The eminent chess historian Edward Winter reported in his Chess Note 5992 that the recent online availability of the complete archives of the newspaper Journal de Genève enabled one of his French readers, Dominique Thimognier, to uncover an article there (October 4, 1925) about a psychologist’s study of Alexander Alekhine. The work relates to several of the topics and conclusions in our book and was performed by the well-known Swiss psychologist Édouard Claparède (1873-1940), who is recognized even today for his pioneering research on educational practices, child development, emotional vs. other kinds of memories, amnesia, and sleep (to name only some of his far-ranging interests). He asked Alekhine to describe how he played blindfold chess and also to submit to a few types of memory tests. Since Alekhine is widely accepted as the greatest blindfold player of all time, his reactions are of particular interest.
Claparède’s curiosity about Alekhine’s memory and visualization was probably directly instigated by his 10-board simultaneous blindfold display in Geneva on October 1 (six of the games are provided on pp. 254-255 of Skinner and Verhoeven’s Alexander Alekhine’s Chess Games, 1902-1946, McFarland Publishers, 1998). However, Claparède’s own research projects on memory and his association with Alfred Binet, whose extensive study and analysis of blindfold chess (1893-1894) are summarized in our book, were also likely to have played a major role in Claparède’s decision to invite Alekhine to submit himself to a psychologist’s questioning and investigation. (Incidentally, after Binet died in 1911, Claparède was one of those who was chosen to write an informed and important obituary for him.)
Alekhine described how he played blindfold games in a way that is similar to what virtually all the great blindfold champions have reported. None of them found it easy to explain their visualization in words! Alekhine’s mental representation of positions was relatively abstract and not at all concrete. He said that he saw before him “only a very indistinct surface, representing the chessboard, a colorless surface vaguely divided into sections.” In choosing a move, for example, he did not make a decision because he actually visualized real pawns but because he knew “where they were. Each part of the chessboard developed a meaning” for him.
While in Claparède’s laboratory, Alekhine also took a few standard memory tests. They revealed that if a test had nothing to do with chess (memorizing words, geometrical shapes, or objects) he did no better than an average person. On the other hand, when a test involved memory of a chess position placed on a board in front of him, he performed exceptionally well. One example: Claparède placed 12 pieces randomly on a chessboard, six White and six Black, comprising all the different pieces in chess. After looking at the setup for only 15 seconds, Alekhine reconstructed the position exactly when the pieces were removed. When Claparède performed the same experiment on himself and two of his assistants, they could only correctly place three or four pieces of the dozen. Thus Claparède used a primitive version of the reconstruction task that has been so widely used in studying chess skill and memory by later psychologists.
We see that Claparède’s investigation of Alekhine’s visualization processes in blindfold chess and his memory for chess-related and non-chess-related material yielded results that are highly consistent with the conclusions from research about blindfold champions summarized in our book. We believe that a few blindfold players like Pillsbury, who could perform very well on a number of non-chess-related memory tasks, had spent considerable time mastering various general memory systems, as described in numerous books on how to develop an exceptional memory. Other blindfold champions claimed to have great memories for non-chess material, but they were never actually tested in a well-controlled situation.