Eliot Hearst and John Knott blog about blindfold chess
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Zukertort Interview (1883): How I Play Blindfold Simultaneous Chess

Although our book covers Johannes Zukertort’s blindfold career in detail, his answers to a reporter from The New York Herald on December 2, 1883, add some color and additional particulars about his play without sight of the board. Zukertort held the world record for number of simultaneous games played blindfolded for almost a quarter of a century. He set a new record by playing 16 at once in 1876 in London, which was not equaled or exceeded until Harry Pillsbury played 16, 17, and 20 total games in 1900. Here are some of Zukertort’s comments from the 1883 article, seven years after he set his record and when he was touring New York. The article is titled “What The Memory Can Do” and two subtitles are “A head full of pigeonholes” and “Mental pictures that come and go like those of a magic lantern.”

The NYH reporter first asked Zukertort to explain the method by which he is able to play a number of blindfold games at once:

I was first taught the moves on a chessboard in 1860, when I was eighteen years old. I was at college studying the natural sciences. Soon after that I went to the University of Breslau, where there was a chess club, and where I was beaten nine out of every ten games I played. This was in June, 1861. Then I began to study chess — in fact, I became infatuated with the game. I played in the day time and read chess books at night. By the following February there was no man living who could give me the odds of a knight. The great Anderssen was in Breslau, and we played together a great deal. In a series of twenty-four games, in which he gave me the odds of a knight, I won twenty and drew two.

In reading the chess books so much I discovered my capacity for carrying on a game as I read it, without looking at a board, in much the same way as a musician might read music. I cultivated the faculty, and finding that I could play one game blindfold I tried to play two games, and was successful. In January, 1868, I gave my first public exhibition of blindfold playing. I played seven games at that time, and afterward nine games. I never played eight that I can remember. Gradually I ran the number up from nine to twelve, and finally to sixteen. That is as many games as I have ever attempted blindfold, and no other player has ever done as much. I played the sixteen in the West End Chess Club of London December 11, 1876, against sixteen of the strongest amateur players of the St. George’s and West End clubs. I won twelve, drew three and lost but one. The single winner was an American gentleman living in London, Mr. W. Ballard.

The reporter asked: Can you play more than sixteen games, do you think?

I have no doubt of it. I think there is no mental limit to the number of games I might play, but there is a physical limit; it is very wearing work.

The reporter: Do you play simply from memory?

I have a way of photographing a board in my mind, and — the boards being numbered — when one board is called the photograph of the position of the men on that board comes instantly before my mind while the last board as quickly disappears. I never see two boards before me even for an instant. My mind at such times is like a wall upon which a magic lantern casts a shadow, and just as the pictures are changed in the magic lantern so the photographs of the chess boards change before my eyes.

The reporter: Do you adopt a certain set of openings when you undertake to play a number of blindfold games, so arranging the series that you may know what style of opening was played on a particular board?

No, I go entirely by the numbers of the boards. Each game becomes identified in my mind with a certain number, call that number and I see the game. The most difficult part of blindfold playing is not, as many suppose, toward the conclusion of the games but in the beginning of them, where the pieces are apt to be similarly placed on two or more boards. The further the games progress the easier it is to recall them. A board always comes into my mind precisely as I left it after the last move. I never have to go back over the moves in order to find out how the men stand, but I can at any time give the moves in the regular order in which they were made or the reverse order. I played twelve games in Glasgow blindfolded in January, 1873, and the play was adjourned to attend a dinner given in my honor. After the dinner and before continuing the games I named the precise position of every man, black and white, on each of the twelve boards.

The reporter: Why is it that many good chess players not only cannot play blindfolded, but are unable to comprehend how another man does it?

I suppose it is a difference in the powers of memory. My memory had a peculiar training. When I was seven years old, and before I could read or write, I was able to demonstrate such a problem as the square of the hypothenuse or to work out a simple equation entirely from memory. My godfather was a professor of mathematics, and he had great faith in the value of training the memory. I myself believe that the memory may be trained in the same way that we can train our bodies. My memory is good in other lines than chess. Whatever I read a few times I commit to memory. I have not read Roman history since I was in the University; but I am ready to stand an examination in Roman history today. I believe I have forgotten none of the dates. I can play over now in my mind the games of chess that I played in the London tournament. I am the editor of the London Chess Monthly, and I compose nearly all my analytical articles and notes upon games of chess while travelling and with no board near me.

The reporter: Can you play as well blindfolded as you can with a board?

No, but I believe if I were to practice blindfolded playing more that I could conduct one game without a board better than with it. I could concentrate my mind more entirely by not seeing the board.

The reporter: How many blindfold players of distinction are there now living?

Not many. There is Blackburne, of England, who has played twelve games, and a young lawyer named Alexander Fritz, in Berlin, who has played ten games. Louis Paulsen was once a great blindfolded player, but has had to give it up with advancing age. As he said to me, “The corners of the board are slipping away from me.”

ADDENDUM: A few comments/corrections from E. Hearst:

A minor error involves the exact date that Zukertort gave for his 16-board world-record-setting display in 1876. It was not held on December 11, but on December 16 and 21. The more important point is that there was an interruption of five days after the first five hours of play, unusual for world-record performances, which typically involve one long session on a particular day, sometimes with a relatively short break for a meal.

The dates and number of opponents for Zukertort’s first few blindfold exhibitions do not match the ones given in his well-documented biography by Tomasz Lissowski (see p. 45 of our book for the correct details).

It is interesting that Zukertort reports seeing “photographs” of each game as his exhibitions proceed. Most blindfold champions report much vaguer, abstract representations of each position, as summarized in several places in our book.

Zukertort’s assertions about his ability to recall exact details and dates from subjects outside of chess (e.g., Roman history) that he studied many years before ought to be viewed with skepticism. As our book describes (pp.43-44), he was an “inveterate braggart” about his abilities and achievements outside of chess. Chess historians David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld remark on the “absurd boasts he made about his non-chess skills.”

Most readers will have guessed that a “magic lantern” was the forerunner of the modern slide projector. In the mid-19th century William and Frederick Langenheim invented a technique for displaying photographic images that replaced the older, more primitive magic lanterns. They called their device a hyalotype and used it mostly to entertain paying audiences with picture shows. Eventually the apparatus was employed more in educational lectures.

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