American grandmaster Timur Gareev, who emigrated from Uzbekistan a few years ago, is now one of the top tournament players in the U.S. The 25-year-old won the North American Open in 2012 and tied for third in this year’s regular U.S. Championship. With a B.A. degree in Business Marketing from the University of Texas at Brownsville, he has been actively promoting scholastic chess as well as his own achievements in playing blindfold chess.
His frequent blindfold displays, so far all west of the Mississippi River, have produced the greatest interest in that kind of play by an American since George Koltanowski’s glory days touring the U.S. from the late 1930’s to the 1950’s. Before settling in San Francisco, Koltanowski twice set world records for number of opponents played simultaneously without sight of any boards or pieces, by opposing 30 in Antwerp, Belgium in 1931 and 34 in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1937. (Franco-Russian Alexander Alekhine’s blindfold exhibition against 32 in Chicago in 1933 forced Kolty to play to regain the world record with his 34-boarder). Since then, the world simultaneous blindfold record has been captured by GM Miguel Najdorf, playing 40 in 1943 and 45 in 1947 in South America, and (64 years later!) in 2011 by German master Marc Lang, who took on 46 at once in Sontheim an der Brenz, Germany. Blogs about Lang’s successively increasing size of displays, leading to his recent world record performance, have appeared on this website, which readers can consult for exhibition details and games.
These facts provide a historical background for our current focus on Timur Gareev’s blindfold displays. According to numerous media reports in newspaper chess columns, magazines, and websites Gareev has played as many as 27 and 33 games simultaneously while literally blindfolded and facing toward his opponents, instead of simply playing with his back to them, as is customary. Many sources include a photo of him playing blindfolded, as well as the physical arrangement of his opponents, and so there seems no good reason to reproduce any of those photos here. His 27-board display took place in Oahu, Hawaii in December 2012 and he won 24, lost only 1, and drew 2 of the games, a truly excellent score. However, the opposition included mostly middle-school students without USCF ratings and therefore it is hard to judge the quality of the opposition. The exhibition took 9 hours.
His 33-board display took place just before the 2013 U.S. Championship in St. Louis last May and once again he achieved a fine score: 29 wins, 4 draws, and 0 losses. There were four unrated opponents, but the average USCF rating of the 29 rated opponents was 1363. Two experts, three Class A players, and five Class B players provided the strongest opposition based on ratings. The strongest opponent, Tony Rich (2020) was one of the four to gain a draw. The display took 10 hours and 39 minutes.
After his St. Louis display Gareev stated that he hoped to break Lang’s world simultaneous blindfold record of 46 games by playing 64 on December 21, 2013 in Hawaii, but he has since decided that playing just 50 games would be a little easier on him and still break Lang’s record. He is currently searching for a venue and sponsor to handle the 50-boarder.
So far this blog has not provided any information that could not be obtained from many other sources. But because John Knott and I spent years studying the history and conditions of so many previous simultaneous blindfold displays for our book on Blindfold Chess, I was especially interested in obtaining more specific information than has been available in standard brief reports of Gareev’s exhibitions. I wondered whether Gareev’s arrangements met all the major conditions of previous top-level simultaneous displays. As a result of correspondence with Gareev himself and a few scattered phrases in one or two media reports, I discovered that one very important condition had not been met. The games in his 27- and 33-board displays, as well as in most other displays he has given of more than 12 boards, did not all start at the same time! This violates the label of “simultaneous”; in all previous important blindfold simuls every opponent was seated and began play at the beginning of the event.
Let me give the relevant details for his 27- and 33-board exhibitions. In the former (Hawaii) display he started with 10 players, 10 more players joined the opposition after another hour and a half, and the final 7 entered after another hour. In the latter (St. Louis) display 18 players started at 9 AM, 6-8 more at 10:15 AM, and the final 7-9 at 11:30 AM. Gareev calls this method of staggering the entry of players the use of “waves”; other equally applicable words might be “stages” or “steps” or “phases”. However, he does state that in the St. Louis display all 33 were actually playing at the same time after the final “wave” entered, although many games were close to finishing and others were of course just beginning.
