'SNAIL MAIL' - Postal Chess Before Computers Arrived.- Some Reminiscences.

Austin Lockwood  Tuesday, November 1, 2016

SNAIL MAIL - Postal chess before computers arrived; some reminiscences.

Fred Clough

Yes, we made some mistakes (even terrible blunders) in those days. Some of these were notation errors or through setting up the position wrongly, but otherwise just because we were human.  Nowadays Fritz won't allow you to make such gross errors.  Correspondence Chess by post was therefore more like OTB Chess, whilst today the use of computer analysis has created a new form of CC quite different to either Postal or OTB.  I offer three games of mine from the 'Snail Mail' era to try to convey the nature of the 'addiction', and why I found it exciting. I have chosen in particular three games having a common theme - the 'walkabout' King, where one slip of calculation can prove fatal (often for either side).

The following game was one of my early Postal games (and in my first year of starting to play Chess). In spite of the early errors I remember this game with some satisfaction for my King march through the 'minefield' requiring precise calculation (and no Fritz to hold my hand!).

R. W. Clark - Fred Clough (BCCA Friendly1955)

Blackmar-Diemer Gambit.

1. d4 d5 2. e4 dxe4 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. f3 exf3 5. Qxf3 Qxd4 6. Be3 Qb4 7. 0-0-0 Bg4 (7... e6 is passive but probably necessary. My move is dubious but does stir up a chaotic position!)

8. Nb5! Nbd7? Now I am in trouble.(8... Na6!)

9. Qxb7 Qe4 10. Nxc7+ Kd8 11. Nd5?! Rc8! with counter attacking chances.

12. Rd2 Nxd5 13. h3 Rxc2+!! 14. Rxc2 Qxe3+ 15. Rd2 Qe1+ 16. Kc2 Ne3+ 17. Kb3 Be6+ 18. Ka3 Qxd2. Black is two pieces up but his King will now have to go "walkabout"!

19. Qa8+ Kc7 20. Qxa7+ Kd6 21. Qa6+ Kd5! Black can choose to draw with 21... Kc7 but calculates that he can negotiate the minefield safely to win.

22. Qb7+ Ke5!! Accepting the coming knight-fork knowing he will get the queen back three moves later.

23. Nf3+ Kf6 24. Nxd2 Nc2+ 25. Ka4 Nc5+ 26. Kb5 Nxb7 White remains two pieces down. Black just has to disentangle his back rank to win.

27. Bd3 Ne3 28. Kb6 Bd5 29. Rc1 e5 30. Ne4+ Bxe4 31. Bxe4 Nd6 32. Bd3 Be7


From this humble beginning and some 500 postal games and 55 years later, to my most exciting game. This was also by 'Snail Mail' and just before I had a computer. This game won the BCCA Best Game prize 2010 (jointly), and interestingly judged by John Toothill of Windermere (before I moved to Cumbria!) who wrote "What a game!... certainly the most exciting entry I have had in the last ten years". Perhaps you can imagine the players' excitement as they open the envelope to discover their opponent's reply to a critical move!  As in the first game this also entails a long King hunt through a minefield, but with a critical additional twist!

Fred Clough - George Coleman (BCCA William Mason Championship 2009-10)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. b4 cxb4 4. d4 e6 An alternative to the 4... d5 main line of the Portsmouth Gambit, and perhaps the critical test. I examined both these moves in 'Correspondence Chess' 174 & 175, 2009.

5. d5 Qf6 6. c3 bxc3 7. dxc6 c2 8. Qxc2 Qxa1 9.Bd3!? I concluded in my article that direct attempts to trap the black queen with 9. e5 or 9. Qb3 were insufficient (but now I'm not so convinced).

9... Qf6 10. Bg5 (10. e5 Bb4+ 11. Ke2 Qe7 12 {threatens ...Qc5} 12.a3 Bc5 better for Black; or 10. Bb2 Qe7 11. Ba3 Qf6 draw?)

10... Qg6 11. cxd7+ Bxd7 12. Qb3! Time to attack the King in the centre and on the Q-side, with a direct threat against b7 followed by Bb5 and Ne5. If 12.Qc7 Bb4+ is awkward to meet.

12... f6! 13.0-0 b6! Defends b7, but also prepares ...Bc5 ...Ne7 and safety. If 13... fxg5? 14. Ne5 Qh5 (14... Qh6 15. Nxd7±) 15. Nxd7 Kxd7 16. Qxb7+ winning for White.

