The trouble with most chess players is they have no patience. In the days before chess clocks were invented, games, and even tournaments, were often as not won on Sitzfleisch points alone. The better man, each time it was his turn to move, simply sat, ostensibly studying the board, for as long as he could get away with it or as long as his Sitzfleisch apparatus held out. The moment of triumph came when his rattled opponent got desperate enough to blunder or disgusted enough to resign.
In this speed-mad world, however, grand masters play for their titles to the ticking of the chess clock, 40 moves in two-and-a-half hours. As for amateurs, nothing delights them so much as lightning chess, a ridiculous travesty of the Royal Game, played at the impetuous pace of 10 seconds a move.
The stately tradition lives on, though, in correspondence chess, a leisurely sport in which the average game takes about a year, three-year games are not unusual, tournaments have been known to go eight years and the longest known match game is 34 years old and still going strong.
Of America's million-odd active chess players (among the 12 million or so who "know the moves"), fewer than 25,000 regularly play by mail. As one over-the-board buff put it: "I couldn't stand all that waiting between moves."
Correspondence players, though, make up in enthusiasm what they lack in strength of numbers. They play, not one game at a time, not two or three—they play 30 or 40. And this is just the run-of-the-mill player. Move up into the class of the dedicated enthusiast and you find men carrying on 100 or 150 games simultaneously. Move up further still, past the thin line that separates the fan from the fanatic, and you arrive at Robert Wyller, for example, a California gentleman who once accumulated a grand total of more than 1,100 simultaneous opponents. Where is the over-the-board master who has matched that record?
For obvious reasons, ordinary chessboards and chess pieces—even the midget variety—won't do for postal chess. The players keep their games going on small cardboard or plastic sets, often bound loose-leaf style. The pieces, also of cardboard or plastic, stay put between moves (which can mean anything from two days to better than a year) by means of adhesive; or they are fixed in slits cut into the chessboard squares. A score-card to keep track of the moves goes with each board. When a player makes a move he notes it on his scorecard, then sends his opponent a postcard (or a letter, if he can afford the postage) informing him, for example:
5 P-K4 P-QB4
Which, translated from chess notation, means: I acknowledge your fifth move, Pawn to King 4, and my reply is Pawn to Queen Bishop 4.
The opponent, when he gets the card, dutifully records the move on his own scorecard, makes the appropriate change on his chessboard (which is a duplicate of the one the other player has) and then decides on a reply. He, in turn, then sends out a card, which might read:
5 P-QB4 6 NxP
Translation: 1 acknowledge your fifth move, Pawn to Queen Bishop 4, and my reply is Knight takes Pawn.
Some players are quite content to send and receive no more than the bare moves; they eschew formal or informal salutation and ending and let the return address serve to identify themselves. Some, on the other hand, write long, gossipy letters and feel slighted if these are not returned in kind. Most players fall between the two extremes.
The approach to card and letter writing is a pretty fair reflection of the variety to be found among the 100-odd postal chess clubs in the U.S. At the bare-move extreme is the International Correspondence Chess Federation, which is as formal and as formidable as its name. The small-talk approach reaches its zenith in the Wild Goose, a loose-knit bunch that started in St. Louis in the '30s as the Chatty Correspondence Chess League. Its avowed purpose is to keep chess tempered with a steady flow of conversation. Charles E. French, a 50-year-old Richmond Hill, N.Y. securities clerk, and tournament director of the Geese, says a player who fails to keep up the patter is not invited to rejoin when his year's membership is up. The group, which accepts members by invitation only, currently has 11 members.
But back to the ICCF, which is to postal chess what FIDE is to over-the-board chess. FIDE is The Federation Internationale des Echecs. It is to over-the-board chess what Ford Frick and the Rule Book are to big league baseball. The ICCF grants official ratings, which run from Class 3 through 2 and 1, then on to Higher Master, International Master, Grand Master and World Master.
A Russian, V. Ragozin, was World Master of correspondence chess until his recent death. Ragozin got to the top by beating down the competition in a series of preliminaries, a semifinal, and the last World Individual Correspondence Chess Championship Tournament, one of about 300 tournaments for all grades of players run every year by the Federation.
A Federation rule states that a player must take no more than 30 days in which to make 10 moves. (The postcard's travel time in the mails isn't counted; the rule concerns thinking time only.) If Player X, for example, gets a card from Player Y on June 1, thinks about it and sends out his reply on June 4, he has used up three days. If he gets his next card on June 10 and doesn't reply until June 20, he has used up a cumulative total of 13 days. This leaves him only 17 thinking days in which to make his next eight moves.
