The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Leaving postal chess behind
for every gain there is a loss

by J. Franklin Campbell
(posted 5 May 2003)

There has been much discussion about the demise of postal chess it's too slow; too expensive; too prone to transmission problems leading to lengthy delays or lost cards; you have to hand-write every card. In a recent TCCMB posting John Knudsen said,
      "The thought of physically filling out post cards makes me ill."
I'm certain that John isn't alone in that sentiment.

I, too, have been caught up in the more modern and faster-moving form of correspondence chess known as email chess. There's something really great and exhilarating about sending moves halfway 'round the world in minutes instead of weeks. The occasional lost email transmission can be easily dealt with by sending a second email repeat. Sending a move to Eastern Europe (normal transmission time six weeks) with the need to send a repeat meant around three months required for a single exchange of moves. Now that was discouraging.

The advantage of compression of time for a game by using email leads to some real advantages. Here are a few of them.

    1. With moves exchanged more rapidly the flow of the game is better, avoiding some of the loss of continuity often felt in postal chess.

    2. Tournaments, especially multi-round tournaments, can be finished in more reasonable time scales.

    3. If the players already have email service, the cost of postage (which increases frequently) can be avoided. I recall a few years ago that several Russian women had to drop out of a major event, the ladies' world championship I believe, simply because they could not afford the postage.

    4. Frequency of delivery is much higher. Instead of the six mail deliveries a week I've lived with for years, I now receive mail continuously, even on Sundays and holidays. Theoretically, I could even log on to the Internet while on a vacation or business trip and collect my email moves without waiting to get home (though I recall occasions when I called home and asked my understanding wife to read the cards to me).

    5. Intervention by tournament directors can be much easier and faster. A complaint can be emailed to the TD and she could collect information from both players very quickly using email. The TD could even require the players to copy her on every move of a problem game to allow absolute confidence that both players are sending moves and recording the time correctly.

There are other benefits to being on-line, not specifically based on transmitting moves by email.

    1. Reporting results to the TD is faster and easier.

    2. Dealing with archiving the games is easier, resulting in more complete records of events.

    3. On-line crosstables can be kept up-to-date.

    4. Corrections to published results/crosstables can be made quickly and easily.

    5. Cutting and pasting game scores and creating PGN databases of games is relatively easy.

    6. The possibility of "live" on-line coverage of games is an exciting possibility.

Man, all of this sounds so great! Why wouldn't everyone switch to email chess immediately and leave postal chess to the dusty past history of correspondence chess? There are disadvantages, of course. Every advance comes at some cost. A few of these disadvantages, some of them just temporary, are as follows.

    1. Moves can arrive so quickly that a player can feel the game is more like blitz than cc.

    2. Because of the practically instantaneous transmission of moves, most players can only play a third to half the number of games previously played by post. This means more care must be taken in selecting events. For many competitors this means playing in a single event at a time. Many invitational and other events comprise 14 games, a good size email load.

    3. A working email address must be maintained by each player, which can prove difficult. For instance, a Russian opponent was using an email domain which my email domain identified as a source of spam. They stopped accepting email from, and refused to send email to, my opponent's email domain. This never happened in postal chess!

    4. There is a psychological problem for some people having a batch of moves always waiting for response. For some I am sure this can be an advantage. For me it's a source of depression, knowing I'm constantly "behind" on my moves. As one player once said, there was never any "down time."

    5. There is a need to develop a new methodology, which can take some time. I was quite comfortable with the methodology I developed over decades of postal play. When I was first thrown into the email ring I found myself in unfamiliar territory and I made many mistakes based on the simple mechanics of play.

    6. Stamp and picture postcard collectors will suffer a real loss. A player will no longer have an interesting collection of cc artifacts (postcards) from exotic and far-away places. An email from Russia or Japan is just like an email from California or any other locale.

