Pros & Cons of Correspondence Chess

Pros & Cons of Correspondence Chess

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Member miguelnalexandre asked:

What do think about correspondence chess and what do you recommend on openings, study plan, books... in sum, everything that you might feel is useful.

Are unorthodox openings ok for CC? Once, someone very known in the CC area told me to play very aggressive openings as white, avoiding the common lines. As black, very solid defenses.

Dear miguelnalexandre:

I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this, since I only played in two correspondence events. I was 14 years old in the first, which was a theme tournament (you are forced to play a certain opening, in this case the Blackmar Diemer Gambit). I lost every game there. Here’s an example of just how badly I sucked:

E. De Vore - Silman [D00], BDG theme, corr. 1968

1.d4 d5 2.e4 dxe4 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.f3 exf3 5.Qxf3 Nc6 6.Bb5 Qxd4 7.Bxc6+ bxc6 8.Qxc6+ Kd8 9.Qxa8, 1-0. I was playing chess for two years at that point, so it’s hard to imagine me being that terrible (and no, the psychedelics didn’t enter the picture for another five years, so I can’t blame them).

Fast-forward to 1993 (or was it 1991? My records show one game listed as 91, while the others 1993), and I agreed to play in the U.S. Correspondence Championship, which consisted of a couple tournaments – the top finishers (from quite a few tournaments) were seeded into a final event. This, of course, took forever!

At first I enjoyed the ability (thanks to all that time) to strive for perfection. For example, the following game is both theoretically important and also quite powerful.

Silman – M. Larzelere [D56], USA ch corr 1993

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e3 0-0 6.Nf3 h6 7.Bh4 Ne4 8.Bxe7 Qxe7 9.Rc1 c6 10.Bd3 Nxc3 11.Rxc3 dxc4 12.Bxc4 Nd7 13.0-0 e5 14.Bb3 exd4 15.exd4 Nf6 16.Re1 Qd6 17.Ne5 Nd5 18.Rg3 Be6 19.Qd2 Kh8 20.Re4 Rae8 21.Rh4 Bf5 22.Bxd5 cxd5

22...Qxd5 23.Rxh6+

23.Qg5 Bg6 24.Rxh6+!! gxh6 25.Qxh6+ Kg8 26.h4!

The point. Nothing can be done about the threat of h4-h5.

26...Rxe5 27.dxe5 Qxe5 28.h5 Qg7 29.Qg5 Re8 30.hxg6?!

My only inaccurate move in the game. 30.Qxd5! Re5 31.Qd8+ was easy.

30...Re1+ 31.Kh2 Qh8+ 32.Rh3 Qe5+ 33.Qxe5 Rxe5 34.gxf7+ Kxf7 35.f4 Re2 36.Rb3 d4 37.Kg3, 1-0.

And this one was also very enjoyable.

Silman – Alex Dunne [D75], USA ch corr 1991

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.g3 0-0 7.Bg2 c5 8.0-0 Nxc3 9.bxc3 cxd4 10.Nxd4 Nc6 11.Rb1

This was a pet line of mine (I successfully used it in a few over-the-board tournament games) and I wanted to see if any cracks appeared in the harsher climate of correspondence.

11...Nxd4 12.cxd4 Bxd4 13.Qa4 Bg7 14.Rd1 Qe8 15.Qa3

White gets tremendous positional pressure for the sacrificed pawn.

15...e5 16.Be3 Qe6 17.Bc5 Re8 18.Qa4 Bf8 19.Bd5 Bd7 20.Qc4 Qf5 21.e4 Qf6 22.Rxb7 Bxc5 23.Qxc5

After methodically increasing the pressure, White finally regains the pawn while retaining a significant positional plus.

23...Rad8 24.Qxa7 Be6 25.Qa3 h5 26.h4 Bxd5 27.exd5 e4

A pawn to the good, the rest of the game turns into an exercise in pure technique.

28.Qe3 Re5 29.Rb6 Qf5 30.d6 Qe6 31.Ra6 Kh7 32.Rd4 Rd7 33.Kg2 Kg7 34.a4 Kh7 35.a5 Kg7 36.Ra4 Qd5 37.Rb6 Rxd6 38.Rxd6 Qxd6 39.a6 Qc6 40.Ra3 Rf5 41.a7 Qa8 42.Rb3, 1-0.

