05 January 2009

Game Load: Turn-Based Chess

Correspondence players, as well as those engaged in what some are calling turn-based chess, play many games at once. At sites such as Chess World, Red Hot Pawn (aka Chess at Work), and Chess.com, some folks have hundreds of games going at once. Others limit themselves to a small number. At most of these sites, you can join and play for free, but becoming a paying member unlocks additional site features, including more generous limits, or none at all, on the number of games going at once.

Quality play calls for fewer games, but much of the fun comes from tournaments and team play, and these often increase the game load dramatically.

Last week I was down to a dozen games on four such sites--two paid memberships, two free. I entered two club tournaments. One event needed one more player, and was wholly composed of players rated lower than me. They had been waiting some time--several weeks I believe--for one last player so they could begin, and I opted to take the risk to help them out. It's a risk because I won't gain much in the way of experience or rating beating all of them, but a little bit of slop on my part (or running up against an engine user) could hurt me. The other club tournament had been planned months ago, and finally started today. I'm number two in my group, but most of the others are near the rating I had a year ago, and where I had been for two years up to that point. I lose to those two hundred points below me often enough to know that all these games are serious, and most of my opponents are within one hundred on the rating scale. It has prospects of being a difficult and competitive tournament. The winners of the section advance to play the top finishers from the other section, so success means more games, and tougher too.

Both of these tournaments are double round robins with all games played at once. Thus, I have ten new opponents and twenty new games. In the past, I've carried as many as seventy-five games at once in this form of online play, but have learned through experience that thirty is a heavy load, and with more than that, I might as well play blitz. Too many games cause fast, and too often unsound, moves. Throughout 2008, when my skills and ratings improved notably, I maintained a load that varied from six to twenty correspondence games.

I try to play at a minimum of three days per move, which was the standard rate of play when I played via postcard. One of my games that is currently dragging on (I have a decisive advantage) is ten days per move. My opponent moves once every nine and one-half days. Perhaps he's using what called the "dead man's defense"--playing slow enough that there's a chance the opponent will pass away before delivering the coup de grace. Some games can be really slow. Most often, however, they last a couple of months in contrast to one to two years for postal chess.

In postal chess the clock starts running the day you receive the postcard. In turn-based, it starts running the instant your opponent submits his or her move. Postal chess typically requires one move per week for each player, while turn-based is often more than twice as fast--and the "mail" arrives Saturday night, Sunday morning, or any other time. There is no rest. Someone is always moving on these sites, except in the rare instances that the site goes down for ten minutes or three hours for some new coding uploads.

Getting Help

Engines are forbidden at most turn-based sites, and in most other forms of correspondence chess with a few exceptions. Several years ago, the International Correspondence Chess Federation abandoned all efforts to prevent engine use. In contrast, the International E-mail Chess Club still bans engine use. FICGS, the Free Internet Correspondence Games Server, permits engine use and is a good place to go for players interested in trying to use their engines to beat another's engines. Many strong correspondence players long have maintained that engines are not yet better than humans when players have three or more days per move. Indeed, engines playing alone without significant human guidance probably never achieve impressive ratings on FICGS.

One of the pleasures of turn-based and correspondence chess is the assumption that players will be using their books and databases, even when engines are not allowed. A player can buy the latest monograph on an opening, or create a deeply annotated electronic "book," then enter a thematic tournament in that opening. I learned some new lines and generally became much more comfortable playing both sides of the closed Spanish as a result of such an event four years ago. I did the same with the Reti, and I've played in thematic tournaments in openings with which I'm relatively uncomfortable or even almost wholly unfamiliar. It's a good way to get practical experience while learning a new opening.

Still, there are those who eschew books and databases on these sites. Questions whether they are legal is one of the standard noob inquiries in the forums of all these sites. A few purists and dogmatists understand that such help is allowed, but prefer not to use them and seek opponents with similar convictions. They are in the minority. Most players realize that any sort of game load whatsoever under such conditions would preclude the study of most chess books. For example, a week never goes by that I'm not looking at some grandmaster's game in the Queen's Gambit, French Defense, or Catalan, and I nearly always have games going in these openings. I cannot pledge to play only openings that I'm not studying. Giving up book study is completely out of the question. I play to improve.

