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Improving Through Correspondence Chess

Improving Through Correspondence Chess

backrankbrawler
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I started playing correspondence chess years ago through the now defunct Internet Email Chess Group (IECG). I admittedly wasn't diligent about finishing my games and thus didn't do so well. I picked it up again a few years ago as I wanted a way to play thoughtful chess despite my time being limited because of my family and work obligations.

Fortunately, there are many places to play correspondence chess, including here on Chess.com with Daily Chess. Today, besides sharing one of my more recent games, I will discuss some of the ways you can improve your game through correspondence chess.

Isolating Skill Components

When we do anything to improve our chess besides actually playing, what we're trying to do is either improve a skill (e.g. calculation through practicing tactics) or increase our knowledge of the game (e.g. studying openings) - or both at the same time. This is a broad generalization, but for now, please accept this as background for our discussion.

One key principle in improvement is to try to isolate the area of our game that we are trying to improve. For example, we can study checkmate problems which helps us to improve our calculation skill, learn specific patterns, and visualize several moves. This is all done without having to worry about evaluating the position (it is either checkmate or not), assessing the positional elements of the position - you are just looking for checkmate, and worrying about other things such as clock management. You are isolating specific skills to practice.

Correspondence chess isolates certain skills while removing the burden of other aspects so that you can focus on them. Here are some areas that can be focused on and improved through correspondence chess:

  • Opening play. You can look up your openings using databases and books. This way, you know you are entering the middlegame with a decent position.
  • The organization and mechanics of calculation. Because you can move the pieces, you don't have to worry about visualizing the board position, but you can quickly become overwhelmed with the amount of lines you produce. This can become instructive as you observe what you miss despite not having to visualize it.
  • Your positional sense. Assuming you are not using a chess engine to produce moves (and I encourage you not to at least if you are using correspondence chess to improve your live play skills), then you have to assess positions including whether or not you are better and by how much, what you should be doing with your pieces in terms of placement, and planning. Because time is less of a factor, you can take time to figure out what's going on in the position. You can also consult your opening books and databases and look up model games in your opening structures. Again, I encourage you not to use the chess engine to produce moves as this will not help your chess.
  • Your thought process in general. Of course, this involves some of the areas above already mentioned, but you can take a snapshot of how you think about chess and evaluate it - particularly after the game when you see the results of your decisions. Sometimes, when playing with a clock live, you do not have time to consider everything you need to consider and sometimes must use intuition and feel. With correspondence chess, you have the time to "do it your way." The key is to assess what parts of "your way" can be improved after seeing how it worked out in the game.

Here is an example of some analysis I did in a sharp position from one of my correspondence games. I didn't use an engine in the analysis and although it looks like a mess, I had to clean it up at times to make sense of it. 

Now, not all chess positions will require this amount of analysis (and some will require more), but this is something you can't do in your OTB or live games so it is a great tool to see what you were actually thinking during your game. Side note: In the game from which this analysis comes from, I missed a key refutation my opponent had several moves down one of the variations and struggled to hold the position that I thought I had been winning. This insight itself is instructive to me as I do future analysis.

Of course, there are certain areas that correspondence chess does not help with, which is why you should consider using it within the context of your total chess improvement plan. Here are a few:

  • Handling nerves and adrenaline during competitive play.
  • Clock management.
  • Practical decision making - e.g. You have the time to look for the best move you can make, so you don't have to make decisions with incomplete information.

Suggestions to Optimize Your Correspondence Game Training

So let's say you agree with me and believe that correspondence chess can be a helpful and perhaps enjoyable way to improve your chess. Here are some suggestions on how to get started:

  1. Be careful about taking on too many games. Instead of carefully thinking about each move, if you are playing in too many games it will feel like you're playing in a simultaneous exhibition! Basically, playing multiple blitz games at the same time! Here on Chess.com, you can just start a single game or join a single tournament to get a handful of games to start. I started my own tournament in order to do this!
  2. Don't use the chess engine. Some organizations, like the International Correspondence Chess Federation allow the use of chess engines in their play. This will produce better quality games, but will do little to improve your chess skills, except perhaps helping you to prepare your openings. It depends on what you want from your training, I suppose, but I noticed in a few events over the years where I used an engine, I ended up not really thinking on my own and the games were not very interesting to me. Of course, after the game I use the chess engine to help check my analysis.
  3. Keep good records of your game. I have a database of each of my current games including analysis and notes as well as relevant master games I'm studying. Programs like Chessbase can be helpful for this, but it doesn't have to be too complicated. I used to use a paper notebook to keep my analysis, with a separate section for each game.
  4. Include text commentary as well as move analysis. This will be particularly helpful both when there is a significant time between moves to remember what you were thinking but also after the game when you are trying to improve your play. Again, using a database program can be very helpful here.
  5. Don't worry about your rating. The process of analysis and choosing your moves is the key here - not winning and losing. Of course, winning is enjoyable, but if chess improvement is your goal, then you can only do your best. In my ICCF games, I am not very high rated, because many of my opponents use a chess engine (and I accept this since it's legal). However, there are many players who don't and they end up showing up in my class rating tournaments. Just like anything, it's good to play stronger players sometimes, but psychologically, it's tough knowing that you are facing players who use engines when you don't use them yourself. 
  6. Train specific openings or positions. If you have other chess friends who are interested in correspondence chess, you can choose to train a specific opening or position here on chess.com. For an example of how beneficial that can be, you can check out my recent blog post where my friend Martin and I practiced new openings were were developing.

Final Thoughts

Of course, you do not need to use correspondence chess in your training. There are many strong players who have never played a correspondence game. Indeed, there are many aspects of correspondence chess that do not transfer over to live chess. There have been several great players over history who have been known to play correspondence chess including Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe, and Paul Keres - and more recently GM's Peter Leko and Rafael Leitao.

I think there is a place for it and at least for me it can be enjoyable as well.

Here is a recent victory and despite being a correspondence game, I made many mistakes that I found instructive. Enjoy!