However, though I was undefeated, I withdrew from the event before seeing how the final standings would affect me. It was just too labor-intensive, and I preferred the rush of face-to-face competition (besides, if I made the final cut, the idea of another two-year commitment was horrifying). Nevertheless, though it wasn’t for me, I clearly saw the allure, and recognized correspondence chess as a legitimate, and highly satisfying, form of the game.

But … we now come to the computer age, which takes us to a pro and con conundrum:


Everyone (or just about everyone) is using machines to guide their play, and it’s come down to one guy’s computer vs. another guy’s computer. There are people with 1200 over-the-board ratings who tango into the “postal lover’s chat-room” (is there such a thing?) with ratings in the 2400 range, or even higher! These people have created an ego based on their machine’s performance, and many actually believe they are the ones coming up with the moves. It’s a fascinating walk down the streets of Delusionville, and this town has quite a few citizens.

For those that don’t wish to use chess engines, is it really fun to battle an all-seeing machine? I recently had a lesson with a guy that plays correspondence chess, and as we went over the game I pointed the horrible opening play of his opponent. Then, suddenly, the opponent’s engine was obviously switched on and he went from around 1,000 strength to 2600. Lovely. Just lovely.

I know most sites try to discourage engine use in e-mail chess. But it’s a thankless task to police all the games. In most international events, engines are allowed, and why not? You can’t stop their use, so why not simply go with the tech flow? A friend of mine, a long-time postal/e-mail master (he also has an over-the-board master rating), recently quit correspondence, telling me, “I grew tired of the ‘my computer vs. his computer’ battles. Time to go back to over-the-board play where I can clearly see that my opponent is flesh and blood!”


The mix of man and machine can lead to the creation of some real works of art. And – make no mistake about it – the ability to lead the computer in the correct direction is an enviable skill-set. At the highest levels of correspondence competition, all known databases and books are used to employ the latest in opening theory, and that theory is then checked by an army of chess engines (which look closely for theoretical holes). Endgames tablebases, which have solved all endings with 6 men or less, are used if the situation arises. So this leaves the middegame and more complex endgames, which can be played at an ultra-high level if you just depend on Rybka, but an even higher level can be reached if a strong player fills in the computer’s gaps with his own positional understanding.

Regarding your query about proper correspondence openings, any sound opening is fine. But do avoid unsound gambits (this doesn’t mean gambits are bad, just avoid bad gambits) since the computer tends to defend like a god and will snuff out all your dreams before they even get started.

If you are playing on a site that bans computer use and polices the games in a diligent manner, then any opening at all is fine, depending on your opponent’s real strength.

All in all, I feel that correspondence can still be great fun if you don’t mind crossing swords with a computer, if you revel in your own computer’s moves (thinking they are your own … perhaps Delusionville is a happy place?), if you play on a computer-banned site, or if you love the idea of excelling in the battle of who can better manipulate their computer.

Make no mistake about this, though: those strong players that understand chess at a high level and know how to lead a computer down the correct paths will, in general, crush all of those that are letting the machine do all the work. To me, this is what makes correspondence chess worthwhile at the tournament level. For fun corr. games, no-computer zones also make this form of chess extremely useful not only as a training ground for your tactics and positional studies, but also for your openings and endgames. Human vs. human correspondence chess is great!

Finally, for those that honestly want to improve their game, correspondence chess should be seriously considered. Stick to your normal opening repertoire, using opening books and databases to strengthen your opening knowledge as you go (yes, it’s legal and beneficial). In the middlegame, take copious notes about your thoughts … like ‘is the game tactically based or positionally based’? Write out all the variations you looked at and, once the game is over, have your chess teacher go over it with a fine-tooth comb (while carefully going through your notes so he can “see inside your head” and fix whatever is broken). And if an endgame is reached, I think looking it up in an endgame book (at least, looking up positions that come as close as possible to what you have) is fine since that kind of immersion will vastly improve your understanding of this final phase. Using correspondence in this way is virtually an instructive cornucopia.

The one thing you should NOT do is use a chess engine (unless you are a very strong player and are competing in a top-level event where machine use is allowed).

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