The Campbell Report
Hard Chess
with USCF Senior Master Mark Morss

December 1999
Some Advice to Correspondence Players; Noteboom Variation

This month's "Hard Chess" completes one year of my contributions here. I take the occasion to I remind the reader of something I said at the outset: I very much welcome the reader's criticism of the chess ideas that I present here, and I also welcome any interesting games that he would care to share or questions that he would like to ask. I don't pretend to be a world-class theoretician, but at least I can share my ideas here and hope that my fellow-players will correct any major mistakes that I make.

As a reward to those who've stuck with me through the year, or perhaps as a punishment, I offer now my general advice to players of the correspondence game. In this, I move from clerical and other routine matters gradually to chess play itself. The latter advice often applies as much to chess over-the-board, but it reflects understanding that I did not have before I had played a good deal of postal chess.

To begin, then, I advise that you carefully read and try to understand the rules under which you are playing. You don't have to be a stickler for the rules, but be aware that some of your opponents may be, and that the section administrator must be.

Before you call some delinquent player to account before the administrator, bear in mind that correspondence chess must always be a gentleman's game. If the rules had to be enforced with any degree of frequency, the game would be intolerable. Also be aware that the offending player may have serious problems in his life that you do not know about. Bad health, in particular, is not altogether uncommon among correspondence players. Therefore be generous. Even so, at some point it may become necessary to invoke the rules, so be sure you follow them yourself.

If you yourself are called to account for a rules problem, stick to formal discourse in your reply and avoid discourtesy. It is not unsporting to say that you suspect your opponent of bad faith, but have good reason for saying so. Do not burden the administrator with your emotional reaction to the situation, however valid your feelings may be. Recognize that the administrator must act on behalf of correspondence chess, and that his or her decision is not personal. I suggest you not decide to abandon play with some organization merely because one decision has gone against you, even if the injustice is so terrible as to enrage the gods.

Whether or not you expect to be making claims under the rules, keeping good records is important. If you play postal chess, the most congenial form of the correspondence game, I recommend you keep a filebox for opponents' cards in ongoing games, separated by player. Based on my card file, I have devised a very simple record-keeping system. When my opponent's card comes in, I record upon it the date of receipt. When I am ready to send my reply, I first record upon this same opponent's most recent card the date I intend to send, and also each player's latest reflection time and total reflection time as of that date. I then copy the same information onto the card I will send to my opponent. I suggest you also record on your opponent's latest card the move that you sent, together with any ”if-then" sequences you've sent (if you change your move before you send, or if you send later than you intended, be sure to go back and change the information you've recorded on the opponent's card).In this way, my card file doubles as my time and game record. If I think a player is late, I go my card file and check my notations on his last card to see when I sent. If I decide to send a repeat, I record the date the repeat was sent on the opponent's card, and I use red ink to transfer onto the repeat card all of the move and time information that I originally recorded.

I enjoy sending interesting and attractive postcards, so I avoid cards printed for postal chess. By this I sacrifice some convenience, but I do employ a convenient and economical system for recording time. I put a vertical cross, and in the four corners formed by its arms, I record the time according to the following rubric:

W T     W T T
B T     B T T

When the game begins, I send my opponent the rubric, and after that, I just put the appropriate numbers in the spaces. It's fast.

Of course, if you play e-mail chess, which I regard as a rather sterile and uncompanionable form of the game, much of the record-keeping takes care of itself. But avoid deleting your opponent's transmissions, and just in case anything about the game might ever be questioned, I suggest you archive all the e-correspondence pertinent to it, after it is over.

When your opponent's move arrives, be sure that his account of past moves is correct. If the past moves don't check out against your records, don't send a move, but simply send back a card or e-message explaining the problem.

When you receive a move, be sure you understand exactly what move your opponent has played. It is very easy to look at a message and mistakenly conclude that the move played is the one you've been anticipating (such errors are often made when two pieces of the same kind can move to the same square, but for those of us who learned descriptive notation at our mothers' knees, there is also confusion between certain ranks: 1st and 8th, 2nd and 7th, and the like). Always double and triple check, and just before you send, check again, the move you have written versus the position on the board. Needless to say, it is of paramount importance both that the position is correct and that the move you have written is the one you intend. You will certainly lose games needlessly if you are light-hearted about this.

