Eliot Hearst and John Knott blog about blindfold chess
Friday, December 16, 2011

After 64 Years: New World Blindfold Record Set by Marc Lang Playing 46 Games at Once

In 1947 GM Miguel Najdorf, while sitting in an isolated room, played 45 games simultaneously in São Paulo, Brazil. In another room his opponents sat with regular boards and pieces in front of them, and their and Najdorf’s moves were transmitted to each other via standard chess notation using a microphone. This performance exceeded his own previous world record of 40, set in 1943 in Rosario, Argentina. Until a few weeks ago, since 1947 only one player had played as many as 35 blindfold games at once under well-controlled conditions. That successful master was Marc Lang of Günzburg, Germany, who handled 35 opponents in November of 2010, surpassing blindfold champion George Koltanowski’s still-existing European and pre-Najdorf world record of 34 simultaneous games set in Edinburgh in 1937 (in 2009 Lang had set a new German record of 23). Lang’s only remaining goal was to exceed Najdorf’s 45 games and thereby gain the world record. For the past year he has been preparing to do just that, which he accomplished by playing 46 opponents on November 26-27, 2011.

It is remarkable that Lang is only a FIDE master, with an ELO rating around 2300. Except for Koltanowski (who did achieve an International Master’s rating in 1950 and was later awarded an honorary Grandmaster title by FIDE in 1988), the greatest simultaneous blindfold players of the past were top world-class tournament and match players like Harry Pillsbury, Alexander Alekhine, Richard Réti,and Najdorf. Lang’s ELO rating places him behind many hundreds of players of today who have gained International Master or Grandmaster titles and won major tourneys. The question remains whether Lang could have reached a much higher ELO rating had he not devoted himself to his computer business and family and rarely played in regular tourneys, or whether possession of excellent memory skills, a fairly high level of chess mastery, and strong motivation are about all you need to become a world blindfold champion.

Lang’s recent record-breaking performance has been widely covered in media around the world (just google “marc lang blindfold chess” for numerous reports, photos, films, and a place where all 46 games can be found!). Furthermore, over the past two and a half years I have written four blogs on this website about Lang’s progression from 15 to 23 to 35 simultaneous blindfold games. And he set a new world record for consecutive blindfold rapid games in July of this year, meeting 60 players successively and thus eclipsing Koltanowski’s prior world record of 56. Readers are referred to these previous blogs for additional information about Lang’s memory systems, computerized control of move transmission, delightful personality, preparation for his displays, and family life. Now I will concentrate fairly briefly on his latest and most important achievement, without much repetition of material provided in my previous writings about him.

In his 46-board display Lang sat in the same room as his opponents, with his back to most of them, but he could not see any of the actual positions they had in front of them because there was a barrier in front of all 46 boards. He transmitted his moves by typing them in algebraic notation on a computer monitor and receiving, from the referee, his opponent’s moves. Only his or his opponent’s most recent move was visible on the monitor. Since he had been criticized (unfairly, I think) for clicking on an empty computer diagram in some previous exhibitions to indicate the squares from which and to which a piece was being moved (actually the method used in the Amber grandmaster blindfold tourneys), this time he had no empty board anywhere on the computer monitor. Other critics had even criticized him for previously having a tiny chessboard icon in the design heading at the top of his monitor, which he said he never even looked at. He wanted to avoid the comments of critics who had said that having any type of chessboard available meant that it wasn’t really blindfold chess. He joked to me that he probably wouldn’t have allowed any player or spectator wearing a checkered sweater or shirt to be present at the world-record attempt! As a matter of fact, some previous blindfold champions have said that making an empty board available for them to look at was more a hindrance than a help and it was unusual for an empty board to be provided, anyway.

His simultaneous blindfold world record display was held in Sontheim an der Brenz, Germany, which is about halfway between Stuttgart and Munich. The exhibition took a little more than 21 hours. Of the 46 games he scored 34½ points, a very good winning percentage of 75% (+25, =19, -2). Losing only two games out of 46 is quite incredible. His opponents’ USCF ratings ranged from about 1200 to 2300, with their average rating being around 1600. About 2/3 of the players had ratings below 1900. The strength of the opposition seems not unusual for world record performances, but in previous record-setting events there were no German, ELO, or USCF ratings available for direct comparison. Of course it has been rare for experts or masters to take a board in a blindfold display because they have really nothing to gain and would be humiliated if they lost! (Only Alekhine and Pillsbury had many very strong players opposing them when setting their world simultaneous records). Lang had only 8.7% of his games ending in fewer than 16 moves, very close to the 8.9% that Najdorf scored. And much better than Koltanowski’s 47.1% in 1937.

Another comparison of interest is the average number of moves that games lasted in the most recent world record achievements. I calculated that number to be 18 in Koltanowski’s 1937 display, 26 in Najdorf’s 1947 exhibition, 24 in Lang’s 35-boarder in 2010, and 23 in his recent 46-boarder. Thus, if anyone, Koltanowski seems to be the outlier here. The critics who have argued that Lang played too many short games cannot use these numbers to support their arguments. However, it is true that Lang had a considerably higher percentage of draws (41%) in his recent 46-boarder than Koltanowski (29%) and Najdorf (only 9%!). Still, Lang’s draws included only 6 in fewer than 20 moves, whereas Koltanowski had 9 such draws, and Najdorf none. Koltanowski actually stated that “a draw was as good as a win, with too many boards yet unfinished”. He wanted to quickly decrease the number of games he had to recall, but on the other hand Najdorf tried to play all games to a clear finish (as did Alekhine, who is almost unanimously agreed to be the strongest blindfold player of all time). It is hard to fault Lang for a relatively large number of draws; most of those draws ended in fairly equal positions, even though often there were many pieces left on the board and Lang could have tried harder to win them. And Lang made very few blunders in his entire exhibition.