14. Be3 Ne7 Black has a cramped position. 14... Bc5 needs to be tested.

15. Nd4 e5!? A highly original way to deal with the threat to e6. Black also instigates a powerful counter-attack of his own as his offside Queen becomes onside with a vengeance! If 15... f5 16. Nb5! Bxb5 17. Bxb5+ Kf7 18. Nd2 fxe4 19. Nc4 Kg8 20. Ne5 Qf6 21. Bc4 h6 22. Bxe6+ Kh7 23. Nd7 Qg6 24 f4±

16.Nb5 Bh3!

Both sides are on a tightrope. Black threatens mate on g2, and playing g3 would cost the exchange. But White has the initiative so it is a question of who can strike the lethal blows first.

17. Nd6+ Kd7 17... Kd8 18. Bxb6+ axb6 (or 18... Kd7 19.Bb5+ Nc6 20. Qxh3+) 19. Qxb6+ Kd7 20. Bb5+ Ke6 21. Nf5+ kf7 22. Bc4+Nd5 (22... Ke8 23.Qb5+ Kd8 24. Rd1+ Kc8 25. Be6+) 23. Bxd5+ Ke8 24. Qc6+ wins.

18. Bb5+ Kxd6?!  Both 18... Kd8? 19. Nf7+ and 18... Nc6? 19. Bxc6+ Kxd6 20. g3! are losing.

19. Qd3+ Kc7 20. Rc1+ Nc6 (forced 20... Kb8?? 21. Qd6+ Kb7 22. Qc7 mates)

21. Rxc6+ Remember Black still threatens mate in one on g2.

21... Kb7 22. g3 I calculated that 22.Ba6+ would lead to a probable draw.

22... Rc8 not 22... Qf7? 23. Bc4 Qd7 24. Bd5 Kb8 25. Qa6! wins as White will follow up with 26. Bxb6 axb6 27. Rc8+ Qxc8 28. Qxb6+ Qb7 29. Qxb7 mates.

23. Qd5 Rxc6 24. Bxc6+ Kc7 25. Nc3 Be7 26. Ba8? (Editor: After all the hard work Fred misses the win: 26. Nb5+ Kb8 27. Qb3!! Rd8 28. Nxa7 wins)

26... Bc8 27. Nb5+ Again I missed the win (27. Bxb6+! wins). Difficult, but easy for a computer!

27... Kb8 28. Nxa7 I could find nothing better than this one final attempt to break through so long as a draw was secure. It was up to George now to find the way to save the game, which he duly did!

28... Qg4! 29. Bxb6 Qd7 30. Nc6+ Kxa8 31. Qa5+ Kb7 32. Nxe7 Qd1+ 33. Kg2 Bh3+ 34 Kxh3 Qf1+ and into perpetual check.


George's original method of counterplay put this variation of the Portsmouth Gambit to a stern test, but I think White had ample compensation.  George had just one comment to make: "I think White should have won".

Finally, another exciting King walk-about across the board, but this time the King hunt was (fortuitously) successful. This also by 'snail mail' and no computers.

Fred Clough - Ted Wright (BCCA Gambit Tourney. 2004-5)

French Defence, Advance Variation, Milner-Barry Gambit.

This won the 'Best Annotated Game' Prize (published in 'Correspondence Chess' No.164, Spring 2006) but the notes have been drastically reduced for the sake of brevity.

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Qb6 6. Bd3 cxd4 7. cxd4 Bd7 8. Nc3 Nxd4 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. 0-0 a6 11. Qe2 Ne7 12. Kh1 Nc6 13. Be3 Departing from the main line 13. f4. I don't know the origins of this idea, but I was following Lemmers-Grinfield Hastings 1994/5.

13... Qxe5 14. f4 Qd6 15. f5 e5 16. Rad1 Be7 17. Bc4 d4 18. Ne4 Qc7 19. Bxf7+! Kd8 Black's refusal of the sacrifice is wise, since after 19... Kxf7 (as played by Grinfield) the White mating attack looks unstoppable as Lemmers ably demonstrated: 19... Kxf7 20. Qh5+ Kg8 21. f6 gxf6 22. Nxf6+ Bxf6 23. Rxf6 Be8 24. Qg4+ Qg7 25. Bh6 Bg6 26. Rdf1 Re8 27. Qd7 Qxh6 28. Qd5+ 1-0

So now I am on my own. White has some initiative and superior development at the cost of a pawn, but Black has the two united centre pawns of long term advantage, if first he can find safety for his King.

20. Bg5 h6 21. Bxe7+ Nxe7 22. f6 gxf6 23 Rxf6 (23. Nxf6? Bb5!)

23... Nc6 24. Qh5 Kc8! Black must flee now before White's Nd6 traps the King in the centre.

