The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Christian Sender

When I saw the name Christian Sender in the crosstables for the first ICCF E-Mail world championship semi-finals I immediately invited him to contribute his observations on e-mail chess in general and on his experiences playing by e-mail in this difficult and important tournament in particular. After playing for a few months he wrote the following fascinating report. You can reach Christian Sender at: b33@gmx.net. -- J. Franklin Campbell

A Brief Chess Autobiography by Christian Sender

  • Born 1961 in Berlin, now living in a small village of 1.200 inhabitants at the North Sea, 100 km away from Hamburg.
  • Married with Tamara, having three daughters named Freja, Lioba and Runa.
  • Working as a network- and systemorganizer.
  • I learned chess at the age of 15 from my neighbour. I played otb for many years in Berlin at the highest class of the town (DWZ 2.100+).
  • I started cc in 1989 and when I settled at the countryside in 1991 I almost stopped playing otb while I intensified my cc-activities. First ICCF-tournament in 1993.
  • Greatest success in cc: 3rd place (unbeated in 34 games) in the XIII. BdF-Cup, amongst more than 2.000 participants the biggest tournament ever played in Germany.
  • Current ICCF-rating: 2.583
  • Titles: later!

Chess by Email
Personal Impressions from the
Semifinal of the XXIII. World-Championship
in Correspondence Chess

By Christian Sender

The history of e-mail chess in the ICCF is short. The most significant step so far was the announcement at the end of 1998 to offer not only the normal class-tournaments by e-mail but also to let the regular Correspondence Chess World-Championship take place by using the new technology alternating every two years with the conventional type of move-transmission. This is a very rapid decision for the world's biggest and most important cc-organization if one considers that the activities of playing games by e-mail and the presentation of information on the Internet began only approximately 3 years ago.

I still remember well when I got my first (in Germany very expensive) Internet account in 1995. After my first attempts with the new medium, I naturally looked - as a passionate and enthusiastic correspondence chess player - for a possibility to play chess using email-transmission in a recognized organization. Up till then, the horribly long postal delays with countries of other continents, and also into many European countries, kept me from taking part seriously in international cc-events. I was content to play almost exclusively in BdF-tournaments. Now, it suddenly seemed possible to finish a grand-tournament with 15 participants from all countries of the world in a time period even less than that required for domestic German postal tournaments! Since I had no interest in free games but looked for real competition, I had to determine if ICCF (and BdF) were already active on the Internet. I hoped so.

After some research I learned from Eckhard Lüers that he was now organizing an ICCF tournament-office and a web site, but it might take a couple of months. He told me there were grand-tournaments (15 participants) and small-tournaments (7 participants) in two different classes intended, named Email-Cup and Email-Championship. I registered for a grand-tournament in the framework of the Email-Championships. This was in March 1996.

My interest in an e-mail tournament was so great, however, that I was unwilling to wait for an unknown period of time. In the meantime I came upon the "Internet Email Chess Group" (IECG), that advertized its previous 2-year existence. It was obviously the biggest e-mail chess organization at that time. I enlisted ... however nothing happened. After several weeks, I learned that the two creaters of the IECG had left the business together with player- and tournament-databases and left a wreck. New groups could not be formed until later. The times were hard if you wanted to play chess on the web!

While I waited I tried the BdF, which now had a website. The first planned tournament was a team match Germany vs. Austria, to be played by e-mail. Matches between countries are not something that I really wanted to play, but after all ... it was better than nothing. We started to play in October 1996. Only 14 boards were assembled and I played at board 1. Meanwhile, I changed my e-mail address and, only by coincidence, I discovered (after the team match against Austria had already begun) that the first ICCF E-mail grand tournament has already begun, and I was in the list of participants. Fortunately, it was not too late and I could still get into the tournament. With this and the first small tournament of 7 players, that had began a few weeks earlier, ICCF had established itself in the business of e-mail chess.

The first few weeks were rather unsettling, because so many e-mails of my opponents clattered on me. In the opening phase I certainly had 5 e-mails daily on average in the mailbox and I felt quite overtaxed. Perhaps e-mail chess was after all not the right thing for me?! I yearned for the quiet evenings here when I could answer a move of my Argentinian opponent after three weeks of waiting for his postcard in the ICCF-Worldcup that I analyzed on the wooden chessboard with a glass of wine sitting in front of the blazing chimney of my house and listening to some Van Morrison and Cassandra Wilson music. The strength lies in the silence!

Unfortunately, I lost the silence in the first weeks of my e-mail tournament. Everything was looked up in the database at the PC quickly, analyzed quickly and answered. In some games, we played two or three moves on one day!

In two games I made severe blunders, because I felt forced to answer my opponents just as quickly as they replied. It took me some weeks to realize that I had infinitely much time remaining to consider my moves and that I was actually playing cc-games and not a form of online-chess. This first experience of e-mail tournaments therefore taught me about the risks created by the pressure of having too many games going and also answering my opponents so quickly. This pressure was self-inflicted and unnecessary with sober contemplation, since the time-regulation of 40 days for 10 moves mandated for ICCF-tournaments gives sufficient time for long evenings of analysis ...

