The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Following is my discussion of one of the most contentious subjects I've encountered in correspondence chess, whether competitors should play for the win or attempt to create a beautiful game of chess. Your contributions are invited and will become part of a new feature reflecting Readers' Comments. This article is followed by a form to fill in with your comments, and I encourage you to do so if you have anything to add to the discussion. -- J. Franklin Campbell

"Playing by the Rules" ... Right or Wrong?
by J. Franklin Campbell

People play chess for several reasons. Some play for art ... because chess is a beautiful game with great esthetic appeal. Some play for sport ... they love to compete ... and to win. I am convinced that most play for a combination of the two (for my previous discussion of this see the article The Two Faces of Correspondence Chess). Because different "competitors" give different weights to these two approaches, there are some unavoidable disagreements about such things as how to apply the rules of play and what to allow opponents to "get away with."

A major difficulty for competitors of all sorts is that there is really only one type of chess tournament, at least where you can expect to find the strongest and most testing opposition. The structure of these tournaments emphasize the sporting elements of the game. The awarding of titles (champion of organization, class title, regional champion), listing of position of finish (first place, second place, etc.), money prizes, gaining of title norms and various titles (master, IM, GM), chess ratings ... all of these are goal-oriented objectives that emphasize winning. These are also the events that attract the best and strongest chess players. If you want to play the best you must enter these competitive events.

Exceptions to this kind of event are available ... the "Social Quarterly" or "Friendly Match" allows people to play chess with less emphasis on winning. Most organizations offer competitions of this sort for players wishing to avoid the cut-throat world of top competitive events. You could even enter email events outside your normal cc organization (which would, naturally, not be rated by your organization). My belief is that these events normally attract players from lower in the rating list. I'm sure there are exceptions, but, in general, I wouldn't expect to find the most-demanding opposition in these events. Even two top players who agree to play a match in this type of event might not concentrate fully and produce their best chess, particularly if the event wasn't being rated.

I am going to mold my discussion that follows around a specific event, the U. S. Correspondence Chess Championship (USCCC), organized by the US office of the ICCF (ICCF-U.S.). This is one of the most prestigious and challenging events in the US cc schedule. Only players with a significant rating are allowed to participate. The winner is considered the official USA cc Champion. Many of the strongest US cc players participate in this major event. There are very clear and specific rules of play plus additional rules and clarifications by the ICCF-U.S. Secretary. In this event I have encountered difficulties caused by the different attitudes towards chess competition and the different objectives of the players.

In one instance my opponent sent an illegal move. The game began 1. Nf3 f5 2. c4 c5 3. g3. My opponent playing Black sent: 2. g3 b6. I replied that he had sent an illegal move and penalized him 5 days time used (as clearly specified in the rules of play). I also mentioned to my opponent that he had left off the "time used" from his postcard, something required by the rules of play. I must admit I then made the mistake of asking my opponent if he were new to cc, based on these two errors on one card. My opponent was upset and said that an experienced cc competitor would have assumed he had meant 3. g3 b6 and sent my next move as an "if" move to "keep the game moving." Of course, his irritation at me asking if he were a beginner was justified, since his high cc rating and participation in the previous two USCCC events would have indicated, had I bothered to check. His reply also omitted the required "time used" information. When I charged him the specified five days for leaving off this required information he was once again upset and accused me of charging him again for the same offense. Of course, I didn't agree with his assessment. His next card again omitted the time used and ... you guessed it! ... I charged him another five days. I haven't received his reply to that one yet.

I am indeed an experienced cc competitor, having played since 1964. We are both experienced. However, we have profoundly different approaches to competition. I use to agonize over how to deal with an opponent's error. Now I don't give it much thought. I simply make my best move (against his bad chess move based on whatever error) and apply the appropriate penalties when warranted. I consider this a "non-issue." I can think of no other competitive activity where penalties are not automatically applied when a rule of play is broken. Even in closely-related OTB, rules of competition are normally applied without a second thought. How many would allow a touched piece to remain unmoved in a tournament game? How often would overstepping the time limit be overlooked (except by mistake)? Players might shake their heads and say, "Too bad, he had a winning position but lost on time" or some such sentiment. Yet, the point would be lost, without claims of bad sportsmanship or unethical behavior by the winning opponent. I apologized to my opponent for my badly considered question about him being a beginner, but I made no apology for insisting on playing by the rules. I also explained that I purposely avoided the "if" move approach. Making assumptions can be dangerous and giving away plans with unwaranted "if" moves is something I avoid.

My opponent also said, "I believe in upholding the 'spirit' of the rules and not the letter. In over 300 games I have never had someone abuse time rules and either beat or draw me ... I've had countless opponents and myself (once) get ripped from winning positions on pointless time complaints involving technicalities." Is my insistence on following the rules "to the letter" in formal cc competitions tantamount to abusing time rules and issuing pointless time complaints? In informal or friendly games I would not insist on applying formal rules, though I may chide a terribly slow opponent. In a formal tournament of significance, though, I believe it is correct to follow the rules precisely. If the USCCC has a very specific rule (with carefully described penalties for violations) then it should be followed. Otherwise, what's the point of such a rule? Is it just for appearances or to keep some ICCF bureaucrats happy?