If, at the end of 30 thinking days (remember—time in the mails isn't counted), Player X has not made 10 moves, Player Y mails a warning. Player Y then waits 10 days for a reply. If he gets none, he notifies both his opponent and the tournament director by registered mail. Player X is then officially reprimanded by the-tournament director for a time foul.
Two time fouls in a game are considered rough stuff, and a player is out. This tends to keep the players on their toes—if they do their thinking standing up. International Federation games have an absolute time limit of 30 months. At the end of that time unfinished games must be halted and the winner is decided by adjudication of the position.
The rules are roughly the same with the ICCF's North American affiliate, the Correspondence Chess League of America, one of the oldest (founded circa 1890) and largest (membership circa 1,500) postal chess outfits in the States. The league offers its members, for modest fees—50c' to $2—a wide assortment of events, from two-man challenge matches to the big annual Grand National for the postal chess championship of North America.
But with no World Championship at stake, play in the league tends to take a more relaxed turn. In fact it often takes a lot of goading to get a league member to report an opponent for tardiness. In one recent seven-man tourney one of the players never took less than three weeks to send replies. He got away with it until he stretched the interval to five weeks, at which point several opponents complained. When his reply time got to four months he was disqualified and his games were forfeited.
Down near the Wild Goose is an organization called the Knights of the Square Table (or NOST, the N being chess notation for knight). This is one of the newer clubs, which have been springing up in recent years like crab-grass in suburbia. Like most other clubs, it charges dues ($2 a year) and issues a monthly magazine (mimeographed). There the resemblance ends. The NOST is as formal as a floating crap game. Time complaints, except in special prize tournaments, are looked upon with a baleful eye. There are no entry fees except, again, for special tournaments, where all fees go back to the participants anyhow in the form of cash prizes.
Nost ratings are different, too. Newcomers start off as Schtunks and can work their way up through Schlemiel, Schmo, Schnook, Below Average to Average and Above Average. The player who gets to Average wins a "Legion of Merit," a sort of permanent trophy, but he also is automatically dropped back to his Schtunk rating. This serves admirably to keep the members from taking themselves or their chess matches too seriously.
The club was started in March 1960 by Bob Lauzon, a 51-year-old retail store manager from Pittsford, N.Y., who says he was driven to it by the unfriendliness of some of his postal chess partners. The club rules are set forth in a 12-point "creed." Sample:
"3. I will always accept defeat gracefully and thank the winner for a nice game.
"4. I will win graciously and thank the loser for a nice game.
"5. If I win 1 will thank the loser for thanking me for thanking him for..."
All of which might lead you to suspect that the NOSTS are either a bunch of crackpots, a group of die-hard Pollyannas or a little of each. Whatever you call them, the members are likely to agree—and to ask you to come on in, the chess is fine.
French, the Wild Goose president, also is captain of the New York Giants, an eight-man postal chess team that belongs to the National Postal Chess League. The National League has its headquarters in St. Louis, is 300 members strong and is run by Gordon Bennett, a tax accountant with a passion for organizing chess clubs.
There are also five teams in the American League, which Bennett organized when the National got too big to carry the membership load by itself.
Then there is the Courier Correspondence Chess Club which, though small (200 members), rates high because it is affiliated with the United Chess Federation and can grant official postal chess master's points.
And so it goes, big clubs and little clubs, formal ones and informal ones. But the biggest of all is not really a club at all; it is a magazine, Chess Review, published in New York by I. A. Horowitz, a former U.S. champion and the author of a five-foot shelf of chess books. The Review has a circulation of about 8,000, and some 5,000 of its readers regularly book themselves for one or more of its tournaments. These range from class tournaments to the annual Golden Knights, which offers a first prize of $250.
The current holder of the Golden Knights title is Hans Berliner, who is one of the exceptions that prove the rule of noncompatibility of over-the-board and postal players. Berliner is a master of board play and has held several local and state titles, including the New York state championship.
It was through Chess Review, incidentally, that Mr. Wyller of California booked most of his 1,100 games. (The Correspondence Chess League had him down for about 400.) Jack Straley Battell, executive editor of the Review and the man who does all the booking, says he "never could understand how Wyller had time to address all the cards, much less make the moves."
