The setting was unusual for a blindfold simultaneous chess exhibition by a grandmaster. It was held at the 20th anniversary of the annual Sohn Investment Conference, which is the world’s largest meeting of prominent financial experts: investors, hedge-fund managers, and bankers. Each member of the audience, with the exception of a few special invitees, had to pay $5,000 for the opportunity to attend; most of the over $4 million that was raised is to be used to support research in and treatment of childhood cancer, from which Ira Sohn died. Held at Avery Fischer Hall in Lincoln Center in New York, the event usually features numerous speakers on financial issues, but this time Magnus Carlsen’s blindfold display may have created as much attention as many of the speeches.
Carlsen’s exhibition on May 4 was an unexpected treat for most of the attendees. What he was willing to attempt was probably the most difficult clock-blindfold display ever played. I have decided to leave most details of Carlsen’s exhibition to their clear exposition in the below video, which also shows the progress of the entire event: moderator GM Maurice Ashley’s questions and brief comments, all the moves in every game, the expressions on Carlsen’s and his opponents’ faces, and exactly how the exhibition looked to an observer. Instead of repeating much of what is in the video, I want to devote most of my remarks in this blog post to describing the history of rapid or timed blindfold chess innovations and achievements so that the reader can compare Carlsen’s accomplishment to those of the past.
In the 1940s GM Reuben Fine, who was an excellent blindfold player but never tried to set a world record for total number of games played at once, introduced some new innovations that involved rapid and clock blindfold games. In 1944 at the Washington Chess Divan he played 10 consecutive blindfold games against sighted players at 10-seconds-a-move vs. some of the best players in Washington, including Hans Berliner, who later became the world correspondence chess champion. His opponents also had 10 seconds to respond to his announced moves. He scored +9, =1.
Another of Fine’s innovations was “clock-blindfold-chess”. He played 6 simultaneous games in 1945 at the rate of 20 moves an hour and so the display was equivalent to six tourney games played at the same time. His sighted opponents had to play their single games at the same rate. Fine had to keep his eye on six clocks and he obviously had to move much faster than usual, because his clock started in other games while he was contemplating a move in one game and his opponents would be making their moves in other games. He won 3, drew 2, and lost 1 to a group of Washington’s strongest players. Fine gave a number of other 10-seconds-a-move displays, including a match against Argentine Grandmaster Herman Pilnik in which he was blindfolded and Pilnik was not. Pilnik won the match 6.5-3.5, but Fine lost one game by misunderstanding Pilnik’s announced move, which cost him a rook. Still, scoring 3.5 points out of 10 against a sighted top grandmaster was certainly an accomplishment.
As a youngster, I witnessed Fine’s playing a very difficult 10-second-a-move display right after the end of the USA-USSR radio match in September 1945. With his back to his opponents he played 4 games simultaneously at 10 seconds a move. Thus he had 10 seconds for his reply in each of the games. This meant he had to decide on a move very quickly after he reached a certain board (Boards 1-4 and then back to Board 1, etc.). Opponents had to reply as soon as Fine returned to their board, about 30 seconds since their last move. One of Fine’s opponents was Robert Byrne, later a grandmaster and the long-time chess columnist for the New York Times. Fine won every game, all four of which are given in our book.
Later on, in 1985 Garry Kasparov played 10 strong opponents simultaneously without sight of any board or pieces in Hamburg, Germany with a “clock-chess” time limit of 40 moves in 2 hours on each board, winning 8 and drawing 2. To my knowledge, he never gave another blindfold display. It is well-known that Garry is rather superstitious and he was always worried about playing blindfolded because some early blindfold champions had suffered mental disturbances years later (in all cases these problems were almost certainly not due to having given blindfold exhibitions, as we contend in our book). Garry once declared that he avoided blindfold chess because “I don’t want to become mad!”
To complete our coverage of the history of rapid blindfold chess we ought to mention that George Koltanowski in San Francisco in 1960 beat his previous record of playing 50 individual players in succession (not simultaneously, as is sometimes erroneously reported) by handling 56 sighted successive opponents in games at 10-seconds-a-move (+50, =6). Just a few years ago (July 2011) Marc Lang of Germany broke Kolty’s record by playing 60 successive rapid games in which each player had a total of 5 minutes available; for a 40-move game this averages out to fewer than 10 seconds a move. Of course Lang played without sight of the positions and his opponents could see a board and pieces on their computer monitor. The display took 14 hours and Lang won 45, drew 11, and lost 4 against fairly strong opposition.
One other footnote in the history of speed blindfold chess involves the achievements of IM Ortvin Sarapu of New Zealand, an excellent blindfold player who is reported to have played 20 opponents in a regular blindfold display. C.J.S. Purdy commented in Chess World (1952) that “ Sarapu thinks nothing of playing [blindfold] lightning chess at 5 seconds a move – his opponent seeing the board and pieces. Besides Sarapu, Reuben Fine and George Koltanowski are the only persons I have heard of who play [blindfold] lightning chess, but as far as I know they have only played at 10 seconds. Dawdlers!”
I hope that this brief review of the history of timed blindfold chess, which in my experience not many of today’s chess players and fans are aware of, provides a comparative context for evaluating Carlsen’s recent display. He had a total of only 9 minutes to play 3 opponents, who each had 9 minutes to complete all their moves. They could make their moves at any time, not in succession from Boards 1-3, and so Magnus might have two moves from different games announced to him within a split-second. You will see from the below video that he usually responded to all moves within a second or two, much faster than in any previous blindfold display. He was never clearly told how much of his total 9 minutes he had consumed at a given time, which seems a little unfair to him. But, unfazed, he went on to win all 3 games without using up his 9 minutes. Before the match he was asked whether he was ready for such a competition and he replied “I haven’t done this before so I wouldn’t know”. Later on he noted that he had not prepared at all for the display. He made no illegal moves in the entire display and only stumbled occasionally when naming the board number he was moving on, an error which in every case he himself quickly corrected. The below video gives all the important details of the match and so I will not say anything more, except that this was a remarkable achievement!