Correspondence Chess

Correspondence chess is looked down upon by many over the board players. Their biggest complaint? The use of chess engines for analysis. Of course, the very people that claim this form of chess to be rubbish spend their waking hours using chess engines to help them find moves and then commit those moves to memory for future use. The ICCF or International Correspondence Chess Federation (recognized by FIDE), decided to allow engine use due to problems inherent with online cheating. Some websites have claimed to have developed anti cheating algorithms that have eliminated a larger percentage of cheating. However, someone always comes up with a new way to cheat and those websites are back to square one. The ICCF solved this problem by simply allowing engines to be consulted. Can you quickly become a Correspondence Grandmaster by letting your chess engine to think for you? Absolutely not. In fact, you’ll get absolutely nowhere by doing so!

It’s a combination of human play and computer generated research, starting with the opening. You have to be very creative during the opening phase of the game. Your computer program will ruin your game if you let it decide your opening moves. The majority of ICCF games are won because of good human opening preparation. While I teach a variety of openings to my students, I would have never increased my knowledge to the point it’s at today had I not taken up correspondence chess. An advantage gained during the opening can make a huge difference during the middle game, even with computer assistance guiding players. A quick tip: Never consider a computer move suggestion unless you completely understand why it was made! This means you have to research the lines suggested relentlessly. It’s the opening research that lays the crucial foundation for the game. Here’s how you do it.

You need a good database and chess engine. I use ChessBase and Komodo. You have to have a large database of games from which to craft your opening. Fortunately, correspondence chess is played slowly so you have plenty of time for research during the game. You start by choosing an opening you want to play. I suggest sticking with openings you already know. The preparation is hard enough without adding the additional task learning something new to the mix. The key here is to create a custom opening book. You do this by pouring through your database, looking for games that use your opening. Create a separate database for these games. The next step is to create an opening book. Don’t rely on a commercial opening book. Creating an opening book from scratch forces you to become intimately acquainted with your opening and it’s variations. While some players will create an opening book that covers sixty moves, thirty should be plenty. Wait, isn’t that a bit large? Yes it is, but correspondence chess requires it. Once you have the opening book set up, play through it and look for possible weaknesses that might create problems for your opponent. Chess engines may be excellent at certain aspects of the game but they can still tripped up, at least for a brief second or two. Weaknesses can be moves or entire lines that force your opponent to resort to second and third choice engine generated moves. Remember, engines are great at tactics so consider moves that restrict tactical play. You’re not going to beat an engine by gaining a material advantage because the engine will always gain the material back. Play for even trades and better pawn structure going into the endgame.

The middle game requires a great deal of research, starting with the detailed analysis of lines. The idea is to explore your own ideas and alternative ideas the engine creates. This can be difficult because the engine is going to give you it’s best or top choice. Therefore, you have to enter your choices and see where the engine goes with them. To find the computer’s alternative choices, watch the engine’s thought line in the lower left hand corner of the screen and write down the first move of each line the engine is working through. That’s your reference point. When you have a number of candidate moves, start exploring each one in detail. Don’t rely on the computer’s top choice until you do some exploration of alternative moves. Often, an alternative move can create problems for your opponent later on, many moves into the game’s future. You have to be creative.

Thankfully, the endgame is a bit simpler to play through because the principles are well defined. I highly suggest knowing the pawn positions that lead to a draw and those that lead to promotion. While a Knight, Bishop and King versus King mate can be bungled by the average club player, don’t expect the engine to screw it up. If you see yourself heading into an endgame where you’ll face this specific situation, capture one of those minor pieces. It’s better to draw than lose.

Correspondence chess really helps improve your over the board play because you’re forced to really study while playing the game. However, you have to be creative and not let the chess engine make all your moves. Don’t accept the first suggestion your engine makes. Do the research. You need to have roughly a 1700 rating to not lose your mind. I say this because there’s a lot of subtle positional ideas to consider and you have to have a good foundation in order to comprehend those ideas. If you’re new to chess, find a friend you can play correspondence chess with via email. Set a time limit of three days for each move. During your allotted move time, play though the moves you come up and see where they go. Rather than use a chess engine, play both sides of the board before emailing your friend the move you’re going to make. See if you can come up with the best opposition response to your candidate move. You’ll learn a lot about the game and prepare yourself for playing correspondence chess at the ICCF in the future. Here’s a correspondence game to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).