In two more recent e-mail tournaments - with the application of a great deal of discipline - I have not produced a single decisive mistake.

The winners of the preliminaries of the ICCF Email-Championship should actually determine the winner in a final. However, at the end of 1998, when a sufficient number of players were available to play a final, the decision came to play the next regular cc world championship by e-mail. Although an option existed for the qualifiers (to play in either the Final of the Email-Championship or the Semi-Finals of the World Championship), the Email-Championship effective died. Participation in the semi-final of the real World-Championship proved to be a far more attractive opportunity for most of the players. To take part in a World Championship is surely the greatest goal for each cc-player and, if it is also the first E-mail World Championship, then it is particularly special and exciting.

Of course, one could qualify for the World Championship E-mail semi-finals not only through e-mail tournaments but also through victories in "normal" class-M-tournaments (1x winners of a grand tournament or 2x winners of small tournaments, second places or a combination). Many players didn't need any qualification but got a "wildcard" from their national cc-association. Some others were also already qualified for this semi-final on the basis of their high elo-rating (>2570) or their grandmaster-title. In the end, 154 players started the tournament, which has been underway since the 1st of April 1999 in 14 groups of 11 participants for qualification into the ¾-Finale, which represents the last initial stage before the great final. The ratings in the present semi-final are between 2200 and 2628. An ex-world-champion (Vitas Palciauskas) and another grandmaster (Tero Kokkila) are participating, along with several international masters.

Unfortunately, from my view the classification of the players in the 14 groups is rather inappropriate, since the groups are not nearly equally strong. Thus, there are 11 groups with the category 5 and 3 groups with the category 2. The category marks the group-strength of a tournament on the basis of the elo-ratings of the players. The higher the category, the stronger the group. The last three groups are consequently clearly weaker from the ratings. However, the qualification possibilities don't differ: the first two of each group are automatically qualified for the ¾-Final. Beyond this, ¼ of the participants still had no official rating at the time of the beginning of the tournament and were classified with a rating of 2200 provisionally.

At starting time, the old rating list, which is based on the scores up to the 31.12.1997, was still current. Many of the players shown with provisional ratings are listed in the new list of 1.7.1999, many with higher ratings. There are also some players that are still not in this new list and have obviously not previously participated in an ICCF-tournament and have, apparently, reached this semifinal as a "wildcard" of their country. Unfortunately, these "nobodies" and the ones without experience were not evenly distributed among the different groups in order to level out the differences in strength.

An example: in group 1 (cat. 5) the three provisionally (estimated) rated players, assigned elo 2200, have a rating average of more than 2420 points in the new list, while the four provisionally graded players from group 12 (cat. 2) are not rated, not even in the new list! Admittedly, this doesn't completely exclude that they are also much stronger than the estimated 2200 points, but it also doesn't exclude the possibility that they are even weaker!

The likelihood that the real strength of some groups is actually higher than category 5 is rather big. And the likelihood that the real strength of some other groups is not actually higher than category 2 is also rather big. I wonder why the unrated players for a semi-final of the world championship, with an average of approximately 2360, are only assigned Elo 2200. If the provisional rating had been adapted to the average rating of the rated players and if at most only one step difference in the tournament-category between the groups was allowed, then the organizers' position would allow much less room for criticism. There is no reason to object to assigning a 2200 rating to an unrated player in a normal class-M tournament with an average rating of 2230. However, this is not a normal class-M tournament but instead is stronger by almost 150 points. Consequently, the ranking of the players without a rating, who have qualified on the basis of their performance, should have been made in accordance with the average value of all assessed players with at least 2350 points. I think the players who had qualified deserved a more just treatment.

When I first got the group assignments, I was correctly shocked by the obvious difference in strength in the last groups and, above all, that I now had to play in one of the strongest groups. My group had an average rating of 2369, but, accordingly to the new list that appeared 3 months after the tournament started, the average rating is now 2444, which confirmed my fears.

Fortunately, these problems should not be repeated to a similar extent in future tournaments since there will be two rating lists per year, when the actual current playing strength of the participants will be a more significant consideration in the tournament-drawing.

It was clear to me that this would be a very difficult tournament, much more difficult than the IM-tournament that I had begun 6 weeks before but has the same tournament-category. Now, after almost 6 months of play, this assessment has been confirmed. I have the impression that all participants are highly motivated, putting in more effort and also taking more thinking time for their moves than in the e-mail tournaments I have played in up to now. For most of us this is also a unique opportunity to take part in a World Championship, and for many this may be the first and only such opportunity.

As I mentioned above, I had problems with the pressure in my first e-mail tournament which was caused by the frequent arrival of my opponents' moves (a self-made problem, of course). I decided at that time to always check the database as well examine the position on the chessboard before I replied and I have continued to refine my approach in the last two years.

