(The following article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Chess Life. Its title there was “Jeepers, Creepers: Who Needs Those Peepers?” The author, GM Andrew Soltis, and Chess Life magazine have given us permission to reprint the article on this website, with very minor formatting changes. It should inspire readers to try playing blindfold and gives examples that provide some instructional hints.)
Of all the creatures on this planet, chessplayers are among the least likely to be accused of modesty. But there’s one skill in which we underestimate ourselves. Believe it or not, it’s blindfold chess.
I suspect that you are better at blindfold than you think. In fact, I’d bet that at least a third of Chess Life readers can play through a game score mentally.
Furthermore, I’d wager that a substantial number of readers can play their own game without sight of the board. A smaller group can play more than one blindfold game simultaneously. And there are some — well, like Hikaru Nakamura — who can play 10 boards blind.
I know what you’re going to say: “Not me. I can’t picture the entire board in my mind.” But almost no one does that in blindfold chess — or in any other type of chess, for that matter.
Focus on those quads
White: GM Loek van Wely (FIDE 2683)
Black: GM Vassily Ivanchuk (FIDE 2750)
Melody Amber Blindfold Tourney 2007
This could be a Black-to-play-and-win position from our monthly quiz. Before reading on, cover up the next paragraph and try to solve it.
Black “saw” that White’s last move threatens 27. Qxh4. He also saw that 26…Qxe1+ doesn’t lead anywhere. But he found that 26…Bxg2+ 27. Kxg2 h1(Q)+! leads to a forced mate (28. Qxh1 Qg4+ or28…Rf2+).
Now if you saw all that — or even a fraction of it — you may have noticed how your attention was focused on the lower right corner of the board. You probably paid no attention at all to the knight at d7 or White’s queenside pieces, not to mention the distant pawns. You may have looked at only 16 squares, on the e- to h-files.
That’s no surprise. An experienced player — even with full sight of the board — typically focuses on a portion of it at any given moment. Of course, he’ll look at the rest of the squares before choosing a move. But even then he isn’t studying 64 squares at once.
The Russian psychologist Viktor Malkin said the inability to take in the entire board, with eyes wide open, explains why a master can miss a “long” move. He cited the game Marshall-Tchigorin, Monte Carlo 1902. It went 1. d4 d5 2. c4 Nc6 3. Nc3 dxc4 4. d5 Na5 5. Bf4 Bd7? 6. e4 e6 7. dxe6 fxe6?? 8. Qh5+! and White wins because of 9. Qxa5.
In fact, that’s a good game to test yourself with: Try to imagine the position that arises after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 Nc6 I suspect almost all readers can do that if they concentrate.
The next move is 3. Nc3 Take a moment to see if you can visualize the board then. You can? Then add 3…dxc4. Go slowly and don’t try to see an entire board.
Add 4. d5 and, when that’s in your head, 4…Na5.
If I asked where the four knights are, many, if not most readers, should be able to answer correctly if they went one knight at a time.
Now add 5. Bf4. Think about it before you make the 5…Bd7 move. If you take your time you might be able to visualize each of the four bishops.
A blindfold player just keeps adding one half-move at a time to his mental picture until he gets to the end of the game. Even people who wouldn’t be considered serious about chess can do that.
The artist Juan Miro claimed he played chess just as well “blind” as he did with his eyes wide open. Miro said he developed this ability thanks to a painting teacher who trained him to draw objects Miro held in his hand while literally blindfolded.
Another amateur, William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor, said he could handle four blindfold games simultaneously, at least up to the 20th move. And consider Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister of the 1970s.
When Trudeau was on a diplomatic tour of Soviet cities he invited Roger Lemelin, the editor of the Canadian newspaper La Presse, along. Lemelin, a prime mover of the spectacular Montreal 1979 tournament, was a real chess fan. To kill time during a city-to-city hop, he asked Trudeau if he played chess, according to Lemelin’s biographer, Real Bertrand.
