Computers in CC

Is the use of computers in correspondence chess unethical?


A player's view.

by Stephan Busemann,
Correspondence Chess Grandmaster

In Chess Mail, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1997.

An ongoing debate

There is an ongoing debate both among correspondence chess (CC) players and organizations about the use of computers in CC. Is it unethical and should thus be forbidden, or is it yet another legal use of tools CC players may rely on?

Computers can be used in chess not only for analyzing positions but also for maintaining and accessing huge databases of chess games. For any chess player, it is most valuable to retrieve some of their opponents' games quickly or to get an overview about the latest developments of some particular opening. Over-the-board (OTB) players do this for home preparation, and did it for analysis of adjourned games. Many CC players do it before or during the opening phase of their games. Whether or not this is allowable in CC is, in my opinion, not a very interesting point of discussion. Rather, looking up databases should just be considered a more efficient way of looking up piles of books and journals.

The question I want to address in this article is whether it is unethical to use a chess computer (I am using the term 'chess computer' to describe a machine that analyses a given position and suggests one or several moves). Some CC organizations do not allow players to use chess computers, such as most organizations in the US. Others, such as the Deutsche Fernschachbund (BdF) and the International Correspondence Chess Federation (ICCF), accept that people cannot be controlled effectively.

In April 1996, FERNSCHACH opened up a public debate in Germany by publishing players' contributions. Most authors agreed that using chess computers is ok, but one opinion was more reluctant, stating that playing against opponents using chess computers reduces fun and is unfair.

I will argue for a position that can be entitled "Let people handle it their way". Let them use computers or get rid of them, just as they may or may not ask chess friends to give their opinion about some game position. Moreover, I want to emphasize that using computers can increase your understanding of chess. My recommendation to use computers is accompanied with a warning. Be careful: you have to know, and exercise, the How-to's.

Positions against using chess computers

There are CC players who object to any use of computers because this would mean a technological advantage not available to all partners, e.g. in less developed countries. However, due to the rapid spreading of PCs all around the world, this concern seems more and more negligeable. Chess computers on the market tend to have comparable strength. Advantages of one system will soon be leveled by others.

Of course, technical lack of understanding is a general practical problem that makes it hard espescially for older players to scale up with the kids. But several of my older chess friends start learning how to operate a PC and a chess program, and I expect this problem to fade away just like the hardware problem (although, being a computer scientist, I may underestimate this a bit...)

Most people objecting to computers in CC fear that they would be playing computers instead of human partners. As they would not be told, this is often considered cheating: Did our opponent feel he was not strong enough to win on himself? So he lets his machine do the job and gracefully accepts our congratulations afterwards?! Well, not quite. It won't last too long until we find out whether our opponent lets his computer do the job all over the game. Today's computers are just not strong enough and will fail at some decisive point; the well-known rule of thumb "the longer the reflection time, the stronger the human player" is most effective in CC. Of course it is difficult to guess whether or not some particular move was generated by a computer. But does it really matter? As I will try to explain below, I don't see a point in clarifying this issue.

General objections against playing computers, e.g. those raised by GM Hansen in a 1994 or 1995 issue of NewInChess Magazine, are also put forward by CC players. Chess is a game that delights humans; there is the tension between the opponents, there is the fighting spirit which is based on equal physical and psychological conditions. All this is lost when humans play against machines. Applying this argument from OTB chess to CC implies that there is no fundamental difference regarding the communication between the opponents. I will show why I take this to be wrong.

Let people handle it their way

Being a scientist by profession, I have developed a rather perfectionist view of chess. I want to find out the truth in a position and improve my understanding of the game. Having played OTB for many years (I used to be a class 3 player without Elo rating) I appreciate it that CC is a different sport. The relative absence of time pressure and of psychological factors offer the possibility to explore a position in full depth, and thus to experience chess rather than time trouble. Seeing a CC game develop over months in all its logic and beauty is also very different from the usual OTB ``quickies'', which usually suffer much more from mistakes. Mistakes are black spots on my picture of truth and beauty in chess. True, the game is my primary motivation, and contact with the opponents (Amici Sumus!) often comes second. But in a sense this is a superficial remark since exploring people's lines of thought in chess is a fascinating way of coming to know them better.

