Russell Sherwood

Going Postal!

Russell Sherwood  Saturday, February 10, 2018

Until fairly recently (the mid-1990’s) the only option for Correspondence Chess was via the Post. Various matches had been played utilising radio, Telephone and Telegraph services but these all tended to be for international team matches rather than events for the individual player.


Correspondence Chess then morphed at a fairly rapid rate in the last twenty years – first through email, then onto the Server chess and with Mobile device based chess being at the cutting edge.  Unlike email based CC, which is more or less defunct (A tiny number of events exist) Postal Chess still maintains a small dedicated following.


Why is this?


There are a few obvious reasons – the most important one, which is often overlooked, is that Postal does not require a computer of any sort to play, which franchises a group of players to take part who could not otherwise. Also, these players’ value receiving and sending physical moves – often accompanied by, sometimes extensive, personal notes. This personal touch should not be underestimated in terms of the attraction to the adherents.


So what are the downsides? The vagaries of the postal service are a major one and the potential for lost moves. These in many ways are small compared to the potential cost issue. Let’s imagine I am playing a game against an opponent and the game goes on for 50 moves. So if I send each move one at a time this would be a cost of £32.50 for the game. Let’s scale this up to six opponents with all the games being doubleheaders, our total has risen to £195!  Thinking positively let assume we have a lot of conditional moves and reduce this by 50%, giving us a total of £97.50 for an event!


This is for a UK based event, an International one would be significantly more.  Now, this has to be compared to the cost of playing a server event (Entry fees can be ignored as they would be the same for both). This becomes a little tricky. If you already have an electronic device and data (Be it a Phone, Laptop or Tablet and Mobile data/Broadband/Fibre) then the cost can be considered zero (as they are sunk costs to use a financial term) but if you did not then there would be a bare set up cost of around £100 and a minimum of £10 a month – so potentially another £120 a year.


So as a summary of sorts – if you are not on the net at all, the postal chess is probably a slightly cheaper option but if you are connected it is not.  Why all this discussion on Postal Chess? I was musing about entering the BCCA Postal Champs next season – to attempt to add it to my Trophy cabinet. Having gone through the costs (which amount to the entry fees for 2 Grandmaster Norm events) I think perhaps it’s not worth the cost of adding to my collection after all!

You have been weighed, you have been measured and you have absolutely found wanting!

Russell Sherwood  Saturday, February 10, 2018

Over Christmas, I was watching one of my most-loved films – A Knight’s Tale. Within the (admittedly lightweight film) there is one very interesting concept – that of overcoming any natural disadvantages. This is shown in the film with two concepts – “Change the Stars” and “How a man like you, hope to beat a man like me?”

Now, what has this got to do with Correspondence Chess or Chess at all? The simple answer is psychology!


How do you approach each opponent – thinking you have no chance? Or that you will smash them?  Both of these are faulty ways of thinking for a large number of reasons including:


  • The nature of the Elo system is that you always have a chance, be it ever so slight of beating or losing to an opponent.
  • All rating systems are flawed as a tool to predict an outcome, based on the simple premise that they are an indication of how the player has performed in the past, rather than how they will perform in their next game.
  • Player’s ratings are on the move – so if two meet and their published ratings are 200 elo different but their newest rating will only be 50, which gap is correct?
  • One player may be up for a certain game, whilst the other may not be.


The very valuable lesson to learn from this is to think that you could win every game you play (Could not will!!) and the only thing that matters is this game – not ratings, titles or past history.  This may seem romantic If your opponent is 200 or 300 elo higher than you.


My riposte to this is that I have opponents who, a few years ago, I would have considered hard to beat, who now I look at the people I would target for a win in a tournament. Have my skills improved over that period, yes but more importantly so has my mindset – I now respect ALL opposition but fear none and this has shown in my upward curve of results and could do for you.


So in that time I have “Changed the Stars” and for any opponent who might consider “How could you hope to beat me?” I have the message – I know I can beat you, maybe not in this game but at some point!


This brings us full circle to the title of this article – “You have been weighed, you have been measured and you have absolutely been found wanting”. Is it not the time for you to consider how to unseat you next highly rated opponent? (Just as long as it's not me!)


Hold the Front Page

Russell Sherwood  Sunday, February 4, 2018

Dear Players and Readers,


For 2018 we have an exciting range of articles planned for your perusal including

Annotated Games – Including the Sensible to the Silly, The Entertaining to the Instructional

Player Interviews – Ranging from the Top Players to the most committed of players

Book Reviews – Looking for something for a new read?