It is strange that I forgot this new approach, especially in a game in such an important tournament. This is what happened: One day, while still in the early opening stage, I got 8 e-mails from my opponents and, for inexplicable reasons, I thought I should answer at least one of them in the same evening. In one of the games I felt completely sure about what had to be played:

F. Kristensen – C. Sender

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 c5 5.Bd3 Nc6 6.Nge2 d5 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.a3

Diagram a
Position after 8. a3

How should Black reply to the White move a3 in a Nimzo-indian game? My thought was that in 98% of all cases Black plays ...Bxc3, and that was exactly what I did without further consideration. Unfortunately, this move is not correct here: Black stands strategically lost after this move, because he has no real compensation for the White pair of Bishops.

However, I didn't immediately realize that I had slipped up. When I got Kristensen`s answer (9.bxc3) I searched the database and was at first pleasantly surprised that not a single game was present with this position! Had he played a novelty or even carelessly blundered? I went back to my previous move 8....Bxc3 and still found nothing.

Now I suspected something evil! I went back one more move to 8.a3 and the machine found only two replies: 8... Ba5 and 8...cxd4. Now it was clear who had blundered. I was glad that my move was still playable for tactical reasons so at least I did not have to resign immediately. I continue to fight and am doing my best to keep the position closed and his Bishops restrained.

Fortunately, some weeks later I was able to experience success in a game against the strong US-player Chris Sergel in a game that was interesting, particularly from the viewpoint of the opening:

C. Sender – C. Sergel

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5 Nbd7 7.Nxc4 Nb6 8.Ne5 e6 9.f3 Nfd7 10.a5 Nxe5 11.axb6 Nd7 12.e4 Bg6 13.bxa7 Qb6

Up to this move we had followed the game Kramnik-Chernin, New York 1995, where Black got a rather poor position after 14.Be2 Rxa7 15.Rxa7 Qxa7 16.Be3 Bd6 17.0-0 0-0 18.f4 f6? 19.Bc4 Bf7 20. Qe2 Re8 21.e5 Bf8 22.f5! but when I examined this game in more detail I came to the conclusion that Black would get enough counterplay after 18... f5!

I therefore wondered whether it would not be possible to put the White-squared Bishop on the more active square c4 immediately, where it eventually arrived 5 moves later in the Kramnik game. In this case Black couldn't have chosen the above plan to free up his position by means of ... f5 or ... f6, since the e6-pawn would hang. I analyzed this particular position for many days and could never find a truly satisfactory plan for Black. However, the Bishop is clearly exposed at c4 and one must continually take into consideration that Black may create counterplay with an eventually ...b5. However, I determined that Black would weaken himself by using this plan under these circumstances and that the White advantages would lie plainly on the hand:

  • Black's White-squared Bishop can hardly be freed from his prison on the King-side and

  • the threat of a White pawn's attack would be particularly significant after Black's castling, also reinforced by the bad position of the Bishop,

    14.Bc4!? Rxa7 15.Rxa7 Qxa7 16.Be3 e5 !?

    I had also considered this continuation the best, but it appears that Black can't solve his structural problems with this move either. The alternative line 16... Bd6 17.0-0 0-0 18.f4! would lead to the quick downfall of Black´s King .

    17.Bf2! exd4 18.Bxd4 Qb8 19.Ba2!

    Takes away the power from a possible ...b5. The Black moves are only apparently active. It is most important to consolidate the King's position in the next moves for both sides and to bring the remaining pieces into the game. However only White succeeds in doing so.

    19....b5 20.Kf2 Bd6 ?!

    This allows a forced line leading to a position which leaves Black with a hopeless Kingside. I think, at this position, one must look for improvements in the Black game. Perhaps 20....f6 was worth a try, in order to exchange bishops at f7 at some point. I intended to respond 21.g3 in that case, which would not only create the possibility of the pawn-advance (f3-f4-f5) but also allow the Rook to develop to a better square,

    21.Bxg7 Rg8 22.Bd4

    Diagram b
    Position after 22.Bd4 1-0

    Black resigned here, since after 22... Bxh2 23.Ne2! all important squares are covered on the Kingside and White can soon bring the Rook into the game, when he essentially plays with an extra Rook and Bishop in the center and on the Queenside. Nevertheless, I had not expected his resignation so quickly. However, in higher-class tournaments it is not unusual to give up on strategical lost positions. Bad positions, with very little hope of drawing, represent a certain burden in correspondence chess that is not gladly borne by many players for an extended time, since it can have a negative effect on the mood in the other games.

    The first games are now completed and the tournament is heading into the next year and the decisive phase. Our Tournament Director Jose A. Goncalves provides us with the newest results monthly by e-mail and also on the ICCF-website one can find the current crosstables after a certain delay.

    In my group the fight for the first two places will surely be very close, and it should be similar in most other groups.

    No matter how things develop in this tournament, one of the beautiful aspects of correspondence chess by e-mail is the following:

    If you qualify for the next round, then you don't have to wait for years to continue play - if you don't qualify, then you can comfort yourself with other tournaments quickly!

Copyright © 1999 Christian Sender, all rights reserved.

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