What is
Correspondence Chess ?

By Morten Lilleøren


What is Correspondence Chess?

A good number of years with switching between correspondence(corr.) and
over-the-board (OTB) chess have given me a certain amount of experience that I’d like
 to attempt to put into print. I’m choosing to do this in the form of some conceptual
definitions where I’ll try to clarify what corr. chess is and is not. These definitions are tentative,
for the time being, and should therefore be seen as a starting-point for further discussion.

1. All forms of chess are played by the same rules, on the same board, and with the
same number of pieces. This means that the same factors pop up everywhere – opening,
middlegame, and endgame theory; tactics and strategy – the same evaluations and
conclusions apply in all forms of chess. But that’s the end of the unity.

2. I’m aware that there are large differences between blitz-, rapid-, a
nd full-time chess. In my experience, the shorter the time available, the more
important a role is played by nerves and skill/calculating ability (see below).
All the same, I’ll continue to refer to these forms collectively as OTB. But when I talk about OTB,
I will mainly be thinking of clock-controlled chess with notation and a playing-time of
several hours. And before we go further – by calculating ability I mean the ability to visualize
positions and calculate variations, the ability to evaluate positions and find candidate moves.

3. There is one unessential and two essential differences between OTB and corr. chess.

4. To take the unimportant one first – in corr. chess one’s opponent is not physically
present. Nowadays this difference is, however, disappearing completely in certain
arenas, e.g. as OTB is played more and more over the internet.

5. The two essential differences are the ‘touched piece’ rule and the available thinking-time.
These have such great consequences that one can to a certain degree describe corr. and
OTB chess as two different events or disciplines. They take place on the same arena,
but are performed in different manners. The difference is not so great as that
between a 100 and a 10,000 metres on a running-track, more like the difference between
sprint and distance events in speed-skating. It is possible to be good in both types
of events (Eric Heiden, Ids Postma / Ulf Andersson, Curt Hansen), but it is more likely
that one is good in one type of event and passable in the other
 (Ådne Søndral, Bart Veldkamp), or good in one and either very poor or non-practising
in the other (Shimuzu, Wotherspoon, Storelid, Bob de Jong).

6. The most important difference is the ‘touched piece’ rule. As it doesn’t apply
while analyzing a postal position one may make extremely detailed conseq
uence-analyses. In later years this difference has been accentuated by the
increasing use of computers. While OTB-players, regardless of their calculating
abilities, must make decisions based on the existing position at the board and their
more or less fallible mental calculations, the corr.player can eliminate this uncertainty.
This difference is easily recognisable when preparing games for publishing: While
one adds analysis to OTB games, detailing variations, points, and plusses, things
one didn’t see during the game, one has to do the opposite with postal games!
To make a game readable one has to cut out huge amounts of analysis in variations
that lay there only as a possibility and never became a reality.

7. Therefore – in OTB it is calculating ability that is the most important factor
with regard to an individual’s strength. ‘Chess is 99% tactics’, which seems to be
have been coined by Teichmann, is a somewhat imprecise formulation – it should have
been ‘Chess is 99% calculating ability’. THIS DOES NOT APPLY IN CORR. CHESS! Y
ou only need parts of this ability: Evaluation is still necessary, as is finding
candidate moves, but the ability to visualize and calculate mentally is not needed.

8. Paradoxically, the possibility for extensive analysis means that tactics and
forced series of moves have less importance in corr. chess than OTB. The time
when one could beat one’s opponent tactically are about to become history in postal chess.
That tactical possibilities still arise in postal chess is due to totally different reasons
than in OTB – while visualization and calculation are required in OTB, plenty of time
(e.g. retirement) and a structured method, and in later years, enough
computer skills to fully utilize software, are the important factors in postal chess.
As the power of personal computers increases, the tactical possibilities will almost vanish – games
will be decided because of long-term strategic choices – always based on extensive analysis
of course, but these will be an aid to move choice, not the main criterion for move choice.

9. The most important weapon in a postal-player’s playing-strength armoury is
herefore the ability to evaluate positions, and the subsidiary ability to make (strategic) plans.
This is, in contrast to visualization ability, a knowledge and theory-based ability.
While chess-knowledge and understanding needn’t necessarily lead to being a good
OTB-player (e.g. if one lacks calculating ability), these are the abilities that differentiate
between good and bad corr.players.