SICALM (Stuff I came across last month) - - Potentially interested Chess related stuff

News from the Front – Regular round-ups of performance and progress in events

Norm Update – Who has gained what and Where?

Event Boosters – What’s coming up and Where?

Congress Update – The 2018 Congress is taking place in Llandudno this year – get updates on what’s happening

Articles – Ongoing articles on many facets of Correspondence Chess

From the Forge – What’s hot and What’s not in CC

Jaeger – Development news on the CC Specific Engine – Jaeger

WBook – Need an Opening book for CC – look no further

Software Guides – Want to know how to use Chess software to its full capability – look here!

Welsh, British and ICCF News – What’s happening in CC?

All together this comes close to a post most days so call back often!



In contempt

Russell Sherwood  Thursday, February 1, 2018

Here we are not talking about annoying people but the concept of considering the gap between you and the opposition in terms of playing strength. This has been coined “Contempt” in the engine world and is worthy of consideration for the aspiring player.


So what is contempt in engine terms? In we consider that, in very simple terms, an engine works by finding what it thinks is the best move and then the best response to this move and then the best response to this response and so on, creating a mainline.  This makes the simple assumption that the opponent will play the best possible response. Now if we are playing someone who is demonstrably a weaker or stronger player this will probably not be the case.


What was being found was that top engines were overestimating the strength of response (giving them too much “respect”) so the concept of “Contempt” was born. Different engines implement Contempt in different ways but all implementations use a modifier. The main practical benefit of this is to change the path the engine may take when it is searching for the best line. In general, it will mean avoiding exchanges and simplifications unless there is a clear advantage. The opposite would be true if a negative contempt were used (Respect would be a better name)!


Traditionally this function has only been available for Engine v Engine matches – but versions of Stockfish and other engines now exist where Contempt can be adjusted in Analysis.


Many players have held the view that Contempt should be left alone but it is an area worthy of experimentation. For example for a higher rated playing in an early round Open event, it is worth examination to see if alternative lines exist.


So in summary – this is a fairly unexplored area and one which might generate interesting results for pioneers!

7th Chess 960 World Cup

Russell Sherwood  Monday, January 29, 2018


The International Correspondence Chess Federation


7th Chess 960 World Cup


The tournament will be played by server and will be organized in three or four stages, depending from the number of the entries. The sections of the preliminary round will have 6 players (10 games) with 2 qualified for the next round. All sections will be with double round robin (players will have the same position with Black and White but all positions will defer from one opponent to another). Time control will be 10 moves for 30 days. The event will be rated for Chess 960 rating system.


Players may enter in the usual way through their National Federations or, where eligible, via the ICCF Direct Entry system.

·  All the finalists of the 4th Chess 960 World Cup can start the 7th Chess 960 World Cup from the Semi-Finals (starting approx. in the first half of 2019), entering via National Federation up to 30.11.2018.

Entries via National Federations should contain player’s name, e-mail address and ICCF ID and should be forwarded by e-mail to the Tournament Organizer, Leonardo Madonia, (e-mail: [email protected]) to reach him before 28th February 2018. It would be appreciated if Federations send entries “as received” and not delay them until closing date.

A player can apply for more than one preliminary group.

Allocation of players to their sections will be made as random as possible; however, geographical distribution as well as an achievement of reasonable equality of the average rating will be taken into account.


Tournament Organization

The tournament will start on 15.03.2018.

Registration will close on 28.02.2018 to allow for pairings.



Prize 1000 € for the first 3 players (500 €; 300 €, 200 €), no tie break.



The winner and the runner-up of each preliminary section will qualify for the next round.

Although the number of preliminary groups which each player may enter is unlimited, no player will qualify for more than two semifinal groups or more than one place in the final (in the case of four stages the qualification to the second round is unlimited).

In case the total number of players is not a multiple of 6, the players with the highest ELO (up to a maximum of 5, no multiple entries) will be moved directly to the next round.


· The winner of the 7th Chess 960 World Cup will qualify for a World Championship Candidates (tie break applies);


Member Federations are asked to give the tournament wide publicity to all their players.

We wish all participants many interesting games and new connections with CC friends in other countries, based on the spirit of friendship and the ICCF motto AMICI SUMUS.


The Blueprint

Russell Sherwood  Friday, January 19, 2018

So you want to progress to the pursuit of higher titles? There a number of areas to consider (and action) if you want to make progress. Most of these I have covered in some depth in previous articles but bringing these together is of some interest.



