Eliot Hearst and John Knott blog about blindfold chess
Thursday, April 02, 2009

Koltanowski’s Answers to Binet’s Questions: An Unpublished 1995 Interview About Blindfold Chess

On pages 179-184 of our book we described Binet’s (1894) extensive study of players who could play a good number of games simultaneously without sight of any chessboard or pieces. He based his conclusions, summarized in our book, mainly on a long questionnaire he distributed to well-known blindfold players. Jeff La Hue of California recently sent us the details of an interview he conducted with George Koltanowski, a friend of his, in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Koltanowski set world records for simultaneous blindfold play in 1931 and 1937 by playing 30 and 34 games respectively. La Hue decided to ask the 91-year-old Kolty (as he was affectionately known) many of the very same questions Binet posed to his expert blindfold players. Here we excerpt some of the more interesting questions and answers, as well as some replies to questions La Hue posed himself.

Q: Have you in a general way a good memory? Are you good at mental arithmetic, and in the habit of making mental calculations?

GK: I had a near-fatal illness as a child and was bed-ridden for two years enduring fourteen operations. I didn’t learn how to play chess, but I used that time to develop my mind by memorizing anything I read. As a youngster I enjoyed geography and mathematics and, later, languages and chess. Years ago. I would do math in my head without pen or pencil. Today, less so.

How do you represent to yourself the position in a blindfold game? In answering this question, think in what way or form the position of the game returns to you when required, after being temporarily dismissed.

I play more than one game at a time blindfolded. When a game is within the first 10 moves or so, I repeat each move—e4, e6, and so on—to reconstruct each position since some games may still be similar at this point. After 10 moves, I go directly to the position of each game without having to recount each move leading up to each position. By that time, the games on the boards are usually different enough that the positions are unique.

Do you personify your opponent, and if so, what form does he take in your mind?

Normally I don’t meet the opponents beforehand, so each opponent is rather unknown. The moves are announced by a teller. Although, at my 34-game world record set in Edinburgh, I was quickly introduced by the organizers to each of the 34 players and we shook hands before commencing. I unconsciously “sized-up” some of the players a bit just by looking at them and varied some of my openings accordingly. I had trained for months to split up the boards by having the first five 1. e4, the second five 1.d4, etc. However, I unconsciously threw out that plan during the event and I attribute that to having met each player briefly before the exhibition.

Do you represent to yourself the board and men as a whole, that is to say in one mental picture, or do parts of the board come before you in succession? Is it anything like a photograph of a board and men? Do you see colors? Is there a particular chessboard with pieces of a particular pattern?

There are no boards nor pieces of any kind in my mind. I just know that there is now a Pawn on e4, the Queen is now at e2, or whatever….I just know it ....I don’t see the position visually, I just know it mentally. If someone asks me what piece is on a particular square, I can easily and quickly answer that for any board. Even in answering that I don’t envision a board or a particular piece…..I just know that there is a Knight on f3 on board 3 and so on.

There are no colors, no visual pieces, no visual board. I do believe I play better without seeing a board—real or otherwise! Although, I do recommend looking at the board during regular over-the-board games!

In my case I have no chess set in mind. I feel—not in a touching sense—the pieces. I do not see the pieces, but I feel them! There are hundreds of types of Kings. Sure, I know what one looks like and I know I have a King but I don’t see it!

Are you not conscious of the forms and colors of the pieces, and do you represent to yourself when you think of a position, the place of the pieces, and their relations to one another?

This is closer to what I do in that I know where the pieces are, but I don’t see a visual representation in my mind’s eye. I just remember where each piece is and what, if anything, is on each square on the each board.

Do you, for example, when you represent to yourself the Bishop, think vaguely of his name, and do you say to yourself “Bishop”?

I don’t say it to myself, but I do think of which piece is on which square as the games progress.

When you think of a move, do you think of it as written, and do you say “Queen’s Rook to Queen’s square”, for instance?

I don’t mentally think of an act of writing the move down, but I do think “Queen’s Rook to Queen’s square” since I have to say that out loud to announce my move!

When you think of a position, do you fix it on your mind by a description in words which you can remember afterwards, and is this mental description which enables you to bring back the position to your mind?

Yes, but only up to the first 10 moves or so. Again, that is necessary for me in my simultaneous blindfolds since some of the games may have identical positions. After that point, I just remember the unique position….but, again, not visually….on each and every board. Occasionally if I have temporarily lost a position, I might have to resort to recalling all of the moves on that particular board. That is not normal, however, after the first 10 moves of each board.

The following are some replies to questions that La Hue posed himself (that is, not from Binet’s standard questionnaire):

What is the key to knowing which board is which?

I would often divide boards into 4 opening groups: e4, d4, f4, and c4. I would always repeat all moves up to about the 10th move. I would talk to myself Pawn to e4, e5, and so forth. I would continually repeat all moves of each and every board. This made it clear that that board number 5, for example, was the Italian game where at move 6 such and such was played.

This gave me what I call “control of the boards.” After repeating all the moves for the first 10 moves or so, I’ve already controlled the position….I then feel it….I don’t see the position….I feel it. After all of that repetition I know the position and can play on from there. The different boards will each have distinguishable positions beyond that move 10 point. I specialized in only 2 or 3 lines in any given opening. This also helped me to gain control of the boards.

Which notation do you use as you repeat the moves to yourself?

I typically used descriptive notation in verbally repeating the moves….not out loud, but to myself. Now, I could try using both descriptive and algebraic notation. I could use descriptive on one of the King’s Pawn games (1.P-K4) and use algebraic on another of the King’s Pawn games (1.e4) to help distinguish and secure a foothold of the different games. Thanks for the new idea!

(Note by E. Hearst: On page 195 of our book we note that Kolty used both algebraic and descriptive notation in his 34-board world-record-setting display in 1937: descriptive on the first 14 boards and algebraic on the other 20—a sensible way of helping him separate groups of games. This is the only blindfold display we know about in which this system was used. So it wasn’t a new idea, or perhaps Kolty forgot that he had used it many years before.)

Pillsbury also mentioned dividing up boards into different openings for his large simultaneous displays. Did you pick up methods from earlier famous blindfold players like Pillsbury?

No. I wasn’t aware of the methods of other simultaneous blindfold players….I developed this completely on my own. Early on in Belgium we didn’t have much chess literature….

Binet wrote about 3 main blindfold play capacities: knowledge, imagination, and memory….

Memory is the most important. If you can’t retain the moves, you can’t repeat them. Imagination is needed for combinations to be able to feel sacrifice possibilities.

What do you think of the blindfold games played at the annual Melody Amber tournament in Monaco?

I enjoy looking through the games. I read that each player views a monitor showing an empty chessboard with the notation of the last move….Well, that’s not blindfold chess.

(Note by E.Hearst: I don’t understand the logic of Kolty’s response. It seems to be blindfold chess to me! What do readers think? An empty board was occasionally provided the exhibitor in previous regular blindfold chess and of course the last move was told to the exhibitor in all displays.)

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