The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

JF Campbell
J. Franklin

The issue of players using chess engines (chess-playing software) to help analyze chess positions and generate moves in correspondence chess games has been an issue since chess-playing software first showed signs of intelligent play. Currently the commercial chess software plays at a high level, and the level continues to go higher each year. Rumors of chess players winning events at the highest levels by simply playing the moves indicated by their chess engines abound. Even world champions are rumored to have dozens of chess computers grinding away in their basements to help them beat their world-class opponents.

We frequently hear of players giving up correspondence chess and predictions of the coming demise of our beloved art/sport/science. Are chess computers such a threat to our game? Is correspondence chess in trouble? Do we need to take some extreme measures to save cc?

All these questions aren't answered below. But we need to think about these issues. Hopefully the following article will contribute to the discussion. Perhaps the situation isn't as bad as some people think. After all, a lot of people are getting a lot of pleasure from using their chess software. Removing all the short games from competition that were decided on terrible blunders can't be all bad.

-- Franklin Campbell

Computers in the World of Correspondence Chess
by J. Franklin Campbell
(posted 31 May 2005)

For some years the subject of the use of computers (chess engines) in correspondence chess (cc) competition has been discussed by the cc community. Here I am attempting to consider this issue from many different viewpoints and gather together a collection of the commonly felt opinions. There is no attempt to discuss the actual techniques of using computer engines. I'll leave that for others.

The issues involved have been discussed frequently in the past. GM Stephan Busemann (GER) published the article Using Computers in Correspondence Chess on the Internet years ago. I have received numerous comments from different viewpoints for my APCT columns over the years. My article Using Computers in CC Competition was published in Chess Mail in 1997 and reflects my thinking at that time. Following are my current, more up to date thoughts on the topic.

1. The ethics of using computer engines and other "outside" help

In my opinion, the ethics of using computer (and other) help during games cannot be separated from the rules of play. If the rules dictate no such use, then it is illegal and unethical to do so pretty simple. Some do not share this rather simplistic viewpoint, though, and claim that things cannot be considered ethical just because they are not forbidden by law. They can offer some convincing examples from political life and other real-life situations, but I claimed that chess is completely regulated by the rules of the game, unlike life, and wrote the article, The Rules Define the Ethics in 2003. Additional comments and reader input can be seen in my APCT columns for Nov-Dec 2003 and Jan-Feb 2004. My favorite example of unethical behavior was from 2-time USA cc Champion GM Robin Smith, "I should think murdering your opponent would qualify."

What are some of the reasons that people believe the use of computer chess engines is wrong, independently from any rules?

Tradition many started their cc careers in organizations that don't allow the use of computer engines. To them this now seems the normal and only correct approach.

Nature of chess some believe the very nature of the game dictates a one-on-one competition, and getting help from another individual (or computer) goes against the very concept of chess competition.

Inflexibility some are unwilling to consider methods of play different from that to which they are accustomed.

Threat to the game as chess engines continue to get stronger and stronger, people fear they will dominate (and destroy) correspondence chess.

2. The Rules of Play

Every organization has its own set of rules. In the USA the major cc organizations all forbid the use of chess engines. Following are relevant quotes from the rules of several correspondence chess organizations. For a list of a number of correspondence chess organizations see Links - Correspondence Chess Organizations.

USCF (USA): "Rule 3. You may consult chess books and periodicals but not other players. You cannot use a computer or computer program (chessplaying algorithms) to evaluation a game, but you may use computers for record keeping and databases."

CCLA (USA): "2) Conduct: a) During a game, a player may consult written or published works on chess, but in the selection of moves may not receive help from any other player, chess-playing computer or any mechanical device designed to play, study or discuss the game of chess."

APCT (USA): "It is expected that each player will play his own game. While books or magazines may be consulted, no help or analysis from another player may be employed. Computers may be used for clerical assistance or for reference, but may NOT be used to generate actual moves in a game in progress."

CCCA (Canada): "25. A player may: (a) consult chess works or literature freely. He or she may also use a computer to keep the score of a game and to work with a database of stored games and positions. (b) A player is not allowed to consult with other players, whether members of the association or not, with reference to any current or future possible lines of play in a game which is in progress. Any player known to have obtained aid from another player in analysing current or future positions in an ongoing game shall immediately forfeit the game involved to his or her opponent. Showing a game in progress to another player is most likely going to elicit comments even when not wanted. This practice is to be avoided."

CCLA (Australia): "Players may not use a chess-playing computer (or computer program with a chess-playing function) to assist them in their play."

IECC (International): "8.1 Players are free to consult chess publications or literature in printed or electronic form. Any other form of consultation, including the use of computer chess programmes that analyse a position and suggest moves or play chess games, is prohibited."

IECG (International): (no mention of using computers).

SCCA (Scotland): "24. (a) Assistance or advice concerning the play must not be sought, nor accepted, from any other person or computer program, but books, databases or works of reference may be consulted."

