Not All Chess is Equal: Computer Influence and Historical Development of Two Chess Formats

Apr 29, 2015, 2:59 PM |

Not all chess is equal, nor does time treat it as such. Correspondence chess and over-the-board (OTB) chess, while similar to each other in some respects, are dissimilar in many other respects. For example, the time limit is a more pressing consideration in OTB chess, and many errors and blunders are committed when time is short on the clock. A second difference between OTB chess and correspondence chess is the ban on trying moves before playing them during OTB chess. The correspondence player does not face this limitation. The quality of chess also differs between correspondence chess and OTB chess. Of particular interest for this article are the different impacts computer chess has had upon practical play and the historical development of both formats.

Cecil Purdy, the 1st World Correspondence Chess Champion, recalled his transition from OTB chess to correspondence chess where he, a professional OTB player at the time, was soundly beaten by an amateur correspondence player. Purdy wrote:

“What was I to deduce? I … had been trounced by an amateur … not because I had played below my strength, but simply because he had played more strongly. I realized that he had given the games more study than I had, but – this is the point – I had never before suspected how much difference that extra study might make.

I was forced to conclude that the game I had been playing over the board was relatively superficial. I now know that this applies even to the great crossboard players; I have proved it and accept it as commonplace, but in 1936 it was a new thought to me.

I had been writing of the ‘machine-like accuracy’ of the wizards of the game. I now realize that this is purely an illusion.” 1

A lot has changed in the chess world since Purdy’s epiphany in 1936. Neither have the differences between the two formats stayed constant; time has allowed additional factors to differentiate the two formats. The introduction and widespread availability of personal computers, mobile devices (e.g., cell phones, tablets), and of grandmaster strength chess engines (e.g., Droidfish & Stockfish) is one such major change. The chess of yesteryear was a pure battle between minds. The chess of today is a hybrid of human creativity and computer calculation, though the extent and impact of computer influence may be quite disproportionate between the two chess formats, OTB vs. correspondence. 

Modern chess is influence by chess engine analysis in OTB chess whenever a player plays a move he/she remembers from home study using engine analysis. We’ve also seen a number of incidents of more straightforward and direct use of engines, as in recent allegations of cheating. The Bulgarian Master, Borislav Ivanov, has been accused of using mobile devices to propel his rise in rating. Similarly, Georgian chess champion Gaioz Nigalidze was expelled and banned from the Dubai Open Chess Tournament. For interesting discussion, please see Garry Kasparov is a Cyborg, or What ChessBase teaches us about technology

Computer analysis pervades modern correspondence chess. The International Correspondence Chess Federation allows for the use of computer analysis as an aid during the game. The USCF, however, prohibits the use of engines during play; but it does allow for players to consult books and previously published material during the game.

It is through this published material that computer analysis seeps into USCF correspondence chess. It is becoming increasingly common for chess books to include computer evaluations. One such book is Fundamental Chess Endings by Karsten Muller and Frank Lamprecht. This book “makes full use of endgame tablebases and analytical engines that access these tablebases; where previous authors could only make educated guesses.” Books on chess openings also provide an avenue through which published computer analysis can influence chess even in forums where engine use is not allowed.

Computers will continue to shape chess in the coming years. Over time, computer analysis in reference material will cover an increasing number of individual, unique chess positions. The progression will continue from positions where computer analysis is of the most value such as familiar tabiyas especially in positions where tactics are king, or where forcing sequences abound. Critical positions in hotly debated variations will also increasingly become available in reference material.

Naturally, through this piecemeal process, a pattern of computer analysis of individual positions will continue to spontaneously develop. The pattern itself will not develop in an entirely random fashion; instead, it will have a tendency to proceed according to the perceived value of computer analysis in individual positions – from highest value to lowest.3 The unplanned, spontaneous, piecemeal process describes above will continue to unfold without the need for any central planning, yet it will continue to show definite signs of order and structure.

Ordinary correspondence players will also play a major role in this process whereby computer analysis enters into the public domain. Correspondence players have long realized the benefits of writing analysis down. Speaking of the amateur correspondence player who gave Cecil Purdy a sound beating, Purdy wrote that his “most important hint was to write down all your analysis at every move. When I began playing CC competitively, I followed this advice and found it extremely useful. You inevitably write down many moves that turn out to be bad, but this at any rate saves you from looking at them again, for you have recorded the refutations." 2

Today, the analysis written down is often computer analysis of the highest quality. Much of this analysis remains in the private collection of an individual correspondence player; however, options are available to share one’s own analysis with the world. One such option is the Open Encyclopedia of Chess Openings, which is an attempt compile computer analysis of individual chess positions. This website is my own approach for consolidating computer evaluations of individual chess positions. I spend a portion of my time uploading relevant computer analysis that I’ve produced and/or collected over the years. There is plenty of room for improvement over my methods. Moreover, this process could be automated. For example, a Droidfish-like application could 1) produce the analysis, 2) translate the analysis into wikitext, and finally 3) save the analysis turned wikitext into an online wiki. I’ve made some progress towards these goals, but it remains a hobby that frequently takes a back seat when other matters are more pressing.

In conclusion, over-the-board chess and correspondence chess are two formats with differences and incongruence. Some of these differences are timeless, while other factors are recent developments. Computer chess engines are one such factor that has had a disproportionate impact on the two formats of chess. Though the extent of computer influence may differ between OTB and correspondence chess, the common theme is that computer analysis is becoming increasingly influential, even where real-time computer engine use is prohibited. There are theoretical reasons to suggest that the pattern by which computer evaluations and moves enter into the public domain will do so in a non-random way according to a perception of value of individual positions and variations. Freak possibilities such as, say, 1.f3 f6 2.Kf2 Kf7 3.Ke3 Ke6 will tend to be among the last positions for which computer analysis enters into the public domain, while well-trodden lines in the Ruy Lopez, Marshall Variation are already published and available to the general public. Lastly, one resource devoted to consolidating computer analysis of chess positions is the Open Encyclopedia of Chess Openings.

 1. Purdy, C.J.S. How Purdy Won: The Correspondence Chess Career of a World Champion, pp. 17-18

2. Ibid. p.19

3. “As an apple falls from a tree and the stars move according to the laws of gravity, one Robinson Crusoe and an empire of 100 million obey the same law of value when it comes to economic activity” Emil Sax,