Russell Sherwood

The Curse of Zero

Russell Sherwood  Friday, January 19, 2018

In modern CC one area which sorts out the “Adults from the Children” (I was going to say Men from the Boy’s but that is rather sexist!) is how players deal with the dreaded engine evaluation of 0.0


Firstly was does an evaluation of 0.0 actually mean? Generally its not drawn, although some players seem to think that this is the case considering the number of draw offers made at this point. It actually means that the Engine considers the position balanced, using its evaluation criteria and search method.


Now let us consider the three sections of this definition


Position balanced


A balanced position does not mean a drawn one! Simply put balanced means that the positives and negatives of each side balance out. What can be interesting to see is if you make a move the Engine now considers it to be -0.07, even though little has changed in the position.


What is vital is that we need to consider what the Positives and Negatives of the position are (for both sides) and look for moves which move the balance in our favour.


Evaluation Criteria


Engines evaluate positions and then link these positions into lines to give an evaluation of a position. A typical human player will analyse in a relatively haphazard manner during a game, the reason for this haphazardness is that we build much of our knowledge by pattern recognition and motif knowledge (This is a very fancy way of saying you “know” an attack is on as you have played this kind of position before and also know it tends to be a Bishop Sac on h7 that unlocks the position). Engines are different, they have fairly fixed criteria that they look for and also use proxy measurements – so, for example, how would you define space in the sense of a cramped position?  Our definitions tend to be quite grey and lose but the engine will have a very strict one (probably something like the number of available moves)


This means that often the engine's evaluation is 0 because it cannot see anything or the scoring simply cancels out.  For us, to progress, we need to add our positional knowledge and understanding of motifs (Small components of plans – e.g. a Rook Lift) to direct its tactical brilliance. Often simply showing it a move will be enough to steer it in the right direction.


We also need to consider the faults in the evaluation criteria of the engine(s), due to the fairly fixed nature of their evaluation criteria. Let me give a very simple example.


Let’s say we have a very simple engine that only uses a piece points based system for evaluation (1=pawn, 3 = Knight and so on). How would we beat it – traditionally the answer would have been with Gambits and/or Sacrifices later in the game. Why did this tend to work – because there is more to evaluating the position than material, so even though we might be -2 down in the very simple evaluation criteria, we might actually have a massive winning position!


So we might try and add some more knowledge to our engine and this will improve the situation but again there will be ways to exploit both the fixed and faulty nature of the evaluation criteria. This is very much the story of engines until early in the 21st Century.  The gaps still exist but are much more subtle. For example, many engines struggle with a Queen vs Minor Pieces situation, unless the position if fairly easy to progress.


So how do we work in this area – simply we need to evaluate the position ourselves. Are those doubled pawns actually bad or are they a positive, in this position? and develop our plans accordingly



Search Method


Different Engines has different ways that they decide which positions to analyse. In a 0 position, we should look how we can encourage them to look in a manner more conducive to our cause. I have covered the details in the past but the main method is to look at the Engines Parameters, for functions such as LMR, Null Move, Wide Search and similar. These all encourage the Engine to look harder at a position. The Evaluation faults will remain but even the dumb engine may stumble upon a plan!


Putting all this together to progress from 0 way may need to go into negative territory but as long as our own evaluation is clear this should not be a concern as this situation will right itself over the course of the game (hopefully). I know in playing the KID this is a mandatory path!


The New Normal

Russell Sherwood  Thursday, January 18, 2018

A while ago I had a look at tournament opportunities signing off with a promise of a review of them at the higher level.


From the diagram, we can see for any rating the level of Category event we can or should hope to be entered into.

As a general rule, it will be the same level as we are now – so beginning at 2251 (1), we go up a Category every 25 elo points. This is complicated a little by the new(ish) Individual Category calculation but for the purpose of this discussion, the Tournament Category is more relevant.


So if you are a 2260, then a Category 1 would be the normal expectation and so on.


There are some finesses to this…..