You need to gain access to events which will generate the necessary norms.  It is fairly simple to consider which events will give IM norms (Category 1 upwards) but this leads us to  two sub questions




                Once you reach 2300  up to Category 3-4 become openly available, Category 7 once 2400 is reached. Getting into a higher Category event is an aim of many players but this is not often available.


                Relative Difficulty


Not All Norm events are born equal, even those of the same Category. This may seem odd but the nature of an event, the nationality of the players and the prestige of the event can all affect the level of difficulty of achieving a norm. In addition, even and oddly numbered categories tend to be slightly different in strength.  Here one area to consider is the spread of ratings of the players as the average of the ratings drives Norms but spread can have a massive impact.


Norms vs Rating


This is a difficult pill for many players but once you are chasing Norms, ratings become secondary. You do need to avoid dropping any significant points but your aim is to secure the norm and this may mean taking negative elo-draws!



At lower rating levels, progress can be made by simply waiting for your opponent to make a mistake and blindly following an engine’s output. Once around 2200 is reached this is no longer the case and if you want to secure Higher norms, you need to win games. I covered this in “USP” but there are many ways to try and win games and you need to consider what your method(s) will be



At the start of the event you need to consider your game plan – what do you need to achieve for the Norm – 3 wins from 12 games? Whatever is necessary you need to consider how you intend to achieve this? Aim to draw with Black or play to win? Target specific players? Identify other players winning style?  All of these go into determining your game plan.


Time Management

Most players will have a portfolio of games. Are these Norm games you’re most important? If they are then you should give them the most time and attention.


Work it

With all the clever ideas in the world, one thing that is necessary to win games at the higher level is hard work and a lot of analysis. One thing is for certain, if you are playing mainly the Engines first or second choice then you will probably not win games at the higher level. The reason for this is quite simple – your opponent can see you coming!


So go for it!

The Curse of Zero

Russell Sherwood  Friday, January 19, 2018

In modern CC one area which sorts out the “Adults from the Children” (I was going to say Men from the Boy’s but that is rather sexist!) is how players deal with the dreaded engine evaluation of 0.0


Firstly was does an evaluation of 0.0 actually mean? Generally its not drawn, although some players seem to think that this is the case considering the number of draw offers made at this point. It actually means that the Engine considers the position balanced, using its evaluation criteria and search method.


Now let us consider the three sections of this definition


Position balanced


A balanced position does not mean a drawn one! Simply put balanced means that the positives and negatives of each side balance out. What can be interesting to see is if you make a move the Engine now considers it to be -0.07, even though little has changed in the position.


What is vital is that we need to consider what the Positives and Negatives of the position are (for both sides) and look for moves which move the balance in our favour.


Evaluation Criteria


Engines evaluate positions and then link these positions into lines to give an evaluation of a position. A typical human player will analyse in a relatively haphazard manner during a game, the reason for this haphazardness is that we build much of our knowledge by pattern recognition and motif knowledge (This is a very fancy way of saying you “know” an attack is on as you have played this kind of position before and also know it tends to be a Bishop Sac on h7 that unlocks the position). Engines are different, they have fairly fixed criteria that they look for and also use proxy measurements – so, for example, how would you define space in the sense of a cramped position?  Our definitions tend to be quite grey and lose but the engine will have a very strict one (probably something like the number of available moves)


This means that often the engine's evaluation is 0 because it cannot see anything or the scoring simply cancels out.  For us, to progress, we need to add our positional knowledge and understanding of motifs (Small components of plans – e.g. a Rook Lift) to direct its tactical brilliance. Often simply showing it a move will be enough to steer it in the right direction.


We also need to consider the faults in the evaluation criteria of the engine(s), due to the fairly fixed nature of their evaluation criteria. Let me give a very simple example.


Let’s say we have a very simple engine that only uses a piece points based system for evaluation (1=pawn, 3 = Knight and so on). How would we beat it – traditionally the answer would have been with Gambits and/or Sacrifices later in the game. Why did this tend to work – because there is more to evaluating the position than material, so even though we might be -2 down in the very simple evaluation criteria, we might actually have a massive winning position!


So we might try and add some more knowledge to our engine and this will improve the situation but again there will be ways to exploit both the fixed and faulty nature of the evaluation criteria. This is very much the story of engines until early in the 21st Century.  The gaps still exist but are much more subtle. For example, many engines struggle with a Queen vs Minor Pieces situation, unless the position if fairly easy to progress.


