The trouble with most chess players is they have no patience. In the days before chess clocks were invented, games, and even tournaments, were often as not won on Sitzfleisch points alone. The better man, each time it was his turn to move, simply sat, ostensibly studying the board, for as long as he could get away with it or as long as his Sitzfleisch apparatus held out. The moment of triumph came when his rattled opponent got desperate enough to blunder or disgusted enough to resign.
In this speed-mad world, however, grand masters play for their titles to the ticking of the chess clock, 40 moves in two-and-a-half hours. As for amateurs, nothing delights them so much as lightning chess, a ridiculous travesty of the Royal Game, played at the impetuous pace of 10 seconds a move.
The stately tradition lives on, though, in correspondence chess, a leisurely sport in which the average game takes about a year, three-year games are not unusual, tournaments have been known to go eight years and the longest known match game is 34 years old and still going strong.
Of America's million-odd active chess players (among the 12 million or so who "know the moves"), fewer than 25,000 regularly play by mail. As one over-the-board buff put it: "I couldn't stand all that waiting between moves."
Correspondence players, though, make up in enthusiasm what they lack in strength of numbers. They play, not one game at a time, not two or three—they play 30 or 40. And this is just the run-of-the-mill player. Move up into the class of the dedicated enthusiast and you find men carrying on 100 or 150 games simultaneously. Move up further still, past the thin line that separates the fan from the fanatic, and you arrive at Robert Wyller, for example, a California gentleman who once accumulated a grand total of more than 1,100 simultaneous opponents. Where is the over-the-board master who has matched that record?
For obvious reasons, ordinary chessboards and chess pieces—even the midget variety—won't do for postal chess. The players keep their games going on small cardboard or plastic sets, often bound loose-leaf style. The pieces, also of cardboard or plastic, stay put between moves (which can mean anything from two days to better than a year) by means of adhesive; or they are fixed in slits cut into the chessboard squares. A score-card to keep track of the moves goes with each board. When a player makes a move he notes it on his scorecard, then sends his opponent a postcard (or a letter, if he can afford the postage) informing him, for example:
5 P-K4 P-QB4
Which, translated from chess notation, means: I acknowledge your fifth move, Pawn to King 4, and my reply is Pawn to Queen Bishop 4.
The opponent, when he gets the card, dutifully records the move on his own scorecard, makes the appropriate change on his chessboard (which is a duplicate of the one the other player has) and then decides on a reply. He, in turn, then sends out a card, which might read:
5 P-QB4 6 NxP