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Original Issue


At 2:18 this morning, I scrawled "49. P-QB4" on a postcard and rushed it to a mailbox before I could reconsider my move. This unorthodox conduct would appear entirely reasonable to the 15,000 other people in the U.S. who are postal chess players. They include a good sampling of every age bracket, every profession, every group one can name—except women. The United States Chess Federation, largest of the correspondence leagues, has 12,000 postal players, of whom only 226 are women.

I became one of those 226 in 1978 when a bad hip reduced my mobility and left me with too much spare time. This state of affairs inspired me to pay a $9 fee and enter the 31st Annual USCF Golden Knights Postal Chess Tournament, in which 2,352 contestants were divided into seven-player round-robin sections.

There were modest prizes for the first 100 places, but material rewards were of no concern to me. As a pretty fair social player but hardly a serious student of the game, I was out for diversion, not for blood. To ensure adequate amusement, I ponied up another $9 and entered a second section of the tournament, thereby involving myself in a dozen games. Though playing by mail had always struck me as being too slow, it now seemed a good way to help keep the lime off my feet from becoming time on my hands.

I was mildly confused when my list of opponents arrived from the USCF and plunged me into games with 12 strange men in seven states, half of them playing Black, half playing White. Identified only by name, address and chess rating, my opponents merged into an ominous, bristling mass.

And it didn't help matters when one day I received a card from each of the six Whites, who always begin. Five confined their correspondence to opening moves; the sixth added, "I wish you all the luck in the world, except in this game." I took this for levity, a mistake that would become apparent four months and 17 moves later when that player, noting that he was calling a time penalty on one of our mutual opponents, wrote. "I'd do anything to win a game."

I was still trying to decide whether it was better form to make my cards chatty or laconic when the next missive came from the Black side: "You're playing White and you've had the assignment sheet 4 days. Rule 15 specifies a 3-day limit. Where's your move?" Jolted, I whipped off all my opening moves and my responses to the White openers I'd received. Only then did I pause to check Rule 15 in the USCF instruction pamphlet. The Black note was correct, but I got a real jolt when my eyes fell on Rule 14 (a): Players who expect their games to go beyond two years must notify the Postal Chess Director. It hadn't struck me that a postal game could take 5,000 to 10,000 times longer than a standard one. Later I learned that the finals of the 25th Golden Knights tournament, which began in 1972, are still in progress.

There was nothing slow about my games, however. With one to 11 cards coming in each day, the atmosphere crackled. Letters, bills and checks were pushed aside in my eagerness to get at the cards. These came in several varieties. Some had chessboards emblazoned on the front, with the positions of pieces marked in red and black ink. Some were simple post-office issue. One opponent seemed to have an endless supply of giveaway restaurant postcards; another wrote his moves in round, childish letters on lined file cards. Cards, in fact, are so de rigueur in postal chess—no envelopes, please—that one opponent, who had always answered moves on the day he received them, apologized for a two-week delay with, "Sorry, I ran out of postcards." That set me to wondering what kind of life a man could lead that would render him unable to pick up a postcard for two weeks. Deep in speculation, I miswrote my next move, getting my game into a mess from which I'm still trying to extricate it 11 months and 43 moves later.

The miswriting of moves plagued me, partly because I'd never studied the chess notation system, blithely assuming that all pieces were designated by their initials, P for pawn, R for rook, etc. This led me to write an intended knight move as "K-B3." Back came, "You've made an impossible move. Please correct." I realized, a bit late, that "K" designated the king, and "N," with lamentable illiteracy, the knight. Had my king legally been able to get to the B3 square, which he was not, K-B3 would have had to stand as my move, my king would have been fatally exposed and I would have had to throw in the S (sponge).

By the fifth or sixth move I had 60-odd cards floating around my desk, and I had to scramble wildly to set up each game when a new move arrived. I had just about decided to get 12 chess sets and keep them permanently on the dining-room table when a more experienced player came up with a solution that didn't require stand-up dining: the Post-A-Log. It's a small, zippered looseleaf notebook holding 12 record sheets and 125"-x-5" chessboards made of paper-thin plastic and equipped with stick-on pieces. At any time of the day or night, I could instantly pull out any of my dozen games and go to work. Nirvana for $11.70.

Once securely into the Post-A-Logarhythms, I began to write a few questions on the postal cards along with my moves. The responses varied from nil to expansive. Personalities began to emerge, each different from the others and entirely unlike the popular image of the chess player, as exemplified in The New Yorker verse by David McCord: "I know what chess boys look like: they have long white beards and gout." The oldest of my "chess boys" was a 45-year-old C.P.A.; the youngest, about 15, was the file-card correspondent who dropped out without notice after "18. K-N5."

My most amiable opponent was Donald Heidel, 43, art director of an advertising agency. Asked what he does in real life, he answered, "In real life, I play chess."

There was a graduate student who generously offered to let me take back a move I'd miswritten—I had the decency to refuse—and a feisty computer engineer who asked me to chivvy one of our mutual opponents into answering his moves faster. The most communicative of the lot, and perhaps the highest-ranking player in the bunch, was Roger Morin, who works at a Dunkin' Donuts in Maine. "I've been playing 13 years," he wrote. "In the last few years I've lived in Florida, Ala., N. Carolina, Ohio and Mass. and played chess in all of them. I also played in N. Hampshire, Conn. and Penn. There's not much chess in Maine, so I decided to go postal. I'm playing 27 games right now." Several months later: "I'm now playing 55 games with every expectancy of reaching the top 100 in the U.S. by next year as I'm now co-rated Postal #1 in Maine."