Those who often face me in OTB chess know that I play a lot of different openings. A broad repertoire is a natural consequence of two activities: correspondence chess, and many years nurturing a blitz addiction. One of these helps me strengthen my preparation; the other assures only that there's nothing I haven't seen.

So, gentle reader, I ask you:

Do you play at these sites?

What size game load do you maintain?

How do you manage your time?


  1. I play at chess.com. In fact I have dropped the ICC and all my internet play is correspondence at Chess.com.

    I really enjoy as really let's you study the position and try to make the best choice possible. It is like doing the Rowson exercises every day!!

    Every once in awhile I get in a hurry but overall I think it is improving my OTB play. And it is fun and doesn't seem like an addiction like the ICC can.

    I generally try to have no more than five games going at once. Anymore than that and it starts to feel like a chore!

    Have a good one,


  2. I have played at Red Hot Pawn but the level there wasn't really good so after a year or so i didn't play there anymore.

    I play (for many years already now) at http://www.gameknot.com , it's kinda like Red Hot pawn but more to my liking.

    I dont have a time usage method. When it's my turn i just login to the site, look at the position a bit and make my move. That's probably why i only have around 1650 rating there. Maybe if i took those games more seriously (i only play games with thinking time 5 days a move or higher) my rating would go up but for now it's just a passtime event.

  3. I've played at GameKnot as well. I don't like it as well as RHP. The board is too small for one. Ironically, GK forums, which are awkward in design, and moderated too heavily, was how I first learned of Chess World. Someone was discussing it and explaining why GameKnot was so much better, so I went over to CW to see for myself. It didn't take long for me to conclude that GK was not higher quality, but lower.

    Rumor has it that CW was started by some folks that had played at GK and thought they could improve it. Although I've had a few personal discussions with Tryfon Gavriel, the webmaster of Chess World (aka Let's Play Chess), I've never asked him to verify this fact. The proprietor of GK remains aloof, and he never replied to any of my queries when I had a problem. I've had direct answers or responses to questions, criticisms, and compliments from Erik at Chess.com, Tryfon and other administrators at CW, Russ at RHP, and the webmasters of several other sites that I tried briefly.

    I'm a tad over 1700 at GK, but scored one win against a 2200+.

  4. I've played a light load of games at RHP for a couple of years, got the rating into the mid-1700s, took it rather lightly at times and lost a couple of games, currently at 1689 with just one active game.

    James, if you'd care to play me a game or two there you can challenge me, handle "Newvictorian."

  5. I play on chess.com. I have now 6 games running and I think this is about the right load. I had 16 running at some time (2 tournaments) and I think it was max. Moves in the opening I make right away after looking up in online DB, later it can take anything from 1 hour to 2.5 day, depending on how complicated the position is. I started my career there very well, losing just a few games, getting 1st place in my group in Ruy Lopez tourney, second in Marshall attack 4 players tourney and got my rating over 2000. Then something happened like I hit the wall. I made simple tactics blunders several times and started to lose one game after another. So, or I reached rating max or it's just a bad period. Yeah, it's good for openings, though I noticed that after these 10 Ruy Lopez games and quite interesting opening lines I don't remember much and still has to go over games to gain something for my OTB. Marshall attack games were very useful and changed my understanding how White should play, so I am not afraid to play it with White now. I already used one of the lines from there to win in online blitz game. It is useful for improving calculation technique too, I think, because you have enough time to do that.

  6. It is definitely a good place to try new openings. I already described on my blog how playing Sicilian, Moscow variation helped me OTB. Another example is Petrov defense. I, encouraged by my OTB win, tried it there and got smashed. I started another game and after just first non-DB move got into some trouble ( I actually found the right move in another DB later, of course everyone of GMs/IMs made that only move and nobody made mine :)). Anyway, at least I learned something.

  7. I admire those that have the patience for turn-based chess. I get so impatient I end up playing worse than in a typical slow game!

  8. Blue Devil,

    Impatience in one rationale for having an excessive load. If it's always your turn in more than a dozen games, you tend to forget the opponents that are dragging things out. Most of these sites also include a place near the game board for personal notes, where you can remind yourself of what you plan next. Conditional moves are possible at well at most sites (not at RHP though). You can enter variations that will play out automatically with no further action from you.