For Invitational Tournaments it is typical that the “home” players will be 1 or 2 categories lower than the average and the “Overseas” players will be 1 or 2 Categories higher than the average. So our 2260 could hope to get up to a Category 3 this way.  Clearly, the opposite is true if you are the “Overseas” player invited to someone else’s party.


It you play in international Opens, often later rounds will offer higher Category events but you have to get there!


International Team Events can offer higher Categories than you might normally be able to access but these require you to be selected for a team.


So where does this leave the aspiring player? A few thoughts:


  • Don’t expect to be offered players much above your current Category by your National Federation, unless you happen to be (a) One of the stronger players and (b) Part of one of the smaller federations.
  • Unless you have a good reason to take part, avoid events which are more than 2 Categories below your natural category. The reason for this is that anything short of an excellent performance can impact your elo significantly
  • Look closely at International Opens – what is the likelihood of getting through the first round to the “good stuff”
  • Make sure your national federation knows about your willingness to play – if they don’t they cannot select you! BUT do realise that you generally have to “pay your dues” to be selected


So that’s a very quick review of Rightsized Categories!


In the War-room

Russell Sherwood  Thursday, January 18, 2018

If we want to succeed in CC we need to bring some organisation and systemisation to our efforts. Why? In the simplest sense we need to (a) Make the most of our playing time and (b) Make the most of our research/training/development time.  If we are not organised most people have a tendency to both waste time and repeat mistakes. This leads us to the creation of , what is called by many, a War-room.


A War-room is simple a place of focus on our CC. This can be a physical space and/or an electronic space and/or an psychological space.  It is also worth noting that this approach is almost equally applicable to over the board Chess.


Psychological Space


  • How do you get yourself into a headspace for chess? It could be that you’re simply “in the mood” but if you want to help this along having certain music, smells or drinks to get you in the mood can be help your performance. Determining the right choice here is difficult but a little trial and attention usually helps.


  • What time of day to you work best? Im lucky in that Im happy both early and late but for some it does make a massive difference.


  • Considering and managing your emotions – How do you feel when a position is going well or badly? Does this affect your judgement and the types of moves you might make? I learned a long time ago not to analyse if Angry about something…..



Electronic Space


I have mentioned in the past that you should not really be using your computer for anything else at the same time as analysis, mainly as the system speed is impacted. Other areas to be considered:


  • Game Recording – You really need one of the main GUI’s: Chessbase, Fritz, Aquarium, Chess Assistant, Hiarcs, Arena………There are many both commercial and open-source. All have pro’s and con’s, which will be covered in a future article. The main point of this is recording your thoughts, Analysis and Ideas around a game, so you can refer to them and potentially correct any incorrect ideas should the game go against you.
  • Database Software – All of the GUI’s mentioned , have some database functionality so again it’s a similar choice. You also need to determine which Databases you intend to use, where to obtain them from and how to keep them up to date. In modern CC , Database manipulation is an essential skill to avoid finding yourself in a dodgy position at move 15!
  • Analysis Software – You guessed, all of the software above will perform this functionality. To go with your choice of GUI, you need to select your main supporting engine(s) Ive covered this in the past and will publish and update soon but the keys here are to (a) Select an engine which you get to know , in terms of its strengths and weaknesses and (b) Having an engine which fits your style and choice of opening.
  • Folder Structure – You will build up a lot of files of various sorts. This need to be organised into folders so you can find the information quickly.


All of this software needs to be set up to suit your style – for example if you want to use Database A, Engine B and Opening Book C, these need to be set up as either defaults or Standards you can select. This is different on all the software above but well worth the time learning.



Physical Space


If you are lucky enough to have this or even a corner of a home desk a few items are very sensible