So how do we work in this area – simply we need to evaluate the position ourselves. Are those doubled pawns actually bad or are they a positive, in this position? and develop our plans accordingly



Search Method


Different Engines has different ways that they decide which positions to analyse. In a 0 position, we should look how we can encourage them to look in a manner more conducive to our cause. I have covered the details in the past but the main method is to look at the Engines Parameters, for functions such as LMR, Null Move, Wide Search and similar. These all encourage the Engine to look harder at a position. The Evaluation faults will remain but even the dumb engine may stumble upon a plan!


Putting all this together to progress from 0 way may need to go into negative territory but as long as our own evaluation is clear this should not be a concern as this situation will right itself over the course of the game (hopefully). I know in playing the KID this is a mandatory path!


The New Normal

Russell Sherwood  Thursday, January 18, 2018

A while ago I had a look at tournament opportunities signing off with a promise of a review of them at the higher level.


From the diagram, we can see for any rating the level of Category event we can or should hope to be entered into.

As a general rule, it will be the same level as we are now – so beginning at 2251 (1), we go up a Category every 25 elo points. This is complicated a little by the new(ish) Individual Category calculation but for the purpose of this discussion, the Tournament Category is more relevant.


So if you are a 2260, then a Category 1 would be the normal expectation and so on.


There are some finesses to this…..


For Invitational Tournaments it is typical that the “home” players will be 1 or 2 categories lower than the average and the “Overseas” players will be 1 or 2 Categories higher than the average. So our 2260 could hope to get up to a Category 3 this way.  Clearly, the opposite is true if you are the “Overseas” player invited to someone else’s party.


It you play in international Opens, often later rounds will offer higher Category events but you have to get there!


International Team Events can offer higher Categories than you might normally be able to access but these require you to be selected for a team.


So where does this leave the aspiring player? A few thoughts:


  • Don’t expect to be offered players much above your current Category by your National Federation, unless you happen to be (a) One of the stronger players and (b) Part of one of the smaller federations.
  • Unless you have a good reason to take part, avoid events which are more than 2 Categories below your natural category. The reason for this is that anything short of an excellent performance can impact your elo significantly
  • Look closely at International Opens – what is the likelihood of getting through the first round to the “good stuff”
  • Make sure your national federation knows about your willingness to play – if they don’t they cannot select you! BUT do realise that you generally have to “pay your dues” to be selected


So that’s a very quick review of Rightsized Categories!


In the War-room

Russell Sherwood  Thursday, January 18, 2018

If we want to succeed in CC we need to bring some organisation and systemisation to our efforts. Why? In the simplest sense we need to (a) Make the most of our playing time and (b) Make the most of our research/training/development time.  If we are not organised most people have a tendency to both waste time and repeat mistakes. This leads us to the creation of , what is called by many, a War-room.


A War-room is simple a place of focus on our CC. This can be a physical space and/or an electronic space and/or an psychological space.  It is also worth noting that this approach is almost equally applicable to over the board Chess.


Psychological Space


  • How do you get yourself into a headspace for chess? It could be that you’re simply “in the mood” but if you want to help this along having certain music, smells or drinks to get you in the mood can be help your performance. Determining the right choice here is difficult but a little trial and attention usually helps.


  • What time of day to you work best? Im lucky in that Im happy both early and late but for some it does make a massive difference.


  • Considering and managing your emotions – How do you feel when a position is going well or badly? Does this affect your judgement and the types of moves you might make? I learned a long time ago not to analyse if Angry about something…..



Electronic Space


I have mentioned in the past that you should not really be using your computer for anything else at the same time as analysis, mainly as the system speed is impacted. Other areas to be considered:


  • Game Recording – You really need one of the main GUI’s: Chessbase, Fritz, Aquarium, Chess Assistant, Hiarcs, Arena………There are many both commercial and open-source. All have pro’s and con’s, which will be covered in a future article. The main point of this is recording your thoughts, Analysis and Ideas around a game, so you can refer to them and potentially correct any incorrect ideas should the game go against you.
  • Database Software – All of the GUI’s mentioned , have some database functionality so again it’s a similar choice. You also need to determine which Databases you intend to use, where to obtain them from and how to keep them up to date. In modern CC , Database manipulation is an essential skill to avoid finding yourself in a dodgy position at move 15!
  • Analysis Software – You guessed, all of the software above will perform this functionality. To go with your choice of GUI, you need to select your main supporting engine(s) Ive covered this in the past and will publish and update soon but the keys here are to (a) Select an engine which you get to know , in terms of its strengths and weaknesses and (b) Having an engine which fits your style and choice of opening.
  • Folder Structure – You will build up a lot of files of various sorts. This need to be organised into folders so you can find the information quickly.