The resemblance—purely accidental—between chess notation and code has led to some odd situations, like the one late in the 19th century that involved Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion over-the-board player. Steinitz, an Austrian, played a series of correspondence games with one of his chief rivals, Mikhail Tchigorin, a Russian, and Austrian authorities suspected him of transmitting military secrets by code.
It led also to the banning by American authorities during World War II of correspondence chess games played with opponents outside the country. Not that chess players per se were any more suspect than, say, stamp collectors. It was just that there weren't enough censors around who knew chess notation, and it was felt that those who didn't know notation would be prone to accuse patriotic, but chess-playing, citizens of treachery. This was particularly likely to happen to players who sent their moves by cable. A man playing two games with an opponent might, for example, cable a message like this: "ONE FEFO WATI TWO NOCO DIFA," which would be more than enough to make even a level-headed censor start seeing spies in woodpiles. (The message is quite innocent. For purposes of cabling chess moves, each of the 64 squares on a chessboard is given a two-letter syllable. The squares on the bottom row are BA, CA, DA, FA, GA, HA, KA and LA; those on the second row are BE, CE, DE, FE, GE, HE, KE and LE, and so on. A move consists of two syllables—the syllable of the square on which a piece stands and the syllable of the square to which it is moved. FEFO, then, means a piece is moved from Queen 2 to Queen 4. As in ordinary postal chess, a player acknowledges his opponent's move, then makes one of his own. ONE FEFO WATI TWO NOCO DIFA means: "On Board 1 I acknowledge your move Queen 2 to Queen 4 and I reply King Knight 1 to King Bishop 3; on Board 2 I acknowledge your move Queen Knight 4 to Queen Knight 5 and I reply Queen Bishop 3 to Queen 1." The names of the pieces, which aren't really needed anyhow if both squares are given, are dropped to save cable costs.)
The espionage was imaginary. So far as is known (and neither the FBI nor other undercover-type agencies will talk), no one has ever used chess moves for sending secret messages. But true-life romance has bloomed from time to time through the good offices of the postal chess exchanges. Dick Rees, who has been secretary of the Correspondence Chess League of America since 1947, recalls several amours and near-amours that began with 1 P-K4. There was the gentleman from Arizona who was matched with the widow from Los Angeles and who, before their game had gone a bare dozen moves, had visited, wooed and won his erstwhile opponent. Before the honeymoon both withdrew from the tournament; after it, both resigned from the league. Rees declines to speculate on whether this was a comment on the league's having brought them together.
True-life enmity also has sprung fullblown from chess cards. Lauzon, the NOST's president, says that in his pre-NOST days he knew of a dozen-odd games that got to the just-stay-outa-my-way-if-you-ever-get-to-this-town stage. And Rees says he had to intercede in the case of one sore loser who sent his opponent a card warning him not to be too surprised if he got a package in the mail "and it blows up in your face." The winner, an elderly man who lived in a neighborhood plagued by teen-age hoods, spent many a sleepless night. Rees advised him to contact federal postal authorities.
But all this adventure is only the spice of postal chess. The average player never gets to taste more than the meat and potatoes. And, despite what over-the-board people say about them, postal players are as average a lot as you can find.
They range in age from 8 to 96; they are farmers, truck drivers, housewives, servicemen, doctors, dentists, lawyers, newspapermen, students, prisoners, business executives or bums; they live on social security, on handouts or on $75,000-plus a year; they live in the big cities, the suburbs, the exurbs, the sticks, the Far North and on merchant ships. There is, in short, little evidence to support the over-the-boarders' contention that postal players, one and all, are either crazy or far-out enough to pass for crazy.
It's true that a group of Cambridge University scholars lost a correspondence match to a Bedlam insane asylum team. But that was in 1883-85. Besides, it is quite as likely that Bedlam won in spite of, rather than because of, its outlook on life and chess.
Certainly there is nothing nutty in a leisurely approach to living. And if two men want to play chess at the rate of a move every three days—or every Christmas—who is to condemn them? Let us, rather, commend Dr. Munro MacLennan and his good friend Laurence Grant who, in 1927, while both were at Glasgow University, began a game that is still unfinished. Dr. MacLennan made his annual move, posting his letter from Sydney, Australia, where he now lives in retirement, to Mr. Grant last Christmas Day. Mr. Grant, who still lives in Glasgow, will send his reply on December 25th, 1962.
Let us praise these men, and the other practitioners of the lost art of leisure. For, as Mr. Grant says, "you just cannot hurry these things."