  • A 2nd Monitor – This I find useful for almost anything but the main point is that we can be analysing a game on one screen whilst look at a database or e-book at the same time on the other. It is also worth checking the settings of your monitor – having one too bright or not bright enough or with the wrong screen resolution can be very tiring.
  • A Book Shelf – Whislt some players like Electronic versions of chessbooks, many (including I) do prefer paper copies. If this is the case then a book shelf either adjacent to your workspace or even on the desk of the tomes you consider most important is essential
  • Notepad. I have already mentioned electronic record keeping but a physical notepad (or two) is as essential. Sometimes you just want to note down an idea or concept!
  • Sound Levels – We cannot all control ambient sound whilst we analyse (It has been known for Washing machines to enter Spin-dry cycles nearby) we can look at a number of ways to alleviate this. One worthy of consideration is a Music/Headphones combination, especially with Noise cancelling headphones.
  • A large faced Physical Clock – Its very easy to lose yourself in analysis, so something to keep us on track is useful.  Whilst your smartphone could do this, a physical alarm clock can also be useful – If you only intend to spend one hour at the desk – you guessed it , set it for one hours time.
  • A Chess Set – I found my results improved when I started to use a physical board alongside an electronic one – if you really want to it can be connected to your software set up fairly easily.


Taking all these together we get to our “place for chess”. Making this work better can have a massive effect on your games and results!

How to train your Dragon!

Russell Sherwood  Thursday, January 18, 2018

Recently I have really got back into playing the King’s Indian Defence. As is well known in CC circles Engines do not understand the KID defence at all, with typical situations having the engine showing a significant plus for white, even when the actual situation is much better for black. There are many reasons why this is the case – three of the main ones being the way engines are tested/tuned, Engine Search Style and the nature of the position itself.


Engine Testing/Tune makes this situation worst as various parameters are set to get the best result in the most possible positions – in other words if I play 10,000 games I want to win as many as possible, changing a parameter might increase the total numbers of wins by a few percentage points but it may well make the evaluation of the engine of “non-standard” positions even worse!


The search style of the engine can make the problem worse. In the simplest sense engines either focus on depth of search or width of search. Engines that focus on depth of search really struggle in the KID as the nature of this search is that a lot of lines are pruned and because the nature of the KID is that many of the lines have sacrifices and deep positional motifs, heavily pruned searching tends to miss this sort of thing, leading to an engine which shows +1.3, +1.4, +1.3, +1.5, 0.25, -0.5, 1.5, falling off a cliff edge as the engine finally “sees” the issue.


The nature of the position itself is one which engines tend to struggle with: Deep and wide attacking lines, sacrifices without immediate benefit…….


So how can we look to better in the KID?


#1 Learn the ideas in the Opening. More so than almost any other opening, it is vital that the player learns the ideas and common manoeuvres seen in the KID. Knowing this will improve the player's sixth sense of which lines to select and which to dismiss.

#2 Select your Engine partner with care. Houdini does better than most of the other major engines In the KID but does not have a learning function (#5)

#3 Build as large a database as possible of games played in the KID.

#4 Build as large an Opening book as possible

#5 Train your engine. A few engines have a “Learning” Mode. What this differs from engine to engine but what we are looking at here is ones that record the best move analysed at a certain depth. This can be useful in itself but comes into its own if paired with a backsliding method. Now we could do this by hand but a more effective way is to utilise game analysis modes seen in most major GUI’s which employ a form a backsliding. This method would allow the engine to build analysis “over the Horizon” based on past games.

#6 Consider using Aquarium’s IDEA function, linked with Infinite Analysis. (which can also be combined with #5!) This allows a very wide search to be utilised to build up a more accurate view of the position(s) over time

#7 Consider Monte-Carlo Analysis – this is an almost random method of building up a view of a position but can help in overcoming the engine’s natural problems.


I know I have enjoyed analysing the KID a lot over recent months but by application of the methods above now have an engine /set of analysis that is approaching a “correct” view of the KID for black.

Read All About it!

Russell Sherwood  Sunday, January 7, 2018

If you wish to read about Chess there are plenty of online sources available but the situation for Correspondence Chess is far less rosy. If often get asked about sources for news and information

An obvious place to start is the player’s National Federation. These are very much a mixed bag and it’s a case of trial and error to find good sources. IF you have a basic translator in your browser (fairly standard is Chrome) then I would recommend the sites of :










These sites are a great source of news. If you want more discussion about the game other good sources are:

Welsh Correspondence Chess Facebook Group. This is a private group as some of the discussion is typical Welsh banter. If you would like to join the contact either Russell Sherwood, Austin Lockwood or Ian Jones


Immortal Chess Forum

This is s very large forum with discussions on many chess subjects

Talk Chess

Here these is a different focus but many interest subjects

Ultimate Chess Forum

Lots of great resources here. An interesting model – if you wish to access most of the materials you have to contribute (post) to the forum.


