The Gambiteers Guild

Discovering another correspondence chess

By FIDE-Master Marius Ceteras

Translation by ICCF-IM V. Eugen Demian

Not long ago I finally got my hands on "World Champion at the Third Attempt" by ex-World Champion GM Grigory Sanakoev. I have heard a lot about the extreme high quality of this book, possibly the CC equivalent of the famous "Zurich 1953" by David Bronstein.

Buying a book over the internet is a simple process for someone from the Western World: they log in at the site of their choice, type in the VISA number on the secured order form and the book is coming their way in 2-3 weeks. Unfortunately things are different when you are from Romania. Eastern Europe has a reputation (good or bad, hard to decide depending on your point of view) for their hackers and most companies doing sales over the internet refuse to honor orders coming from us. Another option we have is by money order, but for small amounts banks are charging fees higher than what you pay for your purchase. I was lucky to have a third option: a friend bought it for me and even delivered it when he came over for a visit.

It was worth the wait! This book is a benchmark of the chess literature in general. It is not just a technical book, but also the real story of a life dedicated to correspondence chess, story GM Sanakoev was so kind to share with us all. It caught my full attention immediately, taking priority over all other chess activities. My opponents had to wait a few extra days for my moves (some quite obvious), but there is plenty of time in correspondence chess... Truth being said it is very hard to find the strength to look at your own Earthly games with a book like this right in front of you…

Page after page Grigory was unveiling another correspondence chess World, completely different from what I see around these days. It felt like a totally different game! Today the raw computer technique has replaced the human imagination and creativity. You have to think twice and bite your lips hard before you do a positional pawn sacrifice, or launch a bayonet attack. An increased number of cyber-chess players are playing these days, the sensible majority showcasing nice titles and a well-rounded arsenal. The chess fight has moved on a different level: very good opening preparation based on a reliable and updated database, long positional maneuvers in the middle game in search for that minimal positional advantage, followed by silicon endgame technique where with a bit of luck Nalimov tablebases could help you win a K+2N vs. K+p, or salvage a draw without breaking a sweat in a tricky K+R vs. K+R+N.

Talking about the impact of chess programs into correspondence chess is a long, pointless process. Most of the time each side defends its opinion and dismisses with ease what the opposition is saying. However one thing can be taken to the bank: chess programs have changed correspondence chess. It is not clear yet if these programs are completely destroying correspondence chess, even if some of the magic is gone for good. One of the real effects can be seen around us: the appearance of a new type of player already named above as "cyber-chess players".

What is a cyber-chess player? Please allow me to elaborate: it is a player with minimal chess knowledge, but having lots of patience in working with a top chess program. He has discovered that whatever he does not know yet is fully compensated by the chess program. All of a sudden his play has improved, stupid mistakes are completely eliminated and whenever something is cooking on the other side of the board, Fritz and Co. are providing not only warning bells but a good defense as well. No more danger of being published as a victim of a brilliant combination, or great potential to come up with an implacable winning combination if the opponent is distracted, or his computer has a virus. Forget the low entry level rating, the cyber-chess player can cream anyone in great style if given only an inch…

There is one sour spot though: computer programs are still clueless at positional play and complex endings. Imagine the silicon monster being able to maneuver a la Karpov, or display the complex understanding in the endgame like Rubinstein… Nothing would stop the cyber-chess player from reaching the elite and getting full recognition for the newly acquired computer handling skills! Having none of that, he remains a simple spectator to the crystal clear looking play of a Hamarat, Umanski or Timmerman. Somehow they remain intangible!

Of course the cyber-chess player deserves praise and rewards for his work. He's been working hard and within the rules of play, hasn't he? The era of sleepless nights and dreams about great chess moves has transformed into more technical concerns such as: What if a power shortage will knock out the computer left running over night? Does it have the latest virus definition files to protect the priceless data? We can be sympathetic for these efforts! The cyber-chess player can say out loud: "I am an International Master and I deserve it!"

I still don't know if a cyber-chess player can be considered a true chess player. First I will explain what I understand by "true chess player". In my humble opinion there is no connection between the OTB level of play expressed by the FIDE rating and the correspondence chess one from ICCF. I am aware of the formula and samples provided by my friend Wim van Vugt showing the connection between these ratings, but I doubt this connection is generally applicable.