All of this software needs to be set up to suit your style – for example if you want to use Database A, Engine B and Opening Book C, these need to be set up as either defaults or Standards you can select. This is different on all the software above but well worth the time learning.



Physical Space


If you are lucky enough to have this or even a corner of a home desk a few items are very sensible


  • A 2nd Monitor – This I find useful for almost anything but the main point is that we can be analysing a game on one screen whilst look at a database or e-book at the same time on the other. It is also worth checking the settings of your monitor – having one too bright or not bright enough or with the wrong screen resolution can be very tiring.
  • A Book Shelf – Whislt some players like Electronic versions of chessbooks, many (including I) do prefer paper copies. If this is the case then a book shelf either adjacent to your workspace or even on the desk of the tomes you consider most important is essential
  • Notepad. I have already mentioned electronic record keeping but a physical notepad (or two) is as essential. Sometimes you just want to note down an idea or concept!
  • Sound Levels – We cannot all control ambient sound whilst we analyse (It has been known for Washing machines to enter Spin-dry cycles nearby) we can look at a number of ways to alleviate this. One worthy of consideration is a Music/Headphones combination, especially with Noise cancelling headphones.
  • A large faced Physical Clock – Its very easy to lose yourself in analysis, so something to keep us on track is useful.  Whilst your smartphone could do this, a physical alarm clock can also be useful – If you only intend to spend one hour at the desk – you guessed it , set it for one hours time.
  • A Chess Set – I found my results improved when I started to use a physical board alongside an electronic one – if you really want to it can be connected to your software set up fairly easily.


Taking all these together we get to our “place for chess”. Making this work better can have a massive effect on your games and results!

How to train your Dragon!

Russell Sherwood  Thursday, January 18, 2018

Recently I have really got back into playing the King’s Indian Defence. As is well known in CC circles Engines do not understand the KID defence at all, with typical situations having the engine showing a significant plus for white, even when the actual situation is much better for black. There are many reasons why this is the case – three of the main ones being the way engines are tested/tuned, Engine Search Style and the nature of the position itself.


Engine Testing/Tune makes this situation worst as various parameters are set to get the best result in the most possible positions – in other words if I play 10,000 games I want to win as many as possible, changing a parameter might increase the total numbers of wins by a few percentage points but it may well make the evaluation of the engine of “non-standard” positions even worse!


The search style of the engine can make the problem worse. In the simplest sense engines either focus on depth of search or width of search. Engines that focus on depth of search really struggle in the KID as the nature of this search is that a lot of lines are pruned and because the nature of the KID is that many of the lines have sacrifices and deep positional motifs, heavily pruned searching tends to miss this sort of thing, leading to an engine which shows +1.3, +1.4, +1.3, +1.5, 0.25, -0.5, 1.5, falling off a cliff edge as the engine finally “sees” the issue.


The nature of the position itself is one which engines tend to struggle with: Deep and wide attacking lines, sacrifices without immediate benefit…….


So how can we look to better in the KID?


#1 Learn the ideas in the Opening. More so than almost any other opening, it is vital that the player learns the ideas and common manoeuvres seen in the KID. Knowing this will improve the player's sixth sense of which lines to select and which to dismiss.

#2 Select your Engine partner with care. Houdini does better than most of the other major engines In the KID but does not have a learning function (#5)

#3 Build as large a database as possible of games played in the KID.

#4 Build as large an Opening book as possible

#5 Train your engine. A few engines have a “Learning” Mode. What this differs from engine to engine but what we are looking at here is ones that record the best move analysed at a certain depth. This can be useful in itself but comes into its own if paired with a backsliding method. Now we could do this by hand but a more effective way is to utilise game analysis modes seen in most major GUI’s which employ a form a backsliding. This method would allow the engine to build analysis “over the Horizon” based on past games.

#6 Consider using Aquarium’s IDEA function, linked with Infinite Analysis. (which can also be combined with #5!) This allows a very wide search to be utilised to build up a more accurate view of the position(s) over time

#7 Consider Monte-Carlo Analysis – this is an almost random method of building up a view of a position but can help in overcoming the engine’s natural problems.


I know I have enjoyed analysing the KID a lot over recent months but by application of the methods above now have an engine /set of analysis that is approaching a “correct” view of the KID for black.

Welsh Correspondence Chess FederationBritish Correspondence Chess AssociationSchemingMind Internet Correspondence Chess ClubSocial Correspondence Chess AssociationWelsh Chess UnionInternational Correspondence Chess Association