The strange chess career of Nicolas Preo

One of the major issues in regard to cheating in correspondence chess is players using strong chess engines and databases to help them work out their next move. While various organising bodies have created rules banning the use of such software, it is virtually impossible to police and prove that someone is using software to help them with their games.

Another form of cheating is for a player to assume a false identity to compete in a tournament. This occurred back in the late 1980’s in England, when a Leigh Strange entered and won the 1986 English Women’s correspondence chess championship. It was later discovered that “Leigh Strange” was in fact a promising young male junior named Nick Down, who received a two-year ban for his dishonesty.

And then there is the case of Nicolas Preo. Born in Russia on the 26th of March 1902, Preo spent some time studying in Harbin, Manchuria, emigrating to the United States in 1923. He took up correspondence chess in 1949 and won the Golden Knights tournament organised by the United States Chess Federation in 1952. Preo started to play internationally under the auspices of the International Correspondence Chess Federation in 1958. He was awarded the International Master title in 1967. He played with distinction on various American teams in international tournaments, and was the only player to feature in all four of the first North American invitational championships. Preo was still an active player in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, according to the ICCF rating database.

In 2002, ICCF tournament director Carlos Flores Gutierrez received news that Preo, a competitor in one of his tournaments, had died. Although it was unusual for a player to continue playing at Master strength into his nineties, this was not unprecedented; fellow American Walter Muir had an even longer career.

When Gutierrez announced Preo’s death, some awkward questions started to arise. Why did the local newspaper, the “Santa Cruz Sentinel”, report that Preo had died of a heart attack at age 72, when the CC world believed he was in his late-nineties? Why was he described as an accountant when all previous articles about Preo had talked about his long working career with the Owens Illinois Glass Company? Why was the second initial in the obituary “N”, and not “A”? Were there two different Nicolas Preos?

After some digging by CC officials, fellow players and family members, it was discovered that the obituary in the “Sentinel” was for Nicolas Preo, Jnr, – Preo’s son.

Preo Jnr was born on the 26th of April 1929, and had learned chess from his father, but he had always used the full surname “Preobrajensky”, which his father had shortened to “Preo”. His second name was “Nikolaevich (son of Nicolas), thus explaining the middle initial of “N” rather than “A”. Preo Jnr was an accountant with a degree in Business Administration of from the University of California in Berkeley. His other chief interest was singing, which he did with various local choirs and operatic societies.

Father and son shared a house in Santa Cruz along with daughter Vera, who was blind. Poor eyesight was feature of the Preo family, and it appears that from the early 1980’s onwards Preo Jnr started helping his father with the games that he was playing, due to his father’s eye issues. This was back in the era of ‘snail mail’ transmission of moves, when Preo Snr needed to write out his moves as well as the postal address of his opponent. Also the rules of CC allow players to consult opening books, so maybe Preo Snr was unable to read properly any of those books, and thus asked his son to help play though opening variations that he might play in his games. So at this point Preo Jnr was just helping with the clerical side of CC.

When Preo Snr died on the 9th of January 1988, aged 86, his son didn’t inform his opponents or the ICCF of his father’s death, but instead just continued playing the games. His opponents had no idea that they were now playing a game with a totally different person making the moves for the other side.

At the time of his death, Preo Snr was playing in one of the semi-finals of the 16th ICCF World Correspondence Chess Championship tournament . After two years of play, Preo Snr had scored 5.5/6 – a very good result for an 85 year old man. He then passed away. What should have happened is that opponents would have stopped receiving moves from Preo Snr, who would have repeated their move, and getting no reply, would have informed the tournament director or the ICCF directly. They would have determined that Preo Snr had died, and all of his uncompleted games would have been adjudicated, or all of his games could be annulled or all of his opponents would be awarded a win.

Preo Jnr now faced a dilemma – should he report his father’s death and begin competition under his own name, or should he just carry on? As mentioned earlier, he decided to carry on, By the time of his father’s death, the outstanding games had taken shape, and he thought that he was as good an analyst/player as his father. The semi-final dragged slowly on, and Preo Jnr dropped out of contention, losing five more games and winning three, to finish with a score of 8.5/14.

His next tournament was the Anglo-Pacific Tournament Championship, which began in August 1994. Preo Jnr only scored 6.5/14, maybe due to the fact that he had to start all his games from scratch without Preo Snr’s analysis. He entered several further tournaments, and had scored 1/5 in one of them when he died on the 9th of February 2002. His opponents thought that some of his behaviour a bit odd; he did not seem to understand the time limits for moves, which is something that his father would have been very familiar with. He also rarely resigned in hopeless positions, instead forcing his opponent to checkmate him, as well as writing “By Air Mail” on the cards that he used to transmit his moves, when this is usually printed on such cards. They obviously had no idea that they were playing Preo Jnr instead of Preo Snr.

Preo Jnr’s involvement with his father’s games was confirmed in two ways:

  1. The printed existing scores of Preo Snr’s games are written in the handwriting of Preo Jnr.
  2. The game scores are written in the now-abandoned descriptive notation, which was still widely used in the United States when Preo Jnr was learning how to play chess. In Russia, Preo Snr would have learned algebraic notation, and would have found descriptive notation confusing.

Analysis by CC player and author Tim Harding suggests that Preo Jnr started playing some of his father’s games in the early 1980’s. It appears that he lacked strategic knowledge, and was also prone to launching premature attacks. Yet if he could survive the opening and reach an unclear middle game, he became a wily tactician and could score victories against quite strong opponents – just like his father.

This blog post was based on Tim Harding’s article “The strange CC career of Nicholas Preo”,  in his book “The Write Move”, Chess Mail Ltd, Dublin, Ireland, 2005, pp. 142-149.