By Dr John Wharam
When Bob asked me if I'd write an article on the use of computers in correspondence chess I was quick to agree because I have strong views on the subject! My correspondence chess career started with postal and alongside the development of email and then the ICCF Webserver I have had to adapt to the development of chess databases and deal with the ever-increasing strength of chess engines.
I think that the ICCF Webserver is a fantastic innovation; it handles all the time and administrative issues for you and is 'drag and drop' - what could be easier or more convenient? The other big computer plus for me has been Chessbase which has transformed my opening preparation. In June I will begin playing in a semi final of the 37th World Correspondence Chess Championship. When I know who my opponents will be I will look at their previous games so that I can prepare against them. What sort of openings do they struggle against? Are there particular types of position that they mishandle? I enjoy this part of the game and appreciate being able to get game information so easily.
The use of chess engines is an entirely different matter and one I feel very strongly about. I continue to play correspondence chess because I enjoy trying to discover the truth about positions that interest me; no way am I going to just switch on a computer and then send off the move it suggests!
Some organisations try to ban the use of chess engines but this is unenforceable so it doesn't work well at all. The only practical solution is to accept that some players will use them and this is the route that the ICCF have taken for International play. The reality is that there is extensive use of chess engines in high level correspondence play. So how do I deal with this given my strong opinions? I start each game with the expectation that my opponent is going to use them and I try to get the sort of positions that engines struggle with. By taking this practical approach I have found that another dimension has been added to the game and I enjoy the added challenge.
I usually play much faster than my opponents and have between 10 and 20 games on the go at a time. I spend about 10% of my time analysing at the board or using Chessbase and about 90% is spent mulling over different options whilst riding my bicycle or out walking. Despite the ever increasing strength of chess engines my rating has slowly climbed over the years and I am now an IM so my approach might have some merit. Whether you want to use engines to help you analyse, or like me just want to exploit their weaknesses, a good starting point would be 'Modern Chess Analysis' by GM Robin Smith. Correspondence chess is an activity that brings me a great deal of enjoyment, pleasure and satisfaction; if you haven't tried it then why not give it go?
If you haven't already seen it, here is an earlier article about John's achievements in correspondence chess.