There's nothing new in the above. All these things have been discussed numerous times on TCCMB and other places. However, there is another more subtle loss that many may not notice may not miss. For some of us this is a significant loss. Just as people write with simpler handwriting than people of past centuries, people playing email chess play without some of the old tactile experience of postal chess. There's no more examining carefully crossed and obliterated moves on a card to determine what your opponent almost sent. I can recall writing down a move and wanting to change it. I would frequently write several legal and reasonable-looking moves on top of the one I wanted to mark out just to make it impossible for my opponent to figure out what I had decided against. If you held the postcard at the right angle with the right lighting you could sometimes detect what had been written and then overwritten with a splotch of ink. It could be exasperating, of course, to see that an opponent had written down a losing move only to change it before mailing!

Through the years I've formed my own special set of pleasures I've taken from postal chess. Some of these I still enjoy with email chess. I still design and print my own score sheets. Each move that arrives is carefully (lovingly?) hand written into my 3-ring binder on my own custom score sheets. If my computer crashes I may lose email contact with my opponents, but the moves are all safely stored in my binder. Other things have been lost, though.

I remember buying my first 9-pin dot matrix printer. I carefully shopped for a printer that would allow me to design my own chess font for printing chess diagrams. I carefully laid out each needed chess character for printing chess diagrams white pawn on white square, white pawn on black square, white knight on white square, etc. and then wrote a Basic program to load the special font to the printer. Every postcard I mailed had the current position printed on the card. Sometimes I'd share positions from other games with my opponent. Every game report to the TD had the final position of the game printed on the postcard.

More recently I used the Linares font in Word documents to print my postcards on an HP LaserJet printer. It felt odd when I sent that last postcard off in my last postal game. There was no competitive advantage to printing diagrams. In ICCF competition, supplying a diagram has no legal standing. A mistake in the position does not negate the move sent (in some organizations a supplied diagram must agree with the written moves or the move is considered ambiguous). I suppose I could have applied some "gamesmanship" and intentionally printed an incorrect diagram to try to trick my opponent. It did occur to me, of course, but I never tried that ploy.

I had a lot of fun writing my own programs to save information about opponents for printing on the postcards (such as name and address). I took a lot of pride in my self-developed chess font. I won't even go into the details about how the printer documentation I read before purchasing that first dot-matrix printer claimed a larger uploadable to the printer character set than actually existed. Losing 32 graphics characters required a complete redesign bummer!

I once wrote something that provoked chess journalist and master player Stephan Gerzadowicz to say something like, "I don't want to compete in record-keeping." I always felt otherwise. I actually enjoyed writing down the moves, insuring that I was analyzing the correct position, and avoiding notation errors. To me that was a big part of the game. With the advent of chess databases much of that has disappeared. I also analyze using ChessBase to keep my game score, set up the correct position to analyze and save all my game notes. I enjoy using the search feature to find games of interest, such as master games that reached the same position as one of my current games. For me the play of the game has evolved over the years as I've adopted more and more computer tools. Gone is the old Post-A-Log binder for keeping track of all my current positions. Sometimes I miss this, such as when I go to a doctor's appointment. My Post-A-Log use to accompany me everywhere. When I had a little time to kill I could either look at a position to develop ideas and make long-range plans or I could look at a won game and bask in the glow of the winning position.

Progress occurs as a computer programmer who had at one time planned a scientific or mathematical career I am willing to learn new skills and adapt to new circumstances and technological advances.. However, this doesn't mean I don't also appreciate the more sensual side of the game, the tactile appreciation of handling a postcard or moving a physical chess piece. I miss the noble postcard with all it's frailties. Of course, there's no turning back. I love the many advances such as email, the Internet and chess databases. But I never-the-less have nostalgia for some of the things that disappear with the end of postal chess. I may yet enter some postal events. I am hoping that when the ICCF server goes on-line that some of my perceived problems with email chess will be solved. But, just as we no longer arrange our silverware just so before meals and the women don't wear white gloves before Easter, certain things pass away never to return. I will miss some of those things that were so much a part of my postal chess experience.

© 2003 J. Franklin Campbell, All Rights Reserved.

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