The postal service makes mistakes, even in the major industrial nations. So if you play the postal form of the game, don't be surprised if some moves go astray and have to be repeated. Don't assume that seeming postal troubles are due to your opponent's misconduct; such worries will burn out your stomach lining, and they won't improve your results. If you live in the U.S., put your "last 4" in your return address and keep asking your opponents to use it when they send to you. For me this is critical, since I live at 181 Clinton Heights Avenue, while there is a 181 Clinton Street in the same five-digit zip code. Only when mail is addressed with my "last 4" is it reasonably certain to reach me. But using very complete addresses is excellent practice for everyone.

Be courteous and engage in friendly banter with your opponent if he is so disposed. It makes the game much more fun, and you'll be surprised what you can learn. Send a short description of yourself when you begin play with a new opponent. Say a few words about your family, your job and your other interests. When something important or interesting happens in your life during your game, share it with your opponent if you can do so briefly. Be charitable if your opponent sends you a remark that you don't appreciate; he was probably not intending to irritate you. If your opponent is obnoxious, don't be obnoxious in return. Just clam up and beat him.

If you are fairly sure what the right move is, don't spend a lot of time agonizing, but simply send it off. Even if you are highly uncertain which move to play, often the best policy is simply to select the move most consistent with basic chess principles and send it. Analyzing the position for three more days, or thirty, will not increase your understanding of chess. But every game does have its highly critical phases, so save your time for the really important, difficult moves, and then use fully as much time as you need. When you have a move already prepared, don't send it if some new doubt emerges, but keep it and extra day or two and check the position to resolve your doubts.

Avoid too much reliance on analysis. It is very easy to be drawn down strange, unchesslike pathways if too much of your thinking is of the "if-then" type. This is especially true if you are using a computer to help prepare your moves. It is important to develop a "chess conscience" that worries you when seductive possibilities violate good chess principles. If you know a strong player who has given you instruction in the principles of chess, try to hear in your head that player's voice commenting on your candidate moves (yes, I have a strong chessfriend whose voice I imagine I hear). Or at least give a little whistle, and always let your conscience be your guide.

Unless it is demanded by an unfortunate match situation, do not risk defeat by trying to force a win. It is much better to play solid, principled moves, without much immediate purpose, than to play highly purposeful but less solid moves. The duration of a correspondence game is a long, long time suffer in a bad position, so your main task is to avoid sending a bad move. If you just shift your pieces around and do nothing unprincipled, you'll be amazed how often your opponents will send you bad moves.

Do not play a move because it is beautiful or interesting, but only because it is efficient. The object of this game is to score, whether the full point or the half, and he who is wise strives to score simply. Anthony Santasiere was famous for his love of brilliant, daring moves, and for his ridicule of those whom he called "technicians of victory." But while brilliance is sometimes needed to score, a move that is inefficient is admirable only to fools. A technician of victory is precisely what I strive to be.

Let your tactical intuition be guided by your sense of chess justice. It is impossible for good moves to produce a bad position, or for better moves to produce an even one. If you have played good moves but seem to be in trouble, or if you have played better moves but your opponent seems to be approaching equality, look for a brilliant solution.

Avoid style. Self-conscious style in chess is a form of mental illness. Therefore avoid Positional Syndrome, the victims of which are dead to all possibilities of sacrifice and attack. Shun too the oppositely hideous Attacker's Dementia and its extreme form, Gambit Psychosis, whose victims believe that they must play gambits or die of boredom. These and many similar, other diseases of the chess mind are typically induced by the unconscious desire to avoid learning anything more about chess.

When your opponent sooner or later errs and you have a won or nearly won game, that is the time to bear down hard and try to find the very best moves. To win a won game is the most important task of chess. Devote more time to your won positions than your lost ones. A mistake in a lost position counts for very little, but you lose a full point if you blunder in a won position, and losing half the point is easier still. When I have a won or nearly won position, I think about it quite a bit during transmission, planning how I can keep the game moving along the simplest and best winning path.