It turned out Trudeau knew a lot about the game. But there was no set aboard the plane. So they played blindfold. “The journalists around us watched with surprise as the two of us, like robots, arms folded, motionless, each minute solemnly spoke strange formulas: d4, f5,” Lemelin said. They each one won game.
It’s been claimed that blindfold chess puts so much of a strain on the mind that exhibitions were banned in the Soviet Union. But one of the great Moscow players, Fyodor Duz-Khotimirsky, recalled in his memoirs that he gave several simuls of up to 17 boards in the 1920s. He shrugged off the strain. “A serious tournament game often demands more expenditure of nervous energy than a 12-to-15 board blindfold exhibition,” he wrote. Here’s a position from one of his 10-board simuls:
Mate in seven
Duz-Khotimirsky said he agreed with one of his tournament opponents, Akiba Rubinstein, who told him that seeing the pieces actually hinders a person’s combinational ability. In other words, you can calculate better when blind (!?). In this position, the Russian (as White) found one of his longest combinations, a forced mate in seven moves. (Solution at the end of this article).
Many amateurs refuse to try blindfold because they’re afraid of being embarrassed by blunders. They think they’d hang their queen or allow mate in one before they got out of the opening.
But if you take it slowly, you’d be surprised at what you can do. When I searched for blindfold blunders I found one glaring example, but it was played at 10 seconds a move.
King’s Indian Defense
White: GM Samuel Reshevsky
Black: SM Bobby Fischer
Blindfold exhibition, New York 1957
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!?
This looks like an oversight — and probably was. But in a few moves it will look like a promising pawn sacrifice.
9… b4! 10. e5 dxe5 11. dxe5 bxc3 12. exf6 Bxf6 13. Bh6 Qxd1 14. Raxd1 Re8 15. Bd3 Nd7 16. Be4 Nc5 17. Bxc6 Bf5
Now 18. Ne5 would keep White on top. Reshevsky was playing 10 consecutive blindfold speed games, Chess Review reported. His opponent has been misidentified as “Jesper Fischer.” He was, in fact, the 14-year-old who won the U.S. Championship six months later.
18. g4? Bxg4 19. Kg2 Bf5 20. Bxa8 Rxa8 21. Nd4? Nd3 22. Nxf5 Nxe1+ 23. Rxe1 gxf5 24. Rd1 e5
25. c5 Rc8 26. b4 f4? 27. Kf3 Be7??
Yes, this allows 28. Rg1+ Kh8 29. Bg7+ and wins.
28. Ke4?? Rc6 29. Rg1+ Rg6 30. Rxg6+ fxg6 31. Kd3 Kf7 32. Kxc3 g5! 33. c6?
White might have held with 33. a4! e4 34. c6.
33… Ke6 34. Kc4 Kd6 35. b5 axb5+ 36. Kxb5 e4
Now 37. Kb6 Bd8+ 38. Kb7 fails to 38…e3 39. fxe3 (39. Bf8+ Ke5 40. f3 g4!) f3! 40. Bxg5 f2.
37. Kc4 Bf6 38. h4 f3! 39. hxg5 e3 40. Bf8+ Be7 41. Bxe7+ Kxe7 42. c7 Kd7 White resigned
But if you find blindfold chess is too hard for you, there’s a handy excuse. It’s the same reason we don’t remember phone numbers or read car maps today. We rely too much on technology.
In the past, players developed blindfold skill unconsciously. They tried to follow the moves of a game in a book or magazine, without using a board. They went mentally from one diagram to the next.
But today most of us don’t play through a game that way. We don’t visualize. We click.
Solution to Duz-Khotimirskyblindfold game: 1. Nb6+! axb6 2. Rd8+! Bxd8 3. Qxc6+! Nc7! (3…bxc6 4. Ba6 mate) 4. Rxd8+ Kxd8 5. Qxc7+ Ke8 6. Bb5+ Kf8 7. Bd6 mate.