The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

The following article is posted at John Knudsen's excellent web site.
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The Two Faces of Correspondence Chess
by J. Franklin Campbell

In the early 1960's I became aware of a debate in the chess community. Is chess art, science or sport? After reading various opinions I came to the conclusion that chess possesses features of all three. In contrast, we basically have one type of correspondence chess (cc) competition, a sporting, competitive event.

We must somehow reconcile the multiple facets of chess with this single type of event. Do you strive to create a beautiful game of perfection? Do you try to defeat your opponent? Like many players I attempt both. However, these goals are often in conflict. Do you go for the beautiful combination leading to mate (but allowing complications that could backfire) or do you simplify to a won endgame where you can grind down your opponent in thirty more moves? I would normally choose the latter and safely gather the point.

If your opponent makes a notation error or sends a faulty "if" move, do you suggest to your opponent that he or she correct their mistake to maintain the quality of the game? Or do you pounce on the error and extract the maximum possible advantage? I would choose the latter here, also, unless the game is a friendly, unofficial game. Advocating this approach in print has in the past provoked some criticism. I believe this criticism originates directly from the dual nature of correspondence chess, playing for art/science or for sport/competition.

This article was inspired by a letter to the editor in Chess Mail 1/1997. Imre Toth said, "I do have an objection to one statement made by J. Franklin Campbell in his article 'Good CC Etiquette,' with which I otherwise completely agree. In my opinion 'taking full advantage' of an opponent's notation error is not OK. I think it is poor sportsmanship. The aim of postal chess should be to enjoy the chess competition, to beat your opponent at chess, not at notation [my emphasis -- JFC]."

This topic (taking advantage of so-called "non-chess" errors) was covered extensively in my USA column "The Campbell Report" in the APCT News Bulletin (bi-monthly publication of the American Postal Chess Tournament organization). The two faces of cc competition became very clear to me after reading numerous responses from readers. A number of cc enthusiasts sent comments reflecting the view expressed by Mr. Toth (chess as art/science) using such terms as "bad sportsmanship" and "fair play." They stressed that it was important to them to win the game by outplaying their opponents "over the board." As Mr. Toth said, they want to "beat their opponent at chess, not notation." A well-known USA journalist wrote that he did not care to compete at good bookkeeping. Mr. Toth is in good company in his opinion. I encourage him, and others of like mind, to follow their own paths. If this means allowing an opponent to correct an error (of any sort) then, by all means, go right ahead ... I certainly have no objection.

Another view of chess competition is that of sport. I cannot think of any major sport where it is considered bad sportsmanship to take full advantage of an opponent's error. I've personally seen two basketball games lost because a player mistakenly called for a time-out when his team didn't have one left. In another case, several members of a team called the referee's attention to the illegal movement of an opposing player just before a free throw. The resulting penalties allowed their opponents to win. Though supporters of the losing teams were disappointed to see their teams lose, nobody suggested there was anything wrong with the winning teams taking advantage of these "non-basketball" errors. All sorts of technical infractions of the rules give a team the winning edge in many sports. Examine chess tournaments carefully and you'll recognize that winning is emphasized, not playing artistic games or winning by any special approach. Crosstables, final scores, championship titles and ratings all reflect one thing ... winning the game. The occasional prize for the best game is the exception.

APCT member Ned Walthall wrote the following: "Sports have rules for lots of reasons, but one important one is to spare participants time and emotional energy figuring out what they are supposed to do, what is reasonably required of them ... I don't want (to be) put in a position in which the expectations regarding my own behavior are not clear." Is it fair to label an opponent as a "bad sportsman" if he punishes his opponent for a notational or other "non-chess" error? My personal opinion is that it is not. As in other sporting events, I feel that the chess competitor must be fully prepared to pay the price for any kind of competitive error. There should be no expectation that your opponent will give you a chance to correct an error. This view reflects the sporting side of chess, I believe... the second face of correspondence chess.

Will we see two types of competitions in the future, one reflecting the desires of players to win "over the board" and beat their opponent "at chess" and another type for competitors striving to win their games by any fair means within the rules of play? I don't think so. We have one type of competition now and for the foreseeable future. Correspondence chess competitors will have to somehow reconcile the two faces of cc competition in this one kind of event. If you prefer to allow your opponent to correct errors, then do so. However, to suggest that your opponent has displayed bad sportsmanship because YOU made an error seems highly improper to me. Such complaints are often referred to as "sour grapes" in other sports. Every player must surely take full responsibility for his own errors. Keep in mind the observation of Al Horowitz, "One bad move nullifies forty good ones." In cc "one bad move" can easily be a notation error or other "non-chess" mistake. To then accuse your opponent of bad sportsmanship would be compounding the error.

Additional note: I've recently become aware of another type of chess competition, namely the "practice match." These matches are played not only for the purpose of friendly chess competition but for the purpose of testing opening ideas. This allows trying out ideas without (1) risking the loss of rating points, (2) risking losing a game in an important tournament or (3) revealing your latest opening ideas to future opponents. Under these circumstances I'd be surprised if regular competitive rules were followed strictly ... that would conflict with the purpose of the match. However, I'd still be reluctant to label my opponent as a bad sport if he did ... though I may prefer a different practice partner in the future.

Copyright © 1998 by J. Franklin Campbell

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