Besides not conforming to the definition of “simultaneous”, why is this difference important and why does it make exhibitor’s task easier than starting all games at the same time? All previous blindfold champions have stated that the first 10-15 moves of a game are the hardest to handle. Of course the games all start in the same position and the exhibitor needs to make individual games distinctive as soon as possible to avoid confusion among them (see the discussion of how champions plan their sequence of openings in advance to alleviate or prevent this confusion problem on pages 193-196 of our book). With successive “waves"of players an exhibitor could make the current games reasonably distinctive before the next wave began.
An amusing example of how opponents, via collusion, could thwart an exhibitor trying to make the games distinctive in the opening stages was reported on page 96 of our book. When Najdorf was preparing for his 45-board new world-record attempt in Brazil, he asked a member of the São Paulo chess club to try to confuse his blindfold play by playing 10 games simultaneously against him with sight of the board, making on purpose on all boards the early moves e6, d6, g6, Bg7, b6, Bb7, Ne7, Nd7, but changing their order on each board and varying them in such a way that in some games he included h6 or a6, or played Nf6 or Nc6. In other words, he wanted every game to be as similar as possible, but with different move orders and move repetitions. Najdorf very soon quit playing against this type of 10-board practice arrangement because he was totally unable to keep the games separate in his memory. Of course he did not expect his eventual 45 opponents, or even just some of them, to try this trick, and fortunately for him they all played various regular openings.
In correspondence with me, Gareev was very honest about the advantage of playing his displays in “waves”, rather than beginning all of the games at once. He wrote that he realizes his method would never be accepted if he were going to set a world record; all games would have to start at the same time, to make his attempt to achieve a record comparable in all important details to previous world- record conditions. He also confirmed that it becomes easier to handle the games as they go beyond the opening. Here are some quotes from his writings and correspondence:“The positions become more distinct; “The initial stage of games takes forever”; “Remembering the initial moves ... is insanely slow and exhausting”; “The initial stage is like shooting a rocket into space. Most of the energy is used to get the rocketship off the ground, the rest is much easier”.
Some other relatively minor points about Gareev’s blindfold displays ... He did not keep the move-by-move scores of every game in his exhibitions, so that it was not possible to estimate the quality of the opposition other than by USCF ratings. When their displays were over, world-record holders Koltanowski, Najdorf, and Lang were, with one unfortunate wartime (1943) exception, very careful to obtain and make available to the public all the game scores from their record-setting displays, including the names of each opponent. And, years after FIDE or USCF ratings were actually instituted and carefully calculated, it turns out that the average USCF rating of Gareev’s opponents in St. Louis was 1363, as mentioned above, whereas it was approximately 1600 in each of Lang’s record-setting performances — from the 23 he played to set a German record, to the 35 he played to set a European record, to the 46 he played to set his recent world record. Gareev would make his performances even more impressive if he were to increase the average rating of his opponents to at least Lang’s level.
Gareev states that in the future he intends to retain complete records of game scores for archival and educational purposes and for checking on such details as the distribution of the length of games, how many quick draws occurred, what the current USCF or FIDE rating was for each player, how many illegal moves he called off (he says he made about 10 in St. Louis, which is more than in most previous large blindfold simuls. There was no penalty for illegal moves on his or his opponents’ part in St. Louis, but some writers think there should be, although it would decrease the “fun” aspects of blindfold play and make them more serious). All this material will help to evaluate the quality of his play, and not just the total number of games played and his winning percentage. A large number of quick draws has made some previous displays open to question, because the standard criterion for deciding whether a new record has been set is the sheer number of games played simultaneously. An exhibitor could offer draws to half or more of the players after 10-15 moves and in the past these drawn games would be included in the total number of games played!
Finally, despite the fact that Gareev’s recent displays were not really “simultaneous”, his performances have still been quite impressive and my opinion is that he has an excellent chance to set a new world simultaneous blindfold record once he starts playing under the standard conditions that have been in force for 2 or 3 centuries. He states that he has been spending hundreds of hours studying memory techniques and playing blindfold games at various speeds. His enthusiasm is contagious and he seems to be as devoted to popularizing blindfold chess as no other American has been for at least 50 years. We look forward to his future blindfold exploits.