About a year ago I have had the honor of visiting Vladimir Salceanu - current European Champion - at his home in Bucharest. He is an OTB national master with diminished chess abilities because of his advanced age. Probably in today's OTB reality he would not be able to keep up with 16 years old youngsters in speed and memory. However there is something time could not take away from him: the knowledge of the game! I will never forget his live presentation of the games from that European final, full of rich positional ideas and fine maneuvers. For a few hours I sat like an eager student listening to a priceless presentation from a top quality teacher. He will always be not only a great correspondence chess player, but also a true chess player with a mandatory chessboard always ready somewhere in a quiet corner of his house. Having said the above, please don't judge me when I refuse to consider as a true chess player someone incapable of understanding the moves proposed by the chess program. Finding moves without it is definitely out of the question…

You might want to know how to recognize a cyber-chess player. I've met quite a few already! The chess conversation touches the latest news in chess software, or a confident presentation of on-going games where the cyber-chess player is - of course - clearly winning by +0.63 as shown by Fritz and Co. Here and there he will toss in general concepts such as "open files" and "bishops' pair" without going beyond the surface. That would require some heavy reading and study that is so old fashioned today... Where is that button we have to press?

OK, enough already about the cyber-chess player. Let's go back to Grigory's book and those beautiful games. Each one of them is elixir for the mind, leaving no doubt for me that chess is more than anything an art. Of course the incredible desire to be successful and win is present everywhere in the book defining Grigory as a player and person. A lot of us have this desire, but only true Champions are capable to transform this desire into reality! Chess is like a pit less bonanza of extraordinary moves; you can find a lot of these in this book. One has caught my attention in particular; it is from the following game:

S. Tanin - G. Sanakoev
1/2 Final of 6th USSR corr ch, 1960
French / C18
Notes By Marius Ceteras

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e5 c5 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 Ne7 7. Qg4 cxd4 8. Qxg7 Rg8 9. Qxh7 Qc7 10. Ne2 Nbc6 11. f4 dxc3 12. Qd3 Bd7 13. Rb1 O-O-O 14. Be3 Nf5 15. Nd4 Nfxd4 16. Bxd4 f6! 17. exf6 e5 18. Bc5 exf4 19. f7 Ne5 20. Qa6

After a very sharp opening phase, very characteristic for Sanakoev's style, we reached a double-edged position. Each side walks on a very thin edge where a slip means falling into the abyss. Sanakoev comes up with a sensational solution} 20...Rde8!! {Incredible, magnificent, superb are merely words struggling to describe such a move. After a few extatic moments a horrible thought passed thru my mind: would it be possible for a cyber-chess player to come up with such a move? There was only one way to ease the pain of such a thought: I entered the position on my home computer (a weak 300 MHz, 64 RAM unit) and decided to give it sufficient reflection time. I intended to spend the evening watching a soccer game on TV, so I gave my computer 45 minutes to crunch down Sanakoev's position. When the referee blew the wistle for halftime, I jumped from my couch to see the result of my experiment. What a dissapointment! Even my weak computer was capable to show after 45 minutes the main options for Black: Rge8 and Rde8 with advantage for Black. All other Black choices were bad. It is clear there would be nothing complicated left for the cyber-chess player: force the computer to dig deep into these 2 options, save the work and win the game in spectacular fashion. It is possible the cyber-chess player will not stop here, but collect his few minutes of glory as well by publishing his game in a few chess magazines as a result of intense labour... Returning to the game we can witness Sanakoev collecting the fruits of his labour untouched by silicon.

21. fxg8=Q Nd3+ 22.Kd1 bxa6 23. Qxe8+ Bxe8 24. Bxd3 Qxc5 25. Rb3 Qe3 26. Rxc3+ Kd8 27. Rf1 Bh5+ 28. Rf3 Bxf3+ 29. gxf3 Qxf3+ 30. Ke1 Qe3+ 31. Kf1 f3 32. Rc6 Qd2 33. Rf6 Qg2+ 34. Ke1 Qg1+ 0-1

As I said before this book offers not only games of extreme beauty, but also the life aspects surrounding them, as well as Grigory's daily dilemmas, hopes, and plans. What can be more useful for a correspondence chess player? There are hints and tips for everyone to organize themselves better with one exception: the cyber-chess player. For this particular breed all these advices are ancient history, or simply ridiculous. How could you do this Mr Sanakoev? How could you forget our present cyber-chess players? We will have to lower your mark for this omission. On a second thought, I will do my best to repay you for all the hours of joy you offered so generously.

