The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Name: Russell G. Black
Age: As old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth.
Occupation: Chess instructor for the city of Pleasanton, CA., working with kids at the elementary school level (chess coach at Mohr Elementary School) and offering chess instruction for adults/evenings.
Current rating: 2167 (USCF/23 games/#12724051), 2393(ICCF/13 games/#513968)
Current Tournaments: ICCF 15th US Open (preliminary round with 9.5 points), ICCF 1st Email Prelims (still pending), ICCF Jubilee Prelims.
Past contributions: Co-authored an article with Dr. Hans Berliner titled, "Grunfeldindisch unter Angriff", for the Jan.-Mar. 2001 issue of Kaissiber magazine.

Russell G. Black
Russell G. Black

Playing by the Rules
a commentary by Russell Black

Chess is not a "play fair and win" sort of game. At least that is what I tell my students each and every week. Of course, this is only true from a certain point of view. The best chess players are certainly masters of the swindle, the con, and the sneaky tactical shots needed to win the game. We all strive to leave our victims broken, bleeding and moaning in agony, looking for any and every opportunity to toss them in front of a speeding semi-rig (metaphorically speaking), while patting ourselves on the back for our ingenuity.

All of this "unfair" imaginary blood letting takes place, however, within the context of a game that is played according to a certain set of rules. These rules are absolute. Pawns don't move like knights and you can't castle your king if you move it prior to castling, etc. The rules of the game must be followed or you are not playing chess. I don't know what you'd call it, but it would not be chess. Even though chess is not a "play fair" game, it must be a "play by the rules" game.

This brings us to the subject of those rules outside of the actual game itself, the rules observed by players who compete against one another in a tournament setting. These rules are not specifically part of the game, but exist so that some sense of order can be maintained in a competitive arena. They are rules more of behavior and ethics than of how chess is technically played.

When you sit down to play a game of chess with a friend, over a bowl of chips and sodas on a quiet Saturday afternoon, the game is rather low key. I doubt very much that we would force our best friend to move the first piece touched, or hold them to time limits or worry about a retracted move (I do, but then I'm a cold, heartless beast).

Tournament chess, on the other hand, is and should be "chess for blood." These events usually have nothing more at stake than a trophy or a title (some people actually think these are important - go figure), but that's not the point. They are sanctioned events, gladiatorial in every sense of the word, and are governed by certain rules of decorum and etiquette. Violators risk the wrath of the dreaded TD (tournament director). In OTB (over the board), this happens in real time, on the spot, and the purveyor of bad behavior can be immediately placed on the rack and tortured. But what about correspondence play?

We have rules over in CC (correspondence chess), as well. They are a little more complicated to follow and some of the rules actually contradict each other at times, but there are rules none the less. Absolutes. The problem in CC play is that many of these rules go ignored by both players and TDs alike. The question is, "Why?" Is it the fact that we never see our opponent? It is because CC play seems more relaxed than OTB? Is it because some of us resemble the Morlocks from H.G. Well's "The Time Machine"? Or is it the case (this is probably correct, so pay attention), that we as players must become the "rules police"? If my opponent fails to reply within the fourteen day time limit, who is responsible for enforcing it? If my opponent sends a move which can't be played, who charges him a penalty of five days? The answer is that I do, not some TD. Maybe this is the reason why so much of the "bad" CC behavior goes unpunished. These are the days of Generation X and "it's not my responsibility." When you run to the TD in an OTB game with a misconduct charge, he plays the heavy, he gives the opponent the boot. In CC play, you are the one taking up the mantle of Dirty Harry. I believe deep down that this makes a large number of players uncomfortable. Most of us are taught to "be nice" and to "play well with others." Avoiding conflict and arguments is the rule of the day. Sometimes, it is far easier to overlook an opponent's indiscretion than it is to apply the penalties. Of course, that's no excuse! And some of the TDs are simply not that supportive. No excuse there either. So, the problem in CC play is twofold:

  1. Players who break the rules and go unpunished, and…
  2. Players and TDs who don't enforce the rules.

Let's take a look at a few of your typical "rule breakers" so you will know them by their actions.

First there is Mr. Newbe. This individual is "new" to the tourney scene. Fresh from single match play and armed with a minimum 2000 rating, Mr. Newbe is not a rule breaker on purpose, but will make mistakes based on a lack of experience. On Start Date, Mr. Newbe will be flooded with moves and will always be scrambling to catch up. Mr. Newbe was not prepared for the demands of a twelve player section, so have some compassion for him and explain the rules of play gently. We need Mr. Newbe or it will be just us old timers playing in our bathrobes.

