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."