The Russian CC Federation resides here but lots of really interesting content.


There are plenty of other sides but these are some of the ones I find most interesting.

The Golden Snitch

Russell Sherwood  Monday, January 1, 2018

I’ve been asked a few questions about Tournament Norms and Categories recently, so I thought a quick reminder worthwhile.


To obtain ICCF Titles there are two routes:

  • Awarded for winning a specific event (e.g. the World Cup)
  • Via the accumulation of 24 games at the correct level with the correct performance standard.


For our purposes, we are interested in the 2nd approach. These 24 games need to come from International Title Tournaments, so-called “Norm Events”.  There are a number of criteria to determine if an event is an ITT and a number that could be an ITT are not at the deliberate choice of the organiser. The onus is on the player to be clear if the event they expect to play in is an ITT or not.

So assuming we are looking to play in an ITT we now start to hear the term “Category”, which is confusingly (and often incorrectly) used to refer to two measurements used in the event.

The first of these is the Tournament Category. If you look on an event page if it is an ITT it will refer to (Tournament) Category X. This is simply the average elo of the players involved (excluding some players ratings in certain circumstances). Historically this was then used to calculate the Performance requirements for all players for specific norms (IM, SIM…..). Currently, this is simply used as an indicator of the expected average strength of an event for recruitment (and marketing) purposes.

The second measurement is the Individual Required Performance aka the Individual Norm Requirement. This is calculated by taking the average of the other players in the event (again excluding some in certain circumstances) . This means that different players can have different requirements for the same Title Norm in the same event. This seems unfair but is designed to correct inequalities for players significantly Higher or lower rated than the event average. In general, this means for a few players in the event the Norm might be 0.5 points lower in requirement.

Next time – Which is the right Tournament Category for me?

Back to the Future

Russell Sherwood  Sunday, December 31, 2017

I was recently discussing the direction of CC with a number of friends recently. Whilst this conversation ranged over a number of areas one that came that was a little different was that of CC organisations themselves.


In general, there are far fewer Correspondence Chess players than 10 or 20 years ago. Much of this was , I believe, down to a failure of most CC organisations to develop effective strategic plans to deal with three disruptive changes: (1) The transition from Postal to Email and eventually Server based play (2) The rise of the Internet and the proliferation of playing opportunities/sites and (3) The rise of the Chess Engine.   This then left the organisations scrambling to respond to the changes and many struggled. Take the response to Chess Engines. Many organisations attempted to ban their use, which felt like Horse owners banning the Automobile, rather than looking how to integrate their use or develop dual streams of play. Again short term, knee-jerk responses.



So how does a forward-thinking CC organisation move forwards and plan strategically to enhance its chances of long-term survival?  This is the money question but a few areas do seem to answer at least partial answers:



Typically the modern CC player will most likely want to play on their phone? Can you site offer this?   Is your site optimised for viewing on a phone?


A modern player will want an almost instant response – enter a tournament now, I want to see my name on the waiting list, not wait a day for someone to get back to me.



Do you have an active recruitment policy or strategy? If not then you are missing a trick.  You will always lose a number of players each year and need new blood to come in. If these players are not being sought and you are relying on “word getting around”, then the long-term direction will be downwards.


The typical CC player is now a pensioner. This needs to change otherwise time will continue to reduce numbers. So how to change this trend. A few thoughts:


Junior CC Tournaments – Most CC organisers tend to roll their eyes due to the high dropout rates.  The key to successfully navigating this is to see things through “the eyes of the customer”.  One potential area is to consider why the dropout rates are so high; perhaps rapid time controls are the key


OTB Players – Since the Mid-Nineties CC has had an uneasy relationship with OTB players and organisations, mainly due to a large number of misconceptions and downright wrong ideas about CC and Engine use in particular. Any Literature needs to address these issues. OTB and CC are different, in a similar way to the 100m and Marathon being different Athletics disciplines. The same goes on about “paper” titles – again the point being that a GM Title in CC, makes you, well nothing, in OTB and visa-versa. Again some people get excited about this issue but I see it is no different to my 2nd Dan in Karate being different to my 1st Kyu in Judo – both are martial arts but both are different.