In my estimation Lang fully deserves to be recognized as the new world-record holder in simultaneous blindfold chess. For centuries the virtually universal criterion for that title has been the total number of games played, a criterion he has definitely met. In our book we note in numerous places that other criteria such as the strength of the opposition, the quality of the exhibitor’s play, his reluctance to accept early draws, winning percentage, etc., might also be considered. But many of these other criteria involve rather subjective judgments, although now and in the future objective national or ELO ratings should enable a good measure of the strength of the opposition. No chess expert would consider Lang to have played more strongly blindfolded than Alekhine and Najdorf, but I judge Lang’s blindfold play to be superior to Koltanowski’s. Lang himself has said that Najdorf was obviously a stronger regular and blindfold player than he is and that Najdorf’s opposition in his 1947 record-setting display was probably stronger than Lang’s own in 2011. This is not just modesty, but the truth. Nevertheless, Lang has played more simultaneous blindfold games at once than anyone else and that makes him the new record-holder.

Lang fortunately had financial sponsors who allowed him to take off time from his computer business for months to prepare for the world record attempt. He is 41, married with two children. Perhaps it is fitting for me to end the text of this blog by quoting what his wife Anne (who is an English teacher in Günzburg) had to say after the exhibition ended: “The hundredweight tension of recent weeks and months falls away for me abruptly and gives way to a great sense of happiness. The efforts and sacrifices of the past half-year were not in vain. Marc has actually done it!”

Here are four games from the 46-board exhibition. Marc played rather cautiously in many of the games but I have selected primarily tactical battles for my readers:

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G. Gritsch – M. Lang
Blindfold Simul, Sontheim, Germany, November 26-27, 2011
Board 25 (of 46)
E52

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.d4 0–0 5.e3 b6 6.Bd3 Bb7 7.0–0 d5 8.Bd2 dxc4 9.Bxc4 Nbd7 10.a3 Bxc3 11.Bxc3 Ne4 12.Rc1 c5 13.Qe2 cxd4 14.exd4 Ng5 15.Ne5 Nxe5 16.dxe5 Nf3+. 0-1

White resigned because if 17.gxf3 Qg5+ 18.Kh1 Qg4 wins. Or if 17.Kh1 then Qh4 18.h3 Qf4 19.g3 Qh6 seems the simplest win.

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A. Missione - M. Lang
Blindfold Simul, Sontheim, Germany, November 26-27, 2011
Board 20 (of 46)
A00

1.g4 e5 2.Bg2 d5 3.c4 c6 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.Qb3 Ne7 6.Nc3 Nbc6 7.Nxd5 Nd4 8.Qc4 Nxd5 9.Bxd5 Be6 10.Bxe6 fxe6 11.Kf1 Rc8 12.Qa4+ b5 13.Qxa7 Qd5 14.f3 Qc6 15.Qa5 Nc2 16.Rb1 Bb4 17.Qa7 0–0 18.Qf2 Qd5 19.b3 Bxd2 20.Bxd2 Qxd2 21.Kg2 Ne3+ 22.Kg3

22…Nxg4 23.Qb6 Qf4+ 24.Kg2 Qf5 25.Nh3 Rc2 26.Rhf1 Rxe2+ 27.Kg3 Ne3 28.f4 Qg4#. 0–1

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M. Lang - F. Jarkov
Blindfold Simul, Sontheim, Germany, November 26-27, 2011
Board 38 (of 46)
B09

1.e4 d6 2.d4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.f4 Nf6 5.Nf3 0–0 6.e5 dxe5 7.fxe5 Nd5 8.Bc4 c6 9.0–0 e6 10.Ne4 Ne7 11.Bg5 h6 12.Nf6+ Bxf6 13.Bxf6 Nd7 14.Bh4 Qe8 15.Qd2 Kh7 16.Rae1 Nf5 17.Bf2 Rh8 18.Nh4 Nxh4 19.Bxh4 Nb6 20.Bd3 Nd5 21.Re4 Ne7

22.Bf6 Rg8 23.Qxh6+ Kxh6 24.Rh4#. 1–0

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M. Lang - B. Aldag
Blindfold Simul, Sontheim, Germany, November 26-27, 2011
Board 43 (of 46)
B06

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nf3 d6 4.Bc4 e6 5.Bb3 Ne7 6.Nc3 0–0 7.h4 e5 8.dxe5 dxe5 9.Bg5 Qxd1+ 10.Rxd1 Nec6 11.h5 gxh5 12.Nd5 Na6 13.Ba4 Bg4 14.Bxc6 bxc6 15.Ne7+ Kh8 16.Nxc6 Nb8 17.Ncxe5 f6

18.Nxg4 hxg4 19.Nh4 fxg5 20.Ng6+ Kg8 21.Nxf8 Bxf8 22.Rd8 Kg7 23.Ke2 Be7 24.Rc8 Bd6 25.c4 Kf6 26.Rxh7 c5 27.b4 cxb4 28.c5 Be5 29.c6 Nxc6 30.Rxa8 Nd4+ 31.Kd3 Kg6 32.Rd7 Nc6 33.Rc8 Na5 34.Rd5 b3 35.Rxa5. 1–0

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