10. Knowledge is, as mentioned, the most important factor in corr.chess.
Postal chess has therefore more in common with academic pursuits than OTB chess has.
What type of knowledge is needed? Chess is a rational goal-based game – the effect
decides the cause, the end justifies the means. Put another way, while we play move
for move forwards in time, the game has to be understood BACKWARDS, based
on the final position. It’s the position after the move that decides whether the
move is a good one. Therefore, the most important form of knowledge is that of
the endgame. It is not possible to lay correct strategic plans without this knowledge.
As fewer and fewer games are decided (by tactical means) in the middle-game,
endgame knowledge will increase in importance. Even more so since chess s
oftware is not so good at evaluating non-trivial endgame positions. One has to
have knowledge of often quite complex endgame theory to make the full point or
to save the draw. This is the most important type of knowledge.
Next comes the ability to evaluate middle-game positions and the methods of
playing them. This has a lot to do with experience, but even this part of the game
has been the subject of massive theoretical treatment. This means that even the
ability to evaluate middle-game positions has to be regarded as theoretical knowledge.
The learning one has least need for is that of opening theory in the form of
concrete variations. One should have a reasonably assorted library in the form of
printed material, and, in these computerized times, updated databases of games to
do research in. A postal-player must know which types of middle-game positions come
from which opening lines, together with a method of avoiding poor opening choices.

11. The conclusion is that if one wishes to be a good corr.player, one studies endgame theory,
while also learning the art of evaluating middle-game positions (even verbally). If one has in
addition a good method to avoid disadvantageous forced-move series, either manual
(piece-moving procedures) or artificial (software),and a database of games, then one is fit for fight.

12. The second great difference between OTB and corr.chess is the clock. In e-mail
chess one usually has 60 days for ten moves, while in OTB one usually has at best
two hours for forty moves. This means that time has little or no importance in corr.chess.
The effective use of time, which can be critically important in OTB, is unimportant in postal chess,
as long as one can prioritize and set time aside for chess. While in OTB one makes uncertain
decisions in a continuous stream, in postal chess one has time for research and reflection.

13. THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING IN A FIGHT SITUATION IS THEREFORE RADICALLY MODIFIED. While blitz for this author has great similarities with a boxing match
(I lose all the time on KO), and OTB otherwise reminds me of football, where the
game flows back and forth and first one team is leading, then the other, postal chess
is nearer to being an academic pursuit, where one studies (types of position), does
research, and disputes on whether one’s position is defensible. The disputation here
is not a verbal argument, but is made up of moves.

14. While OTB-players must have good nerves and the mental toughness to withstand
the pressures of being in a fight situation for hours, these are qualities that are
superfluous in a corr.player. Though an adrenalin-rush can sometimes occur, it doesn’t
affect the game. OTB is more ‘macho’ than postal, it’s Sylvester Stallone versus Woody Allen.
Other necessary qualities for an OTB-player are the ability to maintain coolness under
pressure and the ability to maintain a high level of focus.

15. Corr.players, on the other hand, must have patience as their major characteristic –
it can be months or even years before anything really happens in a game. One thing is
that because of tactics losing their importance, the likelihood of any real action is far
lower than in OTB, and should it happen, it is likely to occur far later in the game
 than in OTB. The other is that even if something HAS happened, it can be months
or even years before one can cash in. It can be a long, long time between knowing
what the result of the game will be and actually receiving the point.

16. The importance of results is therefore much less in corr.chess as opposed to OTB.
Aggression and fighting spirit can even be negative factors, while patience, stability,
self-discipline, and structured working methods over time are important.


A. OTB and postal chess are different events within the same sporting ‘arena’.

B. The differences are so great that it can be a problem to be really good in
both disciplines as some of the factors leading to success are also so different.

C. The differences arise mainly from two circumstances – 1) the ‘touched piece’
rule in OTB, and 2) the enormously different rules concerning thinking time.

D. These circumstances mean firstly that while OTB is primarily an ability-based pursuit,
where the most important ability is that of calculation, corr.chess is a disipline based on
knowledge, where it’s important to know types of positions, and have the ability to use
this knowledge to evaluate the positions that arise.

E. The second difference is the conditions under which the games
takes place: While the fighting aspects can be all-dominating in OTB-chess –
and, as a consequence, demands good competitive nerves – this aspect is
almost non-existing in corr.chess. Postal-players, on the other hand, must have other
qualities, not needed in OTB, namely patience (stamina), and structure (and plenty of time


Translated by Chris Hinman and Morten Lilleøren.




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