There are other areas of possible conflict between "seekers of the truth" and "competitors seeking the point" ... between the artist and the competitor. I (and many others) have played the game: 1. d4 g6 (if 2. "any" then 2...Bg7) 2. Bh6 Bg7 3. Bxg7 1-0. My opponent resigned gracefully commenting that he was glad I was his only White opponent that opened 1. d4. We met in a later tournament and had a very interesting game and pleasant correspondence. I've been accused of bad sportsmanship by jumping on his flawed "if" move. Did I miss the opportunity to play an interesting game and have some good correspondence as a fellow chess journalist wrote? Possibly I did. However, my objective was to get the point. I thought the way I took advantage of his flawed "if" move was rather clever (if not original, as I later discovered).

I've received a few terrible moves obviously due to some mistake by my opponent. A strong opponent does not hang a piece or walk into a mate in one unless something unusual has occurred. Normal explanations include analyzing the wrong position or making a notation error. I once had two Rooks that could move to the intended square and carelessly indicated the wrong Rook with my notation. This was an unintentional sacrifice of the exchange on my part. Occasionally players simply record a move inaccurately in the score or accidentally misplace a piece on their Post-A-Log diagram. Tim Harding wrote about losing a game once when he "accepted an if move" and made the moves on his board but didn't record the accepted "if" moves on his postcard. In serious tournament games I've never asked for a move back or offered my opponent the chance to take back a move (I don't recall ever being asked). These "non-chess" errors are very much part of the game. Winning cc consists of more than making strong chess moves. There is a huge premium placed on accurate record-keeping and careful transcription of moves into your correspondence. As Al Horowitz once said, "One bad move nullifies forty good ones." The bad move may very well be due to one of these "non-chess" errors.

How about those things not covered by the rules. I would agree with those who say there can be unethical behavior that isn't specifically against the rules. We've all heard of "gamesmanship" where an opponent attempts to gain an advantage using some underhanded approach, such as claiming bad health or injury to distract an opponent and gain misplaced sympathy. However, I think such characterizations of opponents as being unethical must be made with great care. For example, is chess by its definition a one on one contest, as I've seen claimed? It usually is, but I don't accept that vision of chess as the only correct one. Is it improper to use computers to analyze current cc positions or to consult with friends? My view is that it is indeed unethical ... if the rules so state. In the USA all major cc organizations have clear rules against these actions. In Germany and in the ICCF the picture is different. Such consultation is completely legal. I believe it is grossly improper to label players using these techniques as "unethical" or guilty of "bad sportsmanship." Actually, I'm not convinced that the ICCF shouldn't have rules similar to the USA organizations, but in the absense of such rules there's nothing wrong with using such help, in my opinion.

I'll summarize some of the conflicts that can occur between players with different objectives. I'll list these points from the viewpoint of the dedicated competitor seeking points. See what you think.

  1. Competitors in serious cc tournaments should obey the "letter of the law" and be penalized every time they violate the rules.

  2. Bad "if" moves should be milked to the full extent.

  3. Every mistake should be ruthlessly punished, whether it be based on bad chess analysis, notation errors, analyzing the wrong positions, sending moves to the wrong opponent, or any other error.

  4. It is perfectly acceptable to play without correspondence (note: this isn't my practice, but I recognize my opponent's right to silence).

  5. There is nothing wrong with playing with an eye on the crosstable. Offering a draw when the half point will achieve the desired goal is completely acceptable.

  6. It is not innately unethical to use computers or consult with others. If the rules of play do not forbid it then it is completely acceptable and legal to do so.

Please don't think I'm only interesting in racking up points. I'm also overwhelmed by the beauty and esthetics of chess. I love to play beautiful games that are works of art. This artistic side of the game is a very important part of the attraction of chess for me. If I'm playing a friendly game or exploring an opening in a thematic tournament, then my objectives are different and I'll happily overlook time considerations and encourage corrections of "non-chess" errors by both sides. In serious tournament chess, though, I try to combine my appreciation for the beauty of chess with the realities of a highly competitive sport. In the end it's the competitive nature of the game that sways my decisions. However, I still seek to achieve both goals of chess competition, the combining of art and sport into one fabulous experience.

Your opinion is invited and will be placed on a special page of reader responses. I understand there is considerable differences of opinions on the subjects discussed above and would welcome the opportunity to air these differing views publicly. Please participate, independent of which views you share. What we need is understanding of opposing viewpoints, not finger-pointing and arguing. Reasonable people can compete with each other in friendship without necessarily agreeing on their approach. Try the following form to submit your ideas (I believe it works in Netscape but probably not in Explorer). If this fails, copy your views into an email and send them along to me (be sure to indicate you are replying to this article).

Copyright © 1998 by J. Franklin Campbell

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