The key here is to recognise and push the benefits of CC to OTB players, which a number of documents do well and not become embroiled in a number of repetitive arguments, typically from people who want to troll a discussion.


Non-Chess Players – This may seem an odd-group, but there are parallel pursuits, which promote, Logic, use of Technology and competition. Determining this could yield results



How much variety does your organisation offer in terms of events, time controls, prizes…… If you have to think about it, then probably not enough!



CC does not have to be expensive. Whilst free as a price should be avoided for many reasons, the general pressure on your event costing should be downwards.


This is just a sample of thoughts on developing a strategic direction for a CC organisation. Some people believe even considering this approach is too professional for volunteer organisations, personally having applied it regularly in my Professional life and in a number of volunteer organisations (large and small)  over the years I can say those who did it fared much better than those who did not!

Rating Blues

Russell Sherwood  Sunday, December 31, 2017


I get asked on occasion about the ICCF rating system. If we hunt it down we find it at the back of the Tournament Rules (now in the single rules document!)

It’s a rather dry document but the most interesting points of it are:


#1 All your results count – old ones don’t drop off.

#2 You have three phases of rating – Unrated/Provisional, Unfixed and  Fixed.

                Unrated/Provisional – here your base rating is calculated. Two main factors come into play – the quality of your opponents and your result against them.

                Unfixed – in this period between 12 and 30 games, individual results can make big changes to your rating and it is possible for your rating to go down even if you win a game IF the opponent is much lower rating than your Unfixed rating

                Fixed – 30 games onwards. Here the change to your rating is calculated by the expected result determined by rating point difference, the actual result and your K factor (The K factor is a stabiliser which reduces the more games you play)

#3 The Rating difference is determined by the ratings at the point of the result NOT at the start of the event.

#4 Rating lists are published 4 times a year.

This leads to a number of strategies a player should employ to avoid shooting themselves in the foot….


  1. When starting out you need to play the highest opposition possible. Whilst your result is a combination of rating and result, it is clear to see that a draw against a 1900 and a draw against a 2200 are not the same thing! I know if I were starting out again I would look at either one of the big ICCF opens or the Champions League (assuming I could find 3 more players). These give access to around a 2100 average level of opposition.
  2. You need to finish off games quickly and not let them drag on for many rating lists. Most players will be able to tell of times where they have had games when they started out which would have gained 4 or 5 elo , that ended up costing them 2 or 3 when finished, as their rating had increased 400 odd e points between the start and finish. So the key is here, if its drawn (ish) offer the draw, don’t let it drag on.
  3. Tricky one this but pick the timing of draw offers (Don’t delay the game unnecessarily) but if you are close to the end of a rating period and the difference between you and your opponent is now 200 rating points and on the new list it will be 100 then in 1 s, then its obvious when the draw should be offered.
  4. Consider how you will aim to beat much weaker opposition. Once you have an Unfixed or fixed rating you need to win games to maintain it, if you are facing much lower rating opposition. So this means, for example, a 2400 rated player entering an Open with an average of around 2100, needs to be scoring in the region of 80% to maintain their rating. This should be a consideration in selecting any event.
  5. The rating system tends to maintain the status quo – if you draw against people with the similar ratings yours will tend to stay the same. As an ambitious player, you need to look for opportunities to get to play better opposition. This is not always easy but if you reach 2250+, then Invitational Events, International Friendlies, Champion’s League (Preferably the B Division or better), Interzonal events and National Championships tend to give the best opportunities.

Do not go gentle into that Good Night. Rage Rage against the Dying of the Light.

Russell Sherwood  Friday, December 22, 2017

You know the situation. “All of a sudden” your position is worse, almost losing. What are you going to do?

