How To Play The Opening in Chess

When I wrote about the Sicilian Najdorf Opening and my choice of a 6gth move, I got to thinking about my favourite chess book. A difficult question as there are so many wonderful books on players, tournaments, specific openings and defences etc. One thing you can add to that are our own memories of a book, how we came by it and what impression it made on us.

Not having a formal chess education I came to the game through playing chess with an uncle and then a few other older people. Later in life I went back to the game and got my first chess book, it was ‘How to Play the Opening in Chess’ by Keene & Levy. Probably not a classic for many people but to me it opened up a whole new world of chess openings, defences and strategy.

That book was my constant companion for many years, today it sits in a cupboard with its spine all taped up to stop it falling apart. I have had the book for 42 years and even today it is probably my favourite book of the hundreds that I have owned. Why is it so good, well partly due to the history I have with it, but also because it coves so much in 224 pages.

We are treated to introductory sections followed by a chapter on each of the main lines, each chapter has 4 main sections plus lots of side lines, the chapters are,

  1. Development and Tactics
  2. The Importance of Pawns
  3. Psychology in Opening Play
  4. Kings Gambit
  5. Giuoco Piano and Two Knights Defence
  6. Ruy Lopez
  7. Sicilian Defence
  8. French Defence
  9. Caro-Kann Defence
  10. Queens Gambit
  11. Nimzo Indian Defence
  12. Kings Indian Defence
  13. Dutch Defence
  14. Modern Defence
  15. Flank Openings
  16. Some Other Openings

As you can see the book covers a lot of ground. It is a great start for someone learning the game but be aware that many of todays choices are not covered so far as modern theory is understood. For example the Sicilian Defence covers the Lowenthal Variation, Rauzer Variation, Dragon Variation and Kan/Taimanov Variation. There’s no Najdorf in there!

Having mentioned that point, I would still heartily recommend this book to beginners and those looking to advance their game. It is an easy read, not too complicated and one that I often turn to.

Rubbish In Rubbish Out

Correspondence Chess is a difficult game and unless you are exceptional you will need a decent database to play competitively. I would go so far as to suggest that even a strong player will need that decent database.  Having a collection of your opponents games and those of high rated players, will give you an opportunity to research your opponents games and to discover what lines are working and which are not.

Unfortunately databases are only as good as the information put into them, a term used for poor databases is ‘Rubbish in Rubbish Out, or Garbage in Garbage Out. Rubbish as defined by ‘Chambers‘ as waste matter, litter, trash, rubble, trumpery, nonsense etc so perhaps it is a bit harsh to think of this term when I refer to Correspondence Chess databases but often they do contain errors such as player names, event dates and in some caes the moves played!

There are however some very good ones out there, for example Ultracorr (no longer available) from Tim Harding and perhaps the ChessBase CC Database though I do not have that one. Perhaps the best way to ensure you have a decent database of correspondence games is to maintain your own by importing from others and refining your data as and when you can.

To do that you need reliable sources and I mainly use the ICCF Game Archives (ICCF players only) alongside the ChessPublishing (membership fee) analysis. You could add The Week in Chess or another reliable source of free games. The alternative is to purchase quality databases from a reputable supplier such as Chessbase. An alternative free option is the ChessBase Online database where free membership secures access.


Impossible to Win

Has Correspondence chess become impossible to win? Certainly the number of drawn games may suggest that it has but such a defeatist attitude spells the death of the game. I decided to take a quick look at the latest database of completed correspondence games in ICCF and compare these against a similar number from OTB tournaments recently finished.

The figures were a little surprising but then my analysis is very basic, I will do more work on this. The ICCF database for June 2017 has 4,374 completed games of which 28% were wins, 55% drawn and 17% losses. This compares to OTB games where 38% were wins, 30% drawn and 32% lost. I haven’t yet checked the figures for either side of the board.

From that quick and simple analysis we can see that more than half of correspondence games are drawn, but why is this? Perhaps because players use computers and programs are evenly matched or perhaps there are other reasons, for example the strength of the player base.

Overall I need to do a lot more work in this area, perhaps compare time periods, openings, defences and ratings of players. Therein there may be an answer to support a good reason for the continuance of correspondence chess for those of us that still believe in the game.

Where I Play Correspondence Chess

There are many places where you can get a game of correspondence chess, local and International clubs exist and both options will offer a wide range of tournaments for all standards of play. It may be best to explain how Correspondence Chess is played and organised.

The game is not and has not been solely restricted to postal play, early games used the telegraph system whilst later correspondence players embraced change and quickly adopted email, fax and online methods of play.

Nowadays the majority of games are played on web-servers, a website where you login and make a move on the board. Your opponent will later make their move and the game is then ready for you to log back in and reply. A variety of time-limits are available so that you can choose to play at a pace suited to you.

The main decision to make is whether to play in one of the clubs affiliated to your ‘National federation’ which is affiliated to the world governing body, or to go with one of the many clubs running mostly as sole enterprises. Either choice will give you great games and allow you to make new friends in the game.

A list of National Federations is maintained by ICCF, select your country to get a local point of contact who can recommend affiliated clubs in your area. Joining a club linked to a National Federation will also allow you to play ICCF tournaments.

Online servers are a great option for those wanting to play online at the slower pace of correspondence play, There are a lot of these about and a web-search will provide lots of links for you to evaluate before joining one, some are free, some offer trial membership and some require a small payment.

Of the online servers the main one for me is the ICCF Webserver but you will need to be a member of your National Federation or a club affiliated to your NF. next up is the Scheming Mind webserver which is affiliated to the Welsh Correspondence Chess Federation so will also give you games on the ICCF webserver.

It is not uncommon for players to be members of several clubs, if you do this just remember to keep an eye on how many games you sign up for. Too many and it may become a burden, get the number of games right and you should have some great fun. In the past I have been too loyal to clubs and tried hard to manage too many cups in the air at one time, nowadays I take things a little easier and have limited my memberships to just three organisations with a common theme, they all allow me to play my games on the ICCF Webserver. Doing it this way means I only have to login to one site and can view all of my games at one, besides, ICCF do have a very good playing server.