During a CC game, only little is known about our opponents. The only thing we see from our opponent and his behaviour is a postcard (or an email) with the move. There is no means to find out how our opponent reached his decision to move (unless he is willing to tell us, of course). Did he tear his hair? Was he angry? Did he already jubilate at our last move? Almost nothing can be detected from his hand writing. Let us assume he just moved Nf5. We don't know how come he moved Nf5. We just see the move Nf5 written on his card and have to find out ourselves what it's worth. What counts is pure chess: the move, not the way it was generated. This is just due to the way interaction in CC games is defined by the rules.

This insight about the very nature of CC makes me use all possible kinds of ``tools'': good books, big databases, precious hints from friends, dangerous and beautiful analyses at the pub, and what else might complement my thoughts in front of my chess board. There isn't a crucial difference between those ``tools''. I use them in a way that allows me to generate the best next move (at least I try hard).

How to use a computer and how not to

Unlike many CC players who see the end of CC approaching with the increasing strength of chess computers, I believe that using a chess computer the right way in CC opens up a new and fascinating dimension of this sport. There are two things that need to be clarified:

I don't believe it is much fun to have the program play my games. First, the results would be desastrous. Even an ICCF class II player has more strategic understanding than the strongest chess computer available on the market. But most importantly, I want to decide myself what I move, and I want to understand why I make a certain move. I am using the computer mainly to double-check moves (to avoid overlooking simple threats) and to detect new lines of thought. It turns out that quite often I happen to further analyze lines that I would never have detected otherwise. The machine suggests them and it's up to me to find out whether they are relevant and, if so, why. In any case I have to apply my chess experience and my knowledge about the type of position under investigation. Experience? Knowledge? These are concepts our chess computers are not aware of (yet).

When used this way, a chess computer is a tool for understanding your games better and diving deeper into their secrets. This might increase both your knowledge about chess and the fun with the games you are playing. (In addition you will learn quite a lot of details about the strengths and weaknesses of today's chess computers ...)

You also have to decide how to control your use of the computer. Most importantly: Never trust it blindly! Even if you addict to this recommendation, you may be trapped by just finding it comfortable to look at the machine when it suggests moves and to make it explore various lines. Although this suggests that you are guiding the machine, the contrary is true: this way the computer guides your play. You won't understand much of the position, and you unvoluntarily adapt to the machine's lines of 'thought'.

If you really want to control the machine, make up your mind before asking your computer. It may be surprising how often the machine refutes your variations, but nevertheless it is important that you stick to this principle: First think yourself, only then look at the machine.

Being a lazy person, I find it very difficult to stick to this principle. But when I manage to do my homework first, and then look at what my computer says, it is amazing how much insight I gain during the next round at the chess board. Often there are several iterations before I am content with my research. By the way, I found it useful to not rely on the computer chess board but rather have my old-fashioned, wooden 3-D board and pieces ready. This makes it a lot easier for me to keep control of the computer.


CC players communicate by exchanging moves. We cannot see how these moves were generated. They may have been created using a chess computer or a chess book. We should be mainly interested in the underlying logics of the move, whether it is good or bad, not how it was created. CC players should thus be free to use any aid to improve the quality of their games.

Using a chess computer to improve one's understanding is an art in itself. The only path to success is to stick to one's own brain first and then have the machine double-check the moves and suggest alternatives. This view is based on present day's state of the art in computer chess. One might object that chess programming is developing quickly and that in ten years, chess computers might want humans to double-check their strategies in order to play the best chess ever. Although I don't believe that a machine will be among the top 100 in CC during the next ten years, CC will change drastically with large improvements in chess computers on the market.

© Stephan Busemann, 1996

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