Having an inferior position In CC happens to us all, how you deal with it can have a lot to do with your long-term success as a player.

The first thing that has to happen is that you have to “Wake up and smell the roses” and recognise that your position, will without some change of fortune lead to a losing game. When this happens we can loosen the mental shackles and look at the position differently.

At this point, the first thing to recognise is that the game is probably lost and anything we do only has a fairly slim chance of success.  So what are some of our possibilities?

#1 Offer a draw – Very Cheeky but it might come off and it also might sow a seed a doubt in your opponents mind.

#2 Start to ignore the Engine rather more. Why? Unless an engine can find a drawing line it will tend to trade down the position which will not favour us.

#3 Analyse Deeper – what we are looking for is opportunities to move the game away from the direction it is going in at the moment. Sacrificial lines tend to be helpful here

#4 Look for opportunities to trade into drawing situations. For example, you might chuck another pawn on the fire to trade into a double rook ending, which is notoriously hard to convert for the win.

#5 Keep trying to switch the mainline. Tricky this – If you can see someone is letting an Engine “autopilot” the win home, a not keep going down the mainline. This will force your opponent to do a full analysis on each move and (s)he may rush this and blunder.

#6 Give the chances to Blunder – look for lines where the natural move is a bad one. The same goes for keeping them under any time pressure you can.

#7 Be happy doing nothing – Many players make the mistake of always seeking an active defence. Sometimes simply forcing them to try and convert the win can cause them to come unstuck.

#8 Look to create Fortresses – Easier said than done but always worth looking for in the endgame

The key to all of this is to keep your chin up and keep on fighting!

Tri-Bi Thinking

Russell Sherwood  Friday, December 22, 2017

TrBi Thinking


Time controls in CC events are a permanent source of strife to players and organisers alike. In theory, the 10 in 40 system (or similar) should work perfectly without any issues but in reality, it does not for many reasons. In 2014 a number of piecemeal solutions were suggested from various sources but rather than trying to simply paper over the cracks a working group was created to come up with an alternative and the output of this group is “TriBi”. As of today (11/12/17) this has been loaded onto the ICCF server and is available for the first Trial events, one of which will be the Welsh organised “States and Region’s tournaments”


So what is TriBi?

So we now know the “rules” of the system but we now need to consider some of the consequences…..


  1. There is no Free day anymore – your clock runs down by the second not the day. This means the tactic some players do of letting their clock run down to less than a day, making a move a day for the next x moves to time control and then repeating process will not work, indeed to it almost certainly lead to a loss on time.
  2. Players need to make good use of their time as if your clock runs down, relative to your opponents you can put yourself at a serious disadvantage.
  3. Some players may adopt “bedtime” tactics – let’s say I am playing an opponent in my own or adjacent time zone – if I play the move just before going to bed – his clock is running for 8 hours before gets to see it in the morning or worse still 18 hours before he sees it in the evening. Of course, both players can adopt these tactics which tends to zero things out.
  4. A loss of time in a Blitz finish is possible but highly unlikely – note point (2)
  5. No more adjudication – this will stop the poor practice of delaying play for the adjudication date hoping to bamboozle the adjudicator.
  6. Players will need to be careful on their interaction with their opponent if the situation occurs in a balanced but not drawn position where the opponent is short of time and looks to complain if you will not accept a draw. This may lead to scurrilous Code of Conduct claims. This is not a problem as the player is under no obligation to accept a draw.
  7. You can now plan your playing activities much easier as you know when events will finish
  8. The onus is now on you to manage your time, this will be a shock to some players but not those who are fore-armed!
  9. Before a major holiday (e.g. Christmas) or anytime you will be not playing for a while (vacation, work trip etc) – try and make a move before you go, then at least some of the time will be on your opponent's clock! (Of course the same goes if your opponent makes a move just before a major holiday!)

Welsh Correspondence Chess FederationBritish Correspondence Chess AssociationSchemingMind Internet Correspondence Chess ClubSocial Correspondence Chess AssociationNational Correspondence Chess ClubWelsh Chess UnionInternational Correspondence Chess Association