Next we have Mr. Oops. This player, by accident or design, just can't seem to get it right. He sends you moves that don't make sense and always with an "Oops I'm sorry…" attached to his reply. One or two mistakes can happen to anyone (don't I know it), but Mr. Oops makes a career of it. Again, this could be a well meaning player who is just disorganized, so respond gently but firmly and when too many mistakes have passed under the bridge, inform the TD and see if that helps.

Another player is Mr. Ostrich. This guy will play for a while then bury his head in the sand and you will never hear from him again. The "silent withdrawal" of a player who, for whatever reason, is not polite enough to say, "I got in over my head and I can't continue." Who knows why Mr. Ostrich enters a tourney in the first place? We never hear from him!

Now we come to the real villain of CC play, Mr. Timeshifter. This person likes to change the time on the clocks at every opportunity. You can spot him easily because he never tells you the "time received" on his reply. He just gives you his "time used" (you are lucky sometimes to get that), and always takes twice as long to move as everyone else. Now I'm not deriding slow play (actually I am, but who's paying attention?), but does it take twelve to fourteen days to make a move? The rules don't make matters any better with this "received today is zero days until tomorrow midnight" nonsense. In OTB when the clock is punched, time's ticking. In CC play the clock doesn't even start running for two days! Mr. Timeshifter now gets eighty days to make ten moves (rather than 60). He will save time for the first ten to fifteen moves then slow play down to a crawl. Mr. Timeshifter will force you to send repeat after repeat after repeat. He will always dance right at the edge of losing on time, and will complain loudly if you penalize him. Mr. Timeshifter has several excuses for his actions, and most of them revolve around the idea that he never got your card/email, or that he sent his reply weeks ago and it must be lost. There is one good thing about Mr. Timeshifter, he usually doesn't play a great game. He misses the best moves even with all the extra time he has at his disposal. Maybe that is his real excuse after all.

Does this sound cynical? Maybe, but I've seen these guys time and time again for the last thirty years. They breed more of the same. I stopped competitive play over twenty years ago because of what I've termed the "Fischer Complex." Now, I respect Bobby Fischer's brilliance on the board and value his games even to this day, but I never agreed with his "behavior." The delaying tactics, the prima donna attitude, the obnoxious and rude treatment of others, etc. And it seemed to invade chess players like a virus back then. Most of the players in my area wanted to be Fischer, but since they could never match his brilliance in play, they more than made up for it with attitude. Being rude and overbearing became an art form. After a few years of trying to deal with this, I gave up competitive play.

I recently returned to tournament play and I thought that after twenty years this bad behavior would have died out by now. To my surprise, it still lives and is being perpetuated by chess players who have very little to offer the chess world other than attitude.

The old saying, "All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing," is certainly true. If we, as players, allow an opponent to get away with bad behavior, then we are just as guilty of the behavior as they are. It's the player's responsibility to see that his or her game is played on the up-and-up. It's also the responsibility of the TDs to do their jobs when a problem rears its ugly head. There is no excuse for a TD who, once being notified of a problem, is lax in dealing with the situation. Just remember, you are not only a player in a CC tournament, but an official with the responsibility to adhere to and apply the rules of play.

I suppose that we, as a community of players, are ultimately responsible for this sad state of affairs. We never truly said that bad behavior was wrong. We put Fischer up on that pedestal and hung the "hero" title on him. We never punished our own "chess children" for their bad behavior and have found out that in sparing the rod, we have indeed ended up with spoiled chess brats. Now we expect them to "play by the rules" after we told them that breaking the rules was the height of excellence. What should we do with the mess we've created?

The way to deal with these issues is rather simple, Play By The Rules! If your opponent breaks a rule, inform him of it. If a penalty is due, then apply it. If your opponent disagrees, he can always take the matter to the TD for a final ruling. Any error in play, a typo, a wrong move, should be capitalized on and you should use it to your advantage. You should use all available "legal" means and materials to help you win games. These "legal" sources vary from tournament to tournament, but there is one constant - the best CC players are the ones with the most knowledge.

One final thought. Considering that we want to see chess as an Olympic sport someday, maybe we should think about how we look to others. No one would stand for Olympic competitors breaking rules. Athletes who do so are usually thrown out and their medals confiscated. Rude behavior may work for professional basketball players (I guess when you make $3 million plus a year you have the right to be obnoxious), but it has no place in the sport of chess. If we ever hope to gain Olympic status for our "Game of Kings," I think we all should start to grow up and "play by the rules" once more and treat chess as an honorable endeavor. We should be as royal knights, jousting to gain the favor of our peers, not as whining, sniveling brats who cheat.

Maybe this is why the world at large views chess as just a trivial game. If we, who play it, don't take it seriously, why should anyone else?

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