When I have a lost or nearly lost position, I don't think about it during transmission unless something particularly entertaining occurs to me. When my opponent's move comes, I merely try to find ways to steer the game into complications. The test of a good move in a bad position is whether it sets the opponent difficult problems, not necessarily whether it saves the game. Of course, there is no harm in saving the game, but it's usually unwise to spend much time trying to do so. It is enough to delay defeat and to keep making the opponent's task difficult. In this connection, I recall the story of the French knight condemned to death by King Louis. He promised the king that if he would be allowed to live for one year, he would teach the king's horse to talk. The king agreed, and someone soon asked the knight why he had made such an absurd promise. He said, "During the forthcoming year, the king may die, or I may die. Or the horse may talk."

Even so, I myself don't try to teach the horse to talk if there is absolutely no chance of its doing so. When the cause is truly lost and your opponent is strong, it is often best to give up and devote the time instead to your other games.

Study of endings, study endings, study endings. Endings are extremely frequent in correspondence chess. It is a serious error to think you can consult an endings reference when the situation comes up. Precisely because endings happen at the end, understanding endings is fundamental to evaluating almost any chess position. For this same reason, tablebases are no substitute for understanding the theoretical endings (for example, R+P versus R). In your studies, start with the theoretical endings and work your way back to "strategic" endgame books.

At one time, my advice to correspondence players would have included that they spend a great deal of time preparing an openings repertoire, augmenting book variations as much as possible with their own analysis, and also doing a lot of research in their data bases. That indeed was my approach when I was playing over-the-board, and when I began postal play, I stuck entirely to my prepared variations. While I had my share of success, still I grew as a player, and since then I've wanted to expand my theoretical horizons without having had the time to prepare new variations. My solution has been simply to jump in and play new systems that interest me, more or less unprepared. Rather than working out answers to difficult questions in advance, I wait until problems come up in play before trying to tackle them (of course, I do not wait for the critical move itself, but rather I try to anticipate what will be played and analyze ahead). When, for example, I adopted the Noteboom Variation in the 1997 U.S. Absolute, I had never played it in a single game of any kind, nor had I studied it beyond a casual perusal of the excellent Play the Noteboom Variation by van der Werf and van der Worm (Cadogan 1996). I was tempted by the combative spirit of this complicated system, and by the winning chances it seemed to offer.

My decision to adopt the Noteboom in that event turned out to be a fateful one, for of my six games with the black pieces, all began 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c6. Two continued 4. e3 Nf6 5. Nf3 Nbd7 6. Qc2 and resulted in draws, but the other four became Notebooms: 4. Nf3 dxc4 5. a4 Bb4 6. e3 b5 7. Bd2 a5 8. axb5 Bxc3 9. Bxc3 cxb5 10. b3 Bb7 At that point, I was beginning to worry about the wisdom of playing an unfamiliar and risky system in a strong event.

Diagram 1
Position after 10...Bb7

But it worked out well enough, and I finished the four Noteboom games with a score of +1, not bad for Black (I went +3 for the whole event).

Linked below are two of the four games which are the fruits of my Noteboom endeavors in the 1997 Absolute, both wins (next month I will share the remaining two games). Lifson-Morss is theoretically significant, since I was able to refute a highly topical line given as good for White in a recent Informant. In Michelman-Morss I tried something new earlier in the same line, again with some theoretical significance. I was again rewarded with success, though my opponent was probably better for a while and a little later could have escaped into a perpetual check, which he unwisely declined to do. But here I suffered for my unpreparedness, since I would have steered the second game on the same course as the first had I known that I would be able to pull a theoretical rabbit out of my hat. As it was, I didn't want to stake two points on my ability to find a possibly nonexistent rabbit. Oddly enough, in each of these games Black had a strong kingside attack, something rare in the Noteboom.

Although next month's games reveal some of the problems of playing the Noteboom, on the whole I've been pleased by my experiments, and I resolved both to continue playing the Noteboom and to continue trying new openings systems in correspondence chess without much preparation. With the new year I do also resolve, however, to compile an extensive set of personal notes on the exciting and difficult Noteboom Variation.

Game 1: Lifson-Morss 1997 U.S. Absolute

Game 2: Michelman-Morss 1997 U.S. Absolute

Download game and main text analysis
for a zipped file (with commentary) in new ChessBase (CBH) and PGN formats.

Next Month: The Dark Side of the Noteboom

Copyright © 1999 by Mark F. Morss

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