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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Chat With a Chess Champion

Allan Savage of the National Library of Medicine recently won the title of "International Master of Correspondence Chess" by the International Correspondence Chess Foundation. He earned this distinction by tieing for first place in the 7th North American Correspondence Chess Championship. His victory there has launched him into the 3/4 final of the 19th World Correspondence Chess Championship.

"Correspondence chess is played by mail," Savage explained. "A typical game takes 1 to 3 years to complete. Moves are relayed in a special chess notation under a time limit of 3 days per move."

In the spirit of correspondence chess, we recently conducted an email correspondence interview with Savage, who is U.S. life master and also holds the FIDE master title from the World Chess Federation for over-the-board chess. He is a former two-time Maryland State champion, chess teacher, author and journalist.

How long have you been playing chess? How did you learn?
I learned to play chess at age 10 during an extended stay in the hospital. My 5th grade teacher brought me a pocket set and beginner book. I have been playing in tournaments since age 14 (31 years).

When is the 3/4 final of the 19th World Correspondence Chess Championship? And if you win that, what next?

The 3/4 final is slated to start in the spring of 1998. Top three or four places (out of 15-17 players) qualify for the 19th world championship final (there will be four or five 3/4 finals). The 19th world championship final would probably start around the year 2003.

Is it fun to play a chess game spread out over 1-3 years? Do you play a bunch of games "simultaneously?"

A tournament such as the 3/4 final requires one to play 15-16 games simultaneously. Most correspondence players play in many different events at once, so may often have 30 or more games going at one time. Most players who enjoy correspondence chess find it fun, since games contain fewer mistakes and can approach the ideal of "perfect play." Social correspondence with one's opponents, often in foreign countries, is also enjoyable. At the level of the world 3/4 final and final, the games involve an enormous investment of time and thus there is a large element of "work" as well.

How do you choose opponents?

Most correspondence events are round robin, all-play-all affairs. In the world championship cycle, players must qualify from preliminary tournaments.

Can email be used instead of surface mail?

Recently, email has been allowed instead of surface mail for transmitting moves in international correspondence tournaments. But both players must have Internet access, which isn't frequently the case yet, especially for Eastern Europeans.

How can you be sure that your opponent isn't getting advice from other chess players about how to counter your moves?

Help from other players and from chess-playing computers is usually forbidden, but obviously, enforcement is impossible. Among the stronger correspondence players, computer help is not worth the trouble.

How did you qualify to be a U.S. life master, and a FIDE master?

To be a life master (a U.S. over-the-board title, not correspondence), one must play 300 games at the level of master. FIDE master (an international over-the-board title) is earned in a similar way. (U.S. ratings and FIDE ratings are similar but separate.)

In what years were you Maryland State champion?

1988 and 1990.

Please expand briefly on your work as teacher, author and journalist.

I have taught chess for over 20 years in schools, chess clubs, adult education centers, and privately. I have authored two books on chess, both now out of print. As a chess journalist, I have edited chess magazines, been a columnist and written chess book reviews for several publications.

How long have you worked at NLM(National Library of Medicine), and what is your title?

I have worked at NLM for 9 years and am a technical information specialist in the medical subject headings (MeSH) section.


Savage reminds employees that there is an National Institute of Health Chess Club that meets on Wednesday evenings in 2nd-floor cafeteria of Building 10.

By Rich McManus

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