The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Steve Ryan

My thanks to Steve Ryan for contributing the following interesting and informative article on the art of competing in correspondence chess. He also sent a short piece on chess boards appearing in public, which follows his article. I asked him to send along a few biographical notes to introduce himself to the readers. His comments follow. You can reach Steve at: ryansc@granite.mb.ca.

A Brief Bio

Born September 1948, married with 2 grown children (who visit when they run out of food). Retired Chemical Technologist. Joined the Can. Correspondence C. A. in 1975 or 76 and have played steadily ever since. Also belong to the IECC & IECG. I enjoy CC as a hobby (though wife claims it's an obsession) but also enjoy wood working and good books. Currently doing two columns for the IECC - "Web Wanderings" (reviews of various chess web sites) and "Ryan's Ramblings" - a column of general interest chess topics and commentary.

Use this link to find out more about IECC.

Some Thoughts on the Mechanics of CC Play
By Steve Ryan

Although I would never presume to offer anyone advice on chess strategy or tactics (needing all the advice I can get myself on those subjects), I feel that some 25 years of CC experience qualifies me to talk a little about what we can call the “mechanics” of CC play.

First of all, I rarely play over-the-board and have never attempted a “real-time” game on the net with someone at the several sites devoted to that pursuit. My thought processes simply do not work fast enough to allow it, when they work at all. A face-to-face encounter OTB makes me choke up, particularly when my opponent starts to whistle, tap his fingers on the board etc. Some of my OTB games without a clock or score sheet have ended up with both my opponent and I forgetting who moved next. Always take advantage of this particular situation, by the way, and claim it’s your move, especially if you have an inferior position. Don’t get the wrong impression here, some of my best friends play OTB. The two forms of the game should compliment each other.

So what constitutes sound “mechanics” for CC play? I think we can divide it into the following major categories: accurate record-keeping, taking the time for good play, a conducive atmosphere and a modest chess library.

Record Keeping

Any veteran CC’er can tell you plenty of horror stories about games lost to “clerical errors”. I personally don’t mind getting outplayed (well actually I do but I can live with it), but I absolutely cannot stand to lose by a clerical error such as recording the right move in the wrong game, the wrong move in the right game or sending/receiving an impossible or ambiguous move. Every CC club I know of correctly accepts the principle that any legal move must stand as sent (the equivalent of OTB’s “touch move” rule). Do yourself a favour and buy yourself some kind of chess “recorder”. They come in “electronic” forms such as ectool, a computer-based e-mail chess record keeping and mailing system, and “manual” types such as the Post-a-Log recorder; a ringed binder with insertable mini chessboards and stick-on pieces, and plain old paper score sheets.

You may run in to more trouble if you tend to play “thematically” in a multi-player event, such as a “class” tournament, since you will have several simultaneous games going with similar positions. A move intended for game 1 can easily slip into game 2 with closely matching (but rarely identical) positions. The error may go unnoticed by both players until it leads to some impossible/ambiguous move and the subsequent need to unravel the line God-only-knows how far back. More often though it leads to outright disaster.

Record incoming moves as soon as you receive them if using postcards and score sheet. Don’t rely on your memory and the “I won’t forget” attitude. Record them one at a time and at least double check that you have everything right. The same applies to outgoing moves. For e-mail games do not immediately delete the move after having dealt with it. Keep the original message for at least 5 further moves if your club does not require you to transmit the entire game score each time. Under no circumstances should you keep track of the game just by setting up a board and pieces in some “out-of-the-way” corner. Take my word for it, this corner will invariably turn into the rush hour version of a Los Angles Freeway, probably due to your own clumsiness. Then, of course, you have to go through the entire game score to arrive at the current position. I use an electronic and 2 manual systems and still manage to make the odd clerical error because of our next category - time.

Take your time

Novice players should always start out slowly. Starting too soon with a multiple-game match can lead to many defeats and a discouraging start. I usually recommend a 1 game match to my IECC New Member Program graduates. It takes some time to become accustomed to e-mail play and develop your own record keeping style. The need to meet club time rules in a big match can lead to hasty record keeping and inevitable mistakes. Experienced players, supposedly able to handle such pressure, can fall into this trap by becoming over confident and simply take on too much. Some top level players have reported total study times of 20 hours or more (over several days) for a single move. Could you do that amount of work? I sure couldn’t. I usually quit at my “to hell with it” point where I say to myself “if I don’t have it right by now I never will”. So, if you plan on that amount of effort you need the 3rd part of my 4 fold method - a conducive atmosphere.

Chill Out & Concentrate

What comprises a “conducive atmosphere” for chess will vary considerably from person to person. Can you play with the TV blaring, the radio on and the kids on the warpath? I can’t, but if you can, go for it. I have to sequester myself away in my little cubbyhole and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist until I’m finished. I also have to have all my moves up to date and my “analysis notepad” close at hand. Do whatever works for you including ignoring everything I’ve said so far. Remember the Fischer-Spassky match in Reykjavik? Fischer’s “conducive atmosphere” at one point required all TV camera operators to remove any loose change from their pockets. He also demanded exclusive use of his hotel’s swimming pool. I know, Boris and Bobby didn’t go to Iceland to play CC, but what else can you expect from OTB’ers? Even though the kids have long since left the nest and I don’t have that distraction anymore, can you imagine the response I’d get if I asked my spouse to unplug the phone for a few hours?

Buy, Beg, Borrow or Steal Some Books

If you’ve stayed with me so far I want to finish off by recommending that you obtain a small chess library. You might think that this suggestion falls more into the category of strategy and tactics but by following a “standard” opening line as written in books like Modern Chess Openings or Encyclopedia of Chess Openings you will minimize your chances of making a mistake. How? Well, unless you have a lot of opening lines already memorized you will have, effectively, part of a game score already laid out for you. This approach won’t work if either you or your opponent deviate from this line, but at least it may get you past the opening and postpone your mistakes to the middle game. Then, maybe, your opponent will make one before you do. After all, the longer you can go without making any the better your chances of winning.

Copyright © 1999 S.R. Ryan, all rights reserved.

Watch For It
By Steve Ryan

Have you ever seen a chess board or game portrayed on TV or the movies? Almost always they will show the board or pieces set up the wrong way. One commercial currently running on Canadian TV shows a woodland setting with some car or SUV driving through it. The car first passes a deer doing an oil panting with a brush in its mouth, a bear on its hind legs at a music stand presumably performing opera, and a (raccoon?) facing off against an owl across a chessboard (driving this vehicle supposedly “makes nature more civilized”). If you look quickly you will see that the chessboard has a BLACK square on the right. Media portrayals of chess seem to make this particular mistake more than any other. Other types of mistakes include the King on the Q’s square (vice versa) plus Knights and Bishops interchanged. Everyone seems to get the Rooks and Pawns right for some reason. Also, you will often see those ghastly “theme” chess sets (where the K is Julius Caesar, Cleopatra the Queen, Roman soldiers for pawns etc) instead of the traditional Staunton sets. Chicago Hope has its medical consultants to assure accuracy but nobody takes the same trouble for chess. Usually you see only a flash of the chessboard so maybe they hope nobody will notice. Watch for it.

Copyright © 1999 S.R. Ryan, all rights reserved.

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