The Tricks of Blindfold Chess
Playing chess without being able to see the board is an astounding feat - and a window into the human mind.
By Christopher Chabris Jan. 27, 2017 9:08 a.m. ET
Chess has the reputation of being a very hard game. But a simple tweak can make it even harder: taking away the pieces and board.
In blindfold chess, moves are communicated verbally, and one (or both) of the players must keep track of the locations of all the pieces by memory alone. With 32 pieces to start on a 64-square board, that is no easy feat. The world record for the most simultaneous games of blindfold chess was set last December by a grandmaster who played an astounding 48 opponents at the same time.
Blindfold chess is nearly as old as chess itself. Accounts of individual blindfold games go back more than 1,000 years, according to the book Blindfold Chess by Eliot Hearst and John Knott. A Middle-Eastern player named Buzecca is said to have played the three best players in Florence at once in the 13th century, two of them while he was blindfolded, and scored two wins and a draw. (It's unclear which two were blindfold games.)
The Frenchman Francois-Andre Philidor, a leading 18th century orchestra composer, was the first chess master to gain fame for blindfold play. He took on three opponents at once on several occasions, prompting his contemporaries to worry that the mental exertion would cause him to go mad. Alfred Binet, the psychologist who invented the concept of IQ, investigated blindfold chess in the 1890s. He found that players didn't keep a photographic image of the board in their memories but instead visualized patterns of fuzzy, schematic forces.
Early 20th century players gradually increased the record for the most simultaneous games. In 1947 the Argentine grandmaster Miguel Najdorf set a mark of playing 45 at once, winning 39. Interest in massive blindfold exhibitions declined after that. Najdorf's record held until the German master Marc Lang topped it in 2011, playing 46 games.
In December, the American grandmaster Timur Gareyev played 48 blindfold games at once at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, but he did it a bit differently from previous record-setters. First, he wore an actual blindfold; it is more common for the player to keep his eyes open but to face away from the boards. Second, the health-conscious Mr. Gareyev pedaled a stationary bicycle throughout the event. Third, and perhaps most important, he chose to take the black pieces against half of his opponents.
White moves first in chess, and in an ordinary simultaneous exhibition, when all boards are visible, the grandmaster often takes white in every game. That advantage makes up for the burden of walking from board to board while playing so many opponents at once.
The main problem for the blindfold player is interference - the possibility that his memories of the different games will overlap with one another, causing him to lose track of where pieces are. It's easier to keep track of your positions if you're playing white in half the games and black in the other half - an advantage that more than makes up for the slight handicap of having to move second. After almost 19 hours, Mr. Gareyev had won 35 games, lost just six and played seven to a draw.
Blindfold chess can be a window into human possibilities. In a 2003 study, Mr. Hearst, a psychologist and chess master, and I used computer analysis to study 396 double-blindfold games, where two grandmasters play each other with no pieces, just an image of a chessboard. Surprisingly, they made barely more mistakes than they did when playing under normal conditions. This is because most of a game of chess - indeed, most of any game that involves thinking ahead, like checkers, backgammon or modern "Eurogames" such as Carcassonne - happens inside the minds of the players. For each move that is played, dozens may be visualized, evaluated and discarded without ever being seen on the board.
Timur Gareyev has been working on his blindfold game for just a few years, but he has made it his specialty. His website calls him the "Blindfold King." His world record is indeed an astounding chess feat, but it is also just an extreme form of the game as it is normally played.