His 55 simultaneous games made my 12 look insignificant, but they were far from a record. According to Joan DuBois, the extraordinarily efficient woman who runs the USCF postal tournaments, "In the past we had a postalite [now there's a term], Dr. Robert Wyller, who claimed he was playing 1,100 games at once. We had a hard time believing it, so we checked our records and found that he was active in approximately 700 games with us; since he played with other postal organizations, he could well be right about his figure of 1,100. Players with the ability to handle that many games are rare. I would estimate that an average postal player handles 30-40 games at once." Dr. Wyller dropped out of postal chess in 1956—perhaps to catch up on eating and sleeping—and cannot be located today. A pity.

Though Dr. Wyller must remain a mystery, at least I've gotten to know most of my opponents—mostly through the mails, of course. On the whole, they've been remarkably responsive, apparently delighted by the chance to discuss their abstruse game. Most of them seldom mention their participation in postal chess to non-players, whose reactions generally leave the players annoyed or paranoid. "My wife doesn't mind my playing," one man wrote, "as long as the chores are done and the neighbors don't know about it." Another wrote, "People react with awe. They think I must be awfully bright. Let's face it: chess, in any form, has a prestige nothing else can match."

Prestige, however, was not the attraction for most of my correspondents. For example, it was "getting the perfect squelch" that most delighted Oliver Taylor, a management analyst for the Office of Management and Budget and former Peace Corps Director in Botswana. "I was playing with a man whose game was clearly lost," Taylor wrote. "He should have resigned weeks earlier, but his cards kept right on coming. Finally I remembered a line chess-club kibitzers often throw at losing players: 'Why should you give up just because your game looks hopeless? Maybe your opponent will have a heart attack.' After my next move, I wrote: 'My physician says my heart is in excellent shape.' Back came his card: '52. P-R6. What does your psychiatrist say?' "

Michael Price, a job developer for the Colorado Mining Council, was attracted by the "leisurely playing conditions." H. Anthony Buczko, an electrical engineer in New Jersey, wrote, "I especially love postal play because of the fine people you get to know all over the country." Several others felt likewise, although none of them had actually met their opponents. One or two disagreed. "I'm not really interested in the people I play," wrote Morin, the Dunkin' Donuts man. "It's the problem of the game I enjoy."

Bruce Nickerson, a Montreal physicist, put postal chess' attraction for him into one word: "Winning." I know just what he means. Whenever my postman delivers a card reading, "I resign," I gloat all day. Especially the day when the USCF notified me that I'd won the first round of one section and was entered in the semifinals, playing six strangers.

My correspondents originally "went postal" for a variety of reasons, some to relieve the tedium of army life, some because they couldn't find good chess in their areas, others because heavy schedules or disabilities made it difficult to get to chess clubs. Or impossible, as in the case of prisoners. Prison chess proceeds smoothly under the aegis of Helen Warren, founder of the 1,000-member American Postal Correspondence Tournaments. A player herself, Warren writes so enthusiastically about the game that she might well qualify as the Postal La Pasionaria. She has made postal chess available to scores of inmates in dozens of prisons and wrote in a paper given at the University of Nebraska in 1977, "I have never considered postal chess a luxury...not any more than food, or clothing or shelter. I cannot imagine my life without postal chess." She continued by taking the largest postal league tartly to task: "As a non-profit organization, the USCF should re-evaluate its sterile policy toward institutional chess; it should provide opportunity for postal play for inmates...make equipment and books available to inmates, and aid in the organizational aspects of inmate chess clubs." Since then the USCF has involved itself in chess for prisoners.

There is a good deal of such inter-league sniping among the half dozen postal chess organizations. Within a league, there can also be considerable squabbling and bitter political wrangling. Nevertheless, postal chess has grown steadily since the first league was organized in the U.S. in 1909.

The leagues do manage to work together occasionally to promote international postal chess, which has been on the upswing since airmail made it possible to complete a postal game within a human life span. There are 52 countries and 10,000 players participating, according to the "conservative estimate" of Tyler Kelly, U.S. secretary of the International Correspondence Chess Federation (ICCF).

But not many of the 10,000 players are women. Hanon Russell, lawyer, topflight player and author of a recent book on postal chess, is convinced that the paucity of women in chess has nothing to do with females lacking aptitude for the game but can be explained by the fact that "girls at the crucial 8-12 age are discouraged from competing." Chess, like ballet, almost invariably must be started early if the player is to have any chance of reaching the top rank.

Nickerson, the Montreal physicist, has quite another view. "Women don't have the inclination, patience or intelligence to play good chess." he says. Most correspondents make a more generous estimate of the female chess potential; they believe that women have been held back by cultural barriers.

Well, there are no barriers holding back this woman. The postman has just delivered the latest round of cards from my semifinal opponents. For the next three days I'm going to be confined by Post-A-Log-Cabin Fever.