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BIO for Tom Halfpap

Tom is 51 years old, married, and works as a software development consultant for the Wisconsin Paper Group Shippers Association. He started playing postal chess in 1970 with USCF, and later with APCT. After that he "went international" with ICCF events while serving aboard a navy ship stationed in the Far East. As navigator of a destroyer, he worked with a computer that communicated with a network of orbiting satellites, a system that pioneered what is known today as GPS (Global Positioning System). This experience led him to pursue and receive a bachelor's degree in computer science after his naval service.

Thanks to his wide travels, he also played many OTB games with foreign players, including Iranians (in Iran before 1979), Russians, Philippinos, Chinese and Japanese. He jokes: "I got my ears boxed by the Iranians (Persia: the birthplace of chess!), and by the Russians (the Singapore Slings in Singapore had something to do with it!), but I played against many different styles and held up well, while still learning a few things." He believes that this international experience helped mold his eclectic playing style. Accordingly, he believes that serious chess players should compete in international events in ICCF in order to expand and enrich their chess horizons. And doing it by mail, as opposed to email, they can also build fantastic stamp collections!

Tom was co-winner of the 15th US CC Championship preliminary section US15P04, and will advance to the final. He is planning to write a book (with CD) on chess position analysis, a collection of techniques he has developed and used over a period of 30+ years in chess. It is intended for serious OTB and CC players who are willing to take a somewhat radical new look at the game for advancing their skills and improving their game.

Overcoming Sins of the Past
by Tom Halfpap

It had been over 10 years since I played in an ICCF section. And then a few days after I happened to surf to the ICCF website to send an email about something, I received a letter from the ICCF-US Secretary: It was an invitation to play in the 15'th US Correspondence Chess Championship. The invitation was as flattering as it was unexpected, and I accepted. The tournament would be a serious challenge for me because I had always been in chess for the FUN of it, and had spent years in what I can only call "experimental" mode, not only in openings, but in the study of exchange compensation. I would have to get serious for this event. Like Max Zavanelli, the ICCF U.S. Secretary, stated in a letter to the players: "This is the United States Championship, not tiddlywinks!"

Like many thousands of others, I started playing chess in the Fischer-era boom. My startup library consisted of Chess The Easy Way by Reuben Fine. I put in my time learning the elementary e4 openings, and then switched to d4 for want of games with a deeper plot. That introduced me to the Queen's Gambit and its galaxy of related openings, the study of which taught me the fundamentals of positional play, and led me to study the great games of history (from Steinitz onward) in order to observe the development of chess thought.

I had started playing in weekend Swiss tournaments just like everybody else, but as a guitar player in rock bands, I eventually dropped them because my Friday and Saturday nights became constantly booked. During this period, I dropped chess and resumed it several times. This is when the idea of correspondence chess hit me: I could continue playing competitive chess in my own good time while still making money playing the clubs, dances and weddings on weekends.


I started out playing the Sicilian vs. e4, but soon switched to Alekhine's defense. It seemed there were too many Sicilian "authorities" at tournaments, and I wanted something different. It never occurred to my training partner and me that this was a switch to what the "normal" chess world in the early 70s considered an eccentric playing style. (Page Duncan Suttles!) Though we took a lot of flak for it, we held our ground by scoring wins in postal and tournament games.

For a while, it seemed I was winning with the Alekhine nearly on novelty value alone, but opponents eventually got booked-up on it, and it wore out its welcome. Meanwhile, I had become enamored of the Pirc/Modern defense watching the state's top experts use it to win tournaments, and I adopted it. And why not turn to the Sicilian, like the rest of civilization? I wanted to stay away from book, to explore less familiar paths. I did have some success with the Pirc/Modern, until I realized it was simply a bad choice against higher-rated players. I was always winding up in needlessly intense and complicated battles, however heroic my efforts. Trying to salvage a game against an expert attacking player was about as easy as trying to land a B-17 bomber shot full of holes and with the landing gear missing. I can still hear the reproach of fellow players ringing in my ears: "Get your butt into the Sicilian!!"


When I started playing serious chess, the "Russian exchange" was a hot topic of the day. Normally, exchanges are simply "clearances" of material. But, as Russian players were demonstrating, you might undertake trading a bishop for a rook, or a rook and bishop for a queen. Why? Like a disturbance in "The Force", there would have been a disturbance in "The Balance." The point of the exchange would not be what material had left the board (as inexperienced players are want to focus on), but what imbalance (inaccuracy, oversight, mistake, etc.) had caused the disturbance in the first place, and what resulting situation remained on the board. The instigator would likely be left with a superior position and/or the initiative as part of the exchange bargain, and with proper play would win the game.

I quickly endorsed the concept--to the point where I developed a sort of cavalier disregard for material. After developing in the opening, I would actually go looking for sacrificial opportunities. I once even went on a sacrificial rampage against GM Arthur Bisguier in a simul! I lasted almost 50 moves with him, and resigned only after running out of material! What fun! But as a student of the game, I had used the occasion to pose this problem to the grandmaster: show me how to beat off a hostile attack, however unpredictable and violent. (This is the problem I so often faced as black in the Pirc/Modern!) The game could be a lesson right out of Nimzovitch's My System. GM Bisguier, remaining calm and positional, cashed in his material advantage of the middlegame for an irresistible advantage in the endgame. The lesson for me was that I had discovered the Limit of Reason in conducting a game of chess! I knew I could have played a technically better game against him, but a boring draw would not have caused me to remember the game past Tuesday. The masterful repulse of my sacrificial attack did. And I never again tried so frivolous a plan against such an experienced player.

As a baseball announcer on television, Dizzy Dean used to say: "Now, kids, you don't never wanna do thatů" when describing how a professional player would violate some rule of play. Similarly, you'd think this article was a discussion on how NOT to succeed in chess. But it's not. My aunt, a prolific artist and art teacher, once told me: "You've got to know the rules before you can break them." This has to be the best advice I've ever gotten from anyone, because it applies so beautifully to learning chess. To me, learning the rules, i.e. the journey of gathering chess experience in, say, your first 200-300 games, has to be the fun side of the game. You learn the rules while you learn the tools. And then, this pool of experience can be put to good use for any worthy occasion. As in any pursuit, there are "common" routes, "back" routes, and "unexplored" routes. It is up to individual performance to prove which routes are viable. But one thing remains clear: a sure way to the top is through practice, hard work and experience. And a little luck thrown in once in a while helps.

Realizing the gravity of playing in the 15 US CCC, I was in no mood to try experimental openings, so I decided: "To heck with the Pirc, I'm going with the Sicilian!" This turned out to be a good choice. After all, the world's top players can't be all that wrong! And, as far as conducting experiments in exchange compensation, individual creativity and positional play are the only governing factors. Each and every game presents its own unique opportunities, some of them buried in complications, some of them sitting before your eyes in broad daylight. Each player must call on his/her own intuition and experience to guide them safely through the twists and turns of the contest. And after that, there is always the next encounter to look forward to. The nice thing about chess, unlike life, is that you can always set up the pieces and play again! This is absolutely the best advice you can get about chess!


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