SI Vault
Felicia Lamport
December 08, 1980
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.
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December 08, 1980

These Chess Games Last A Decade And All The Moves Are In The Cards

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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).

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