Dear cyber-chess player here is the missing part of Mr Sanakoev's book:

1. Always carry a notebook with your on-going games (GM Sanakoev)

01. Your laptop is now your most important weapon in your arsenal. Keep it always handy! (Marius)

2. Every three or four moves draw a diagram in the notebook showing the position after your own move. This helps you to keep the position in your memory and saves time when your opponent's reply arrives. You don't have to play through the game from the start but can set up the position for analysis straight away. The time saved may not seem all that much, but if you have a large number of games going on at once and receive several replies a day, you do notice the difference. Furthermore, you avoid the aggravation of having to keep going over the mistakes you made earlier…(GM Sanakoev)

010. Keep an updated database of all your on-going games and verify it daily (Marius)

3. Keep a pocket set on you. When a game gets interesting it is never far from your thoughts, and plausible continuations may come into your head in the most unexpected places - during a walk, in a bus or train, at the dentist. In such cases it pays to play through the possible variations on your pocket set without bothering about the looks of astonishment from the other people. At the end of the day, there is nothing to be ashamed of in chess…(GM Sanakoev)

011. Your laptop is immune to your schedule. You can take a bath, or a stroll in the park, or even have a nice dinner at the restaurant; your laptop will continue to crunch down what you give him. Make sure the batteries are fully charged and an outlet is always nearby for good measures. If you happen to have a chess set with you, your disguise will be even better (Marius)

4. Don't be slack about writing down what you have found in your analysis, even if you aren't entirely convinced of its accuracy. That way you won't have to go down the same path several times over, and your field of research is narrowed; after all, improving or refuting a variation is much easier than thinking it up from scratch. If you don't have your notebook to hand, write down the first few moves of the variation on a cigarette packet, a doctor's description, or whatever - but copy it out neatly afterwards. Don't rely on your memory; it is not infallible. There is nothing more exasperating than laboriously trying to retrieve a line you have found and forgotten. The thought "I remember there was something here' persists like thirst in the desert, and your efforts to reconstruct the variation often have no more chance of success than searching for a lost oasis. (GM Sanakoev)

100. Always save your analysis. Millions of brilliant analysis has been lost because of a simple omission: to press "Save" before closing! However not all hope is lost, as your chess program will re-discover the same analysis later on. There are no memory problems in the silicon World and time, as I said, is plenty. It is very common to need more time in correspondence chess… (Marius)

5. After putting your move on the postcard, you must check it with the eyes of someone learning chess notation for the first time. This reduce the likelihood of writing it down wrongly, leading to most distressing misunderstandings. (GM Sanakoev)

101. A good cyber-chess player is always using a program capable to transform a simple file into a game report ready for transmission. Please be careful not to send your analysis together with your move! (Marius)

Before finishing my book review, please allow me to present one more time Mr Sanakoev's "business card" as defined by himself.

G. Sanakoev - Y. Shaposhnikov
6th USSR corr Ch Final, 1963
Sicilian / B47

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 e6 5. Nc3 Qc7 6. g3 a6 7. Bg2 Nf6 8. O-O Be7 9. Be3 O-O 10. Kh1 Rd8 11. f4 d6 12. Bf3 Rb8 13. Qe2 Na5 14. g4 b5 15. g5 Ne8 16. f5 b4

17. fxe6 fxe6 18. Bh5 g6 19. Qf2 Ng7 20. Qf7+ Kh8

21. Bxg6 Nc4

22. Nc6 Ne5 23. Nxe5 Bb7

24. Qxg7+ Kxg7 25. Rf7+ Kh8 26. Rxh7+ Kg8 27. Ng4 1-0

The absence of annotations is intentional. None are needed. A true chess player already has this book at home on the shelf. If not he will buy it sooner or later and will have the pleasure to add his own annotations to this beautiful game. As for a cyber-chess player, nothing is missing. Any annotation would just create confusion when put beside all those heavy looking lines provided by Fritz and Co.

There is not much left to say. The greatest loss is the fact "that" kind of correspondence chess died with the proliferation of chess programs. However "World Champion at the Third Attempt" remains as a permanent reminder that such correspondence chess existed! Those were the days of no cyber-chess…

Games in Palview

Copyright 2003 Marius Ceteras. All rights reserved.