Eliot Hearst and John Knott blog about blindfold chess
Monday, February 23, 2009

Bobby Fischer and Blindfold Chess

In our book Bobby Fischer is only rarely mentioned and, strangely enough, never in any direct connection with blindfold chess. This omission was mainly due to Bobby’s failure to play any serious, formal blindfold games or exhibitions. However, friends were familiar with his playing without sight of any board and pieces in all kinds of informal settings: taking a walk, riding on a train or plane, having dinner, partying, or relaxing on a day off in a tournament. His master opponents often had no chess set available, either. Virtually none of the scores of those many games were recorded for posterity. But, to no one’s surprise, Bobby was a formidable blindfold player. Here we mention a few descriptions of his blindfold battles.

Frank Brady, in Profile of a Prodigy (1973, p. 76), narrates the story of Bobby’s participation in a New Year’s Eve party at Jack Collins’s home on December 31, 1963, when Bobby had one game to go, (on January 2, with Anthony Saidy) to finish the regular U.S. Championship with an 11-0 score — perfection that had never before been achieved in our national championship. Most chess fans know that he won that hard-fought game.

Right after ringing in the new year, Bobby played a good number of blindfold games at the party with the strong master Billy Addison (also a player in the ongoing U. S. Championship) under conditions where Addison had sight of a chess board and pieces. Bobby allowed Addison to play White in every game and, in addition, Bobby took off his king’s bishop’s pawn at the start of each game as an extra handicap. Each player had only five minutes per game. Brady reports that Addison “barely managed to break even” in their series. Brady remarks that “it was a memorable chess experience for all of us to witness.”

Brady also reports (pp. 21-22) that a fellow classmate of Bobby’s in high school recalled years later that Bobby

was always quiet and disinterested in the lesson. Occasionally, he would take out his pocket chess set and play over some games. Invariably, he would be caught by the teacher, who would say: “Fischer, I can’t force you to listen to the lesson and I can’t prevent you from playing chess, but for my sake, please play without the board.” Bobby would courteously put his pocket set away and sit there in stony silence, and we all knew, including the teacher, that he was playing the games in his mind.

Jack Collins recalls more examples of Bobby’s blindfold play in his book My Seven Chess Prodigies (1974, for example, pp. 37-39). In June of 1956 Bobby started to appear regularly at Collins’s home (called the Hawthorne Chess Club), where the two played many fast games of regular chess. But on Tuesday nights they would be driven over to the Marshall Chess Club to play in the marathon (often 20 entrants) weekly rapid-transit tourneys there, conducted at 10 seconds per move. During the drive Fischer and Collins would play each other without any chess set available to either of them. Even though not all these games were ever finished, Collins said “they were fun, and they provided worthwhile training in visualization.” Collins also describes their frequent double-blindfold games on their way to see a movie together.

Another time, after Bobby was interviewed by Bernard Schiff of The New York Post with Collins present, Schiff took them both to dinner. On the stroll there and during dinner Collins and Fischer spent more time playing blindfold chess than conversing with Schiff, who was deeply impressed by this feat. Collins says that this ability was a “special chess gift with which Bobby was endowed, and still is, but one which, for reasons of his own, he has chosen not to fully exploit. Perhaps he agrees with the Soviet chess authorities, who consider it too much of a mental strain, or perhaps he regards it as not a serious form of his art — a sort of a stunt.” This latter comment mirrors what Garry Kasparov once said about blindfold chess, even though he did give one formal simultaneous blindfold display against 10 strong opponents (see pp. 126-127 of our book): he called it a “sideshow.”

Recently Richard Cantwell, one of Washington’s strongest players for many years, wrote me that he vividly recalls the time when Bobby stayed at his home for a couple of days when he was scheduled to give a regular large-scale simultaneous exhibition and lecture in Washington in the early 1960s. Cantwell invited Senior Masters Hans Berliner and Eliot Hearst, both frequent winners of the District of Columbia Championship, over for dinner and some chess with Bobby. The two agreed to play Bobby with sight of a board and pieces while he played “blindfolded” with his back to them and no board or pieces. These were offhand games, with no clocks, but they were played relatively quickly, one opponent at a time. Cantwell did not keep the scores of the two games but he remembers that Berliner played a Caro-Kann Defense and lost while Hearst managed to hold on for a draw. I must have been quite happy not to lose! 

Perhaps readers can help us obtain the details about a game that Bobby supposedly played while he had a chess set and pieces in front of him and Sammy Reshevsky played blindfolded. One source says the game occurred in 1955 while Reshevsky was giving a simultaneous blindfold display and Bobby was “ecstatic” after his victory. But Lou Hayes’s book Bobby Fischer: Complete Games of the American World Chess Champion (1992, p. 297) supplies a game that was “played at 10 seconds per move with Reshevsky blindfolded” on June 13, 1957, which Bobby also won. It is hard to believe that in 1957 Bobby would have been willing to play Reshevsky with the latter playing blindfolded and Fischer with sight of the board; Fischer was already one of the leading players in the country and later in the year won the U.S. Open and the regular U.S. Championship. In 1955 he was only 12 and such an outcome might have excited him. Also, to our knowledge, Reshevsky did not give any formal simultaneous blindfold displays. Again, we ask readers who can locate the game and its arrangements to let us know when/where/why this game, given now exactly as in the Hayes’ book, occurred. Reshevsky was White.

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.d4 0-0 5.e4 d6 6.Be2 c6 7.0-0 a6 8.Re1 b5 9.b3 b4 10.e5 de5 11.de5 bc3 12.ef6 Bf6 13.Bh6 Qd1 14.Rad1 Re8 15.Bd3 Nd7 16.Be4 Nc5 17.Bc6 Bf5 18.g4 Bg4 19.Kg2 Bf5 20.Ba8 Ra8 21.Nd4 Nd3 22.Nf5 Ne1 23.Re1 gf5 24.Rd1 e5 25.c5 Rc8 26.b4 f4 27.Kf3 Be7 28.Ke4 Rc6 29.Rg1 Rg6 30.Rg6 fg6 31.Kd3 Kf7 32.Kc3 g5 33.c6 Ke6 34.Kc4 Kd6 35.b5 ab5 36.Kb5 e4 37.Kc4 Bf6 38.h4 f3 39.hg5 e3 40.Bf8 Be7 41.Be7 Ke7 42.c7 Kd7 0-1

We would welcome submission of other Fischer blindfold games and any stories or comments readers may have about his play without sight of the board. You can reach us on the Contact page.

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