25. Rdf1 I had previously been relishing the prospects for attack; now I am much less happy with my position. Black's king will escape to the queen-side leaving my major forces offside whilst Black's united pawns dominate the centre eagerly awaiting an endgame.  An important option was 25. Rdc1 but I chose instead to double rooks on the f-file, with potential play along the 7th or even 8th rank.

25... Kb8 26. Nd6 Ka7 27. b4! Qb6 28. Rb1 I didn't trust the immediate 28. b5 axb5 29. Rb1 b4 30. a4 Qc5! when the Black Queen becomes active at c2.

28... Raf8 29. a4 Qd8 30. Qf3 Bg4! After a period of passivity Black begins to show his teeth. The prospect of the bishop supporting an advancing d-pawn was worrying; on the other hand is my queen being driven from nowhere to somewhere more useful?

31. Qf2 Nb8! Aiming for d7 with highly disruptive consequences for White.

32. Nb5+!? I now realised that my position was overstretched and with moves like ...Nd7 ...Qe7 ...Bh5 ...Rh7 I would have great difficulty untangling my pieces. The piece offer was on the basis that Black's king would become vulnerable to White's queen and rooks on the open a and c-files, in conjunction with a timely b5-b6.

32... Ka8   A critical decision. My opponent said he was not sure whether to capture 32... axb5 or not. My analysis suggested that risks were involved for both sides after 32... axb5 33 axb5 Nd7 34. Qa2+ Kb8 35. Rff1! switching to the kings-side with unclear complications to follow: e.g. 35... Rxf7 a simplifying exchange to neutralize White's attack. But White can complicate the game with a counter-sacrifice 36. Rxf7 Rf8 37. Rxd7 Qxd7 {37... Bxd7 38.Ra1 Qf6 39. Qa7+ Kc7 40. Qc5+ Bc6 (40... Kb8 41. Qa7+) 41. Qc1  =/unclear}. I am reminded of the words of a Correspondence Chess friend of mine who once said "This fascinating position occupied all my waking hours..." And I knew just what he meant!

33. Rc1 Nd7 34. Nc7+ Kb8 (34... Ka7 is probably better)

35. Rxa6 (35.Nxa6+? bxa6 36. Rxa6 Qe7 is good for Black)

35... bxa6 (35... Qxc7 is quite playable. 36. Rxc7 Kxc7 37. Rg6 Rh7 38. Rxg4 Rhxf7 39. Qc2+ Kb8 40. h3= White wins the queen for rook and knight but Black's pieces are better coordinated and his cental pawns ready to roll.)

36. Nxa6+ Ka7?? (Kb7 is winning!)

37. Rc7+ Qxc7 (37... Kxa6 38 Qc2! threatening Qc6 mate or Qc4+ etc is winning)

38. Nxc7 Bh5 39. Qc2 Rxf7 40. Nb5+ Ka6 41. h3! Giving myself optimum freedom to launch the final attack, which would otherwise be premature e.g. 41. Qc6+? Nb6 42. Nc7+ Rxc7 43. Qxc7 Rc8! 44. b5+ Ka5 45. Qa7+ Kb4 46. Kg1 Nxa4 with a won endgame for Black.

41... Nb6 42. Nd6 Rf6 43. Qc5 and Black resigned in view of 43... Rxd6 44.Qxd6 and the combined threats of a5 and Qxe5 are too strong.


After sixty years of Correspondence Chess my most vivid and pleasant memories are of games from the Postal Chess era. What is forgotten are the frustrations due to illegible handwriting, of moves 'lost in the post', chewed by the dog, soaked in the rain, and of those overused window envelopes falling apart, patched up with sticky tape.  Modern computer Correspondence Chess makes for rapid and faultless transmission, but where they have also been used to aid analysis, can we ever look back on these games in the same way, perhaps with the same satisfaction, even pride? I believe we could, and indeed we must, because we cannot turn the clock back. Fritz and his friends are here to stay. We must accept and appreciate that this new era heralds a new skill in Correspondence Chess in which humans and computers combine together as partners to make the best plans and the right decisions in a game of chess. We know very little about how this interaction takes place, but I believe the human chess playing skills are just as important as the machine in determining outcomes. We need more games annotated from this perspective, from the player himself (not a third party) introspecting on the relative contributions of man and machine in this partnership. In order to avoid disillusionment ("It's all done by the computer") we must positively appreciate this new partnership skill, understand it, and exercise it.  Otherwise Fritz and his friends will hijack all the Best Game Prizes!

Copyright © 2016, Fred Clough