Calculate, move, return to sender: The slow genius of correspondence chess
Before computers arrived, PB Dhanish waited for the mailman to deliver his opponents’ moves.
New Delhi: Before computers arrived, PB Dhanish waited for the mailman to deliver his opponents’ moves. It is how correspondence chess was historically played – via mail, with days to ruminate over a single move before writing it down on a postcard and mailing it to an opponent. A reply would take weeks, months, and sometimes one never heard back. Once correspondence chess moved to online servers with engine-assistance allowed, Dhanish had three computers running round the clock – scouring databases for the perfect move. Dhanish happens to be India’s only international correspondence chess Grandmaster (GM).
He’s no longer an active player. Now, Dhanish just goes by his day job – lecturer at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Kozhikode, Kerala. After long, there is a possible second correspondence chess GM from India on the horizon. K Sasikiran – who became India’s fifth GM 23 years ago, has been playing correspondence chess for close to a decade. He is currently a senior International Master (IM), and the country’s highest rated player in the format, (Elo rating of 2540) with a shoo-in to become the country’s second correspondence chess GM.
In a game where players have retooled their repertoire around chess engines, what does it mean to have correspondence exponents ganging up with these behemothian engines and playing games that last months and tournaments that run into years? Neutralised contests with incredibly accurate games and a high rate of flawless draws. It partly explains India’s lengthy wait for a second correspondence GM.
“It’s hard (to get a correspondence GM norm). To get a plus two (two wins) in top tournaments is incredibly tough. I have one GM norm so far, and a double GM title does sound nice. I’m hoping I can get it this year,” said Sasikiran.
To illustrate the pervasiveness of draws in correspondence chess in recent times: Last October, 69-year-old American Jon Edwards won the World Correspondence Chess Championship with 14 draws in 16 games. Of the two full points he won, one came off an opponent’s withdrawal. The standard time control is 10 moves in 50 days and the tournament ran from June 6, 2020, to October 8, 2022. That is two years, four months, and a globe-defining pandemic between start and finish.
Sasikiran first took to correspondence chess in the months that followed the 2013 World Championship match between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen. Anand and his team (which Sasikiran was a part of) were put through the wringer, Carlsen was crowned the new world champion, and Sasikiran found himself feeling spent in the aftermath, with no over the board tournaments to look forward to.
Correspondence chess seemed like the ideal way to stay in touch with high-quality games and shovel in some theoretical work. Modern correspondence chess is seen as a great tool for learning fresh openings and to gain a better understanding of the main lines. “When I started playing correspondence,” says Sasikiran, “I mainly followed Dhanish’s games. They were very impressive.”
Dhanish took to chess around his late teens-early twenties in the 1980s and started right-away with correspondence. “I started late and there were barely any over the board (OTB) events in Kerala then,” he says, “It’s how correspondence happened for me. I did go on to play the World Championship semi-finals.”
The now 58-year-old who has a blurry recall of hanging around the Tal club in Chennai and the celebrations that followed Anand’s 1987 World Junior win, touched a peak ICCF rating of 2608. He looks back at his days of playing postal games with a throaty laugh. “Those were crazy times. There was no surety an opponent would write back. If you didn’t hear for a month, you sent a reminder. Sometimes players went on a 30-day leave during a game. Cheating was commonplace I suppose, but there was no way to prove it.” Once games moved online, he found it ate into a greater part of his day. “In postal games you could just mail your moves and forget about it for a while. With computers and engines coming in, things changed. All day you’re running checks on engines and the games just never leave your head. It’s why I quit. It was getting too much for me.”
The advent and use of engines in modern correspondence chess – everyone being free to use their best means to arrive at the best moves – has been a game-changer. It has also led to questions over the relevance of the medium. Correspondence players, however, argue that despite computers dominating the analysis and gameplay, there are still areas where man trumps machines.
“Trainers of top OTB players do have an eye on correspondence games for fresh ideas. I see material from correspondence games being used in online chess courses,” he said. “In correspondence, generally the most accurate directions to equalise are played. So when I play OTB, given the time constraints, I’m just looking to transfer a playable idea or pose a small problem. I’ve almost never won tactical battles in correspondence. It’s the long-term positional manoeuvring that humans are better at than machines, that’s seen me through.”
In this regard, reigning World Correspondence champion Edwards’s thoughts on a 119-move final is telling. “In one middle-game sequence, to make progress, I had to find a way to force Osipov (the opponent) to advance his b-pawn one square, all while avoiding the 50-move rule. I accomplished the feat in 38 moves, in a sequence that no computer would consider or find,” he told Chess Life.
Recuperating from a knee surgery at the moment, Sasikiran finds it fascinating that in a machine-led medium, there’s still room for human ingenuity to shine: “If you think about it, correspondence chess comes closest to the game’s deepest truths.”