Concerning the Use of Opening Tables and Other Learning Tools

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The brouhaha over using opening tables and chess books during correspondence play has puzzled me for a little while now. I figured I’d throw my two cents into the debate and see if I come out unscathed (or unflamed) however unlikely that may be. Laughing

It seems as if there are two fundamental questions here:

  1. Is using chess learning material during a correspondence game cheating?
  2. Does using chess learning material during a correspondence chess (CC) game have more or less value than not using it?

Let me address each separately:


Is it cheating?

It seems there are two sides to this debate and each has their own generalized rationalizations. Those who do not use chess learning materials during a CC game tend to be self proclaimed purists. They shun the opening tables, books and sometimes even analysis boards as being dishonest or creating bad mental habits. They see these resources as cheating and like to refer to their self imposed rule system as more honorable since it's truly Mano e Mano (or rather mentra contra mentra). Then there are those who accept the use of these tools with a pragmatic or even mercenary attitude. "I'll use every advantage allowed in the rules," some will say. That mentality raises the question of whether or not the individual is truly interested in grasping the game of chess or simply winning games. Within some CC organizations, even the use of computer assistance is allowed which makes one wonder even further if a person is truly playing to understand the game better or just to have a high ranking. (NOTE: does NOT allow the use of chess engines for rated correspondence games or any live chess games) Some fall in between these two groups with a blending of the arguments, but I think that's a fair generalization of the major categories.


This whole debate doesn't seem much different than a hypothetical argument about the "honor", "legitimacy" or "worthiness" of rugby versus futbol*. I can imagine those partial to rugby deriding the game of futbol as being played by undersized wimps who can't hold the ball and play on a small field. The futbol fans could conceivably mock the game of rugby as being incapable of footing the ball, needing to use their hands and having to resort to much more physical violence to stop or move the ball. The reality is: one sport is different than the other and the two are not to be compared. Their rules are different, their intents are different, their origins are different and their cultures are different. Not worse. Different. Any arguing to the contrary is just human pride and silliness kicking up dust. If you don't like manipulating the ball with your hands, go play futbol and if you don't like being prohibited from tackling someone then go play rugby. However, you have no logical basis for throwing darts at the other sport based on your personal preferences for one over the other.


No-one can say to a rugby player "You're cheating! You're using your hands!" because the rules of rugby state that you can do that. You also can't say to a futbol player "You're not playing by the rules! You didn't tackle that guy!" because the rules of futbol state that you must refrain from that kind of physical contact.


To cheat, as defined by the Oxford Compact English Dictionary, is to "act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage" or to "deprive of something by deceitful or unfair means". Dishonesty, however, is sometimes defined by the context of the situation. In the context of correspondence chess, you have to look at the rule set that was agreed upon and ratified by whatever governing body is set up as authority over the activity (the USCF,, ICCF, et. al.). If they say that it's legal to use opening books, then it is legal; contrary viewpoints notwithstanding.


Correspondence chess is what it is. The comparison of correspondence chess and its rules to over-the-board chess is like the comparison of futbol and rugby; virtually irrelevant. Not one is more or less honorable than the other. The rules are what they are and have their own merits and demerits. If you don't care for the rules, then either make your own rules or stop villainizing the proper application of the current rules.


However, if the argument shifts from a purely legal inspection of the rules to a meritorious one then we've entered a completely different realm to which both sides have any number of valid points.


That brings us to the second question:



Does using chess learning material during a correspondence game have more or less value than not using it?

We’ve now entered the murky waters of value judgments. To be sure, there are pros and cons for each side. My intention for this article was not to pit the merits of one side against the merits of the other side. That may manifest itself in a future writing. For now, I’ll take the easy way out and ignore that issue altogether. However, I hope that I have made a case for the concept of not lobbing unfounded accusations at one camp or the other.  I'm not saying that there isn't a place for "unassisted" correspondence chess, just that arguments alleging dishonesty or expressing disdain against those that use opening books and other learning materials seem to be more full of diatribe than anything else.


So where do I personally stand (as if anyone cared)? I'll use an opening table or other chess book whilst I'm playing correspondence games. I look at turn based chess as a great way to learn as I go through an active game. It's an opportunity to learn openings, middlegame tactics or endgame theory as I play (being very mindful to never consult endgame tablebases but only to read up on endgame concepts and play through master games). In a way, I look at correspondence chess as a kind of lesser entity to over-the-board chess. Mostly because you have as much as two weeks (at least on, longer on other sites or organizations) that you can use to work out the board position, whereas in over-the-board games you have mere minutes. Having only minutes per move to play a game requires you to have a much better understanding of the game. I don't know if that "lesser view" of correspondence chess is entirely warranted or even logically defensible, but nonetheless that's my stance at the moment and I’m allowed that viewpoint by the current rules of correspondence chess on and other places as well. I like to test things out, explore unfamiliar openings and generally have fun in correspondence games. All within the bounds of the rules of course.


Am I a scumbag for using opening tables and books? Only if the rules say I am. They don't, so I’m not.


What’s better? Futbol or Rugby? That’s not the point.




* (in this article I refer to what Americans typically call "soccer" as "futbol" since that's what the majority of the world's population refer to it as)