move played and when I appealed to him in the essence of fair play/sportsmanship, stubbornly refused 'to move' from his position - the Rook move final.

"This tournament loss simply ruined my tournament entry/section and has left a 'sour' taste to this day. I feel/felt my opponent's behavior was the worst case of sportsmanship I have witnessed on the chess board. Then, to add insult to injury, I challenged the player to a match --- his response, 'too busy.'

"There are many of us players who play for enjoyment and/or financial/medical reasons. Due to a circulation problem resulting from three operations I can't play OTB because a sitting position is the worst position for a leg circulation problem. Hence, to play chess I am limited to postal chess. I simply don't understand an 'obsessive adherence' to postal rules and why any player would obtain any enjoyment out of winning games from a obvious notational error as ... in my loss. ...

"Now I know/realize there are those who will argue that a rule flexibility re take backs would create problems re 'prove' intent a source of problem. Also, does a player 'have to' offer his opponent a take-back(?). In a case where the players cannot agree if a notational error (occurred), provide for an appeal process with the decision final ... This would provide an opportunity for the players to be heard and permit a decision from an uninvolved player with both players in fairness having the opportunity to be heard. ... The authority would only permit take backs when it is clear the move is an obvious notational error and not a play mistake.

"Another possible alternative ... provide some separate sections allowing for take backs with the appeal process as previously described. Why not try it and test its application -- clearly nothing to lose and it would provide a choice for players who advocate a take back rule ...Instead of continuing endless debate re yes takebacks or no takebacks, let's provide a choice again that is fair and responsible to all players and simply put this question/debate 'to bed' or 'to rest' -- simply give postal players a choice of how they desire/choose to play the game!!

"Thank you Franklin for the opportunity to express my thought and an alternative choice for 'food for thought' giving both sides an opportunity to play with or without no takeback 'carved in stone' rule. I am sure all of us desire to enhance the play/pleasure of CC and hope for more player participation/enjoyment. I feel strongly we need to try/experiment with new ideas and see if it can benefit/enhance postal chess for more players and achieve/increase more active participation re quantity and quality."

Thanks for your thoughts on this difficult topic, chessfiend Mays. I had to edit your letter considerably because of space restrictions but hopefully I included your most important points and conveyed your meanings accurately. You made some rather interesting and thought-provoking suggestions, especially the one about an independent authority to decide on the 'notational error' question. There's no question that many notational errors are plainly obvious -- without question. One problem is the extra over-head for the tournament director. Personally I'm only too happy to challenge my opponents not only to make good chess moves but to keep accurate records and use correct notation as well. For me it is not only playing chess but competing in all areas, including avoiding notation errors. The thought of being labeled a bad sport for not allowing my opponent to take back a notation error is indeed unpleasant. I agree with Mr. Ned Walthall quoted in my previous column when he said,

"If the rules say the move counts, they don't give me a choice. They don't give my opponent a choice. We can concentrate on chess, and be friends."

Perhaps your idea of separate sections for those allowing or not allowing take-backs is good. However, it is another headache for the organizer. Perhaps a small fee could be charged for each request for determination of notation error. This would compensate the organizer or tournament director for the additional work involved. I'm sure a number of active APCT tournament players would volunteer to act as a "higher authority" to determine the validity of a notation error claim. A time-penalty for delaying the game would also seem appropriate. Maybe the "take-back" issue will run out now ... or maybe it won't. It seems to be a most dynamic topic with a lot of emotional content. Perhaps the new topic of computer use in postal chess discussed at the top of this column may generate a whole new set of interesting contributions from the APCT membership.

copyright © 1998 by J. Franklin Campbell

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