ICCF (International): The main international cc organization International Correspondence Chess Federation is silent on this issue, but consultation with rules experts confirms that it is legal to use computers in any form to assist in making moves. There is some confusion and disagreement concerning the meaning of the section in the Code of Conduct that says, "It is expected that players will decide the moves for themselves. It is unacceptable behaviour to have someone else play your games. The whole ICCF ratings and titles system relies on the assumption that games are played by the players named in the starting lists (or approved substitutes)." I took this to deal with a famous situation where one person competed using another person's name, not to the use of computers or human consultation. Some people interpret this section of the Code of Conduct to prohibit consultation, at least with other players.

The above confirms that a number of cc organizations do prohibit the use of computer engines in competition, but it is also true that a number of other organizations allow it. The main point assumed by some organizations is that it is almost impossible to enforce a prohibition on the use of computers, and players, without a strong expectation of being caught violating a rule, will feel free to break the rule and cheat.

3. Why do people use chess engines?

Some feel very strongly that it is wrong to use computer engines to assist in cc competition, while many others say it is just another tool for research and should simply be accepted. Why do people use chess engines? Here are a few possible reasons.

To "blunder check" i.e., to avoid making obvious tactical errors leading to immediate loss. Some argue that using computers remove the outright blunder from the game and elevate the quality of play.

To maximize results ... competitors simply wish to play as well as possible, and if they can improve by using a chess engine then they'll do it.

To level the playing field if their opponents are using computers, then they must, also, in order not to give their opponents an advantage. Note that this concept is independent of the rules of play. In many cases players assume their opponents are using computers, whatever the rules may say.

Because it is fun many players actively enjoy interacting with their computers to find the best moves/lines.

Because it is fast and easy instead of spending time preparing a response, they can respond by using a computer move knowing they are probably not throwing away the game. They can make an "adequate" move with no effort, very useful when other things are occupying their time.

Because the players are lazy no additional comment needed.

Because they like to have an edge using a computer in an organization forbidding using one will give them an advantage over their opponents who play legally.

4. Can engine use be prevented?

Even if we wanted to exclude the use of chess engines, is it possible? Does it help to make a rule that is not easily enforced? It is no fun performing the duties of a tournament official trying to enforce the rules. Since all cc officials are volunteers, if the job is unpleasant, then getting volunteers will become progressively difficult.

I have a premise that cc players are basically honest, though it is probably quite common to think, "everyone else is cheating, so why shouldn't I?" Is it possible that if an organization made a special effort to emphasize the players' responsibility not to use a computer that they would simply comply?

Here is a proposal. Start with an organization that has clear rules against the use of computer engines. Or perhaps the organization allows computer use in some events but has certain events which specifically forbid the use of computer engines. When the assignments are made to the players, they are required to return a pledge that they will not use computer engines. In this situation the players could hardly ignore the rule. They can't just let the issue "slide" they have clearly put their honor on the line and must break their word in a clear and obvious fashion if they use computer engines. I have a feeling very few people would violate the rule given this situation.

5. Should engine use be prevented?

There have been a number of people who have publicly stated they are giving up correspondence chess due to computers. Computers have certainly changed the character of the game. Few games end quickly due to blunders. It is progressively more difficult to win a game. I post a lot of draws to crosstables for cc events. The computer engine is the great equalizer. For many it is taking the fun out of the game. There is the feeling that you aren't competing against another player but against a machine. Some have said, "If I wanted to play a computer, I could do so without playing in a tournament."

The character of play changes when computers are involved. Some players apply "anti-computer" techniques. They probe for weaknesses of computer play. They search for positions the computers will misjudge and play incorrectly. Some players don't wish to play this type of chess, though. While some players claim the computers display certain weaknesses they can exploit, it is undeniable that computers are having their impact, even at the very highest level.

For a fully annotated 1999 match pitting Fritz 6 and Nimzo 7.32 vs. USCF Senior Master Stephen Ham (ICCF 2508, USCF 2432) see: http://correspondencechess.com/campbell/ham/ham.htm

Stephen Ham lost this match by a narrow margin.

For the match GM Arno Nickel vs. a variety of chess engines see the "GM Nickel - Engines" link on the Chessfriends site at: http://www.chessfriend.com/

The GM lost this match.

There is a second match with the link "GM Nickel - HYDRA" at the same site.

Here the GM extracted a 3-1 match win.


Chess engine use seems to be here to stay. I think if ICCF changed the rules to prohibit the use of chess engines there would be a lot of unhappy players. Chess engines are practically addictive. Many players enjoy the use of chess engines. Others have grown to depend on them. Others enjoy the high level of play possible with the use of chess engines. Others say, "I quit". To save correspondence chess do we need to find a way to remove the chess computer from competition? Or shall we just adapt to the use of computers and accept the inevitable demise of competitive correspondence chess?

© 2005 J. Franklin Campbell. All rights reserved.

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