This old dog has learned a new trick. I see chess positions…
I’m certain you humans out there with larger craniums (a large dog’s cranium is only 1/6th the size) could do this in a matter of weeks. It has taken me literally months. But that I have been able to do this at all, is remarkable to me. While you may not be able to visualize multiple chess positions in your head like a young, whippersnapping GM, I believe most of us can learn to solidly visualize chess positions without visual access to a board.
My method, which I have worked out over several months, may be helpful for those trying to accurately visualize chess positions without having to play on a physical, or electronic, chess board. I might be able to save you some time by showing you some of the pitfalls that slowed me down. I’ll explain how I got there in the following paragraphs, but for those that want to get to the bottom line now, you can skip to the paragraph marked, “bottom line method.” For those who want to come along for the ride, strap in.
I found that the most difficult thing about seeing a position in my mind was seeing the chessboard properly. The board squirmed in my mind. I couldn’t keep the diagonals and files straight. I’d get confused as to which square was what. Not only do you have to know where the square is, you also have to know how it is related their 63 siblings, and they are an unwieldy bunch. My problem boiled down to this—how do you make the chess board, which is a geometric, abstract shape, into something that has so much mental substance that you can play on it like a physical board?
I pondered on this difficulty while looking at a board, and I noticed a familiar pattern emerge on the dark squares of the chessboard. I saw four Atari tanks. Now it is no secret that I’m a little long in the tooth. For others with the same dental structure—you no doubt remember the Atari tank game so the following top image will be familiar. For you children out there, it looks like this:
Underneath the Atari tank, you can see that the dark squares of the chessboard look like the tank. Not exactly of course. Strictly speaking, the shapes are only reminiscent of one another; however, this is something that now felt tangible to me. I ignored the white spaces around the tank and focused only on the dark squares. I saw there were four dark tanks on the chessboard (black squares below), each in their own corner or quadrant of the board (lower and upper left, lower and upper right). However, using this image was not perfect because I was still missing 2 squares. How do I visualize those? I was back to the same problem of trying to make the intangible arrangement of the squares tangible again.
I solved it my inventing a new type of tank. Let’s take the lower left quadrant, dark-squared tank from White’s perspective (I’ll deal with learning from Black’s perspective later) the “gun” of this tank is the b4 square. The swiveling turret is on the b2 square. Imagine the turret moving clockwise. As it does it comes to 45 degree angle. So the gun at 45 degrees creates another dark square, d4 in this case. Move the gun further down and it’s at the side, 90 degrees from where it started—there’s the other dark square (d2). Over time I dispensed with seeing the turret move. My weird looking tank has 3 guns all at once—the front gun, the corner gun, and a side gun.
Now I had a series of 8 dark squares to work with in order to reinforce the relationship between the dark squares in one quadrant. I initially didn’t worry about the light squares. My thought was that all I had to do was work with the dark squares, and the light squares would also be reinforced as a matter of course. Alas, in practice I found that it didn’t work out that way. Initially, every day on my drive to work, I worked on reinforcing the dark squares of each quadrant in my mind. On my mental board, I’d place a bishop on a1, a5, e1, or e5, and just move it around within its quadrant. Or I’d ask myself where the gun squares were and just see those in my mind. Or I would think about the body of the tank in each quadrant (b2, b5, f2, f5 from White’s perspective) and note all the dark squares around it to etch them in my mind.
But by doing this way, I had created problems for myself that I later had to solve. While I could see the dark squares very well—the white squares were more difficult for me to see. And while I could see a quadrant very well—if I wanted to move outside that quadrant and see the whole board, I became confused. The 16 squares were solid, but all 64 of them—that was a different animal altogether. And naming the squares, for me at least, was a constant problem. The square b2 from white’s perspective is g7 from the black perspective. Since I was playing almost exclusively from the white perspective, I got hopelessly confused when I tried to see things from black’s perspective.
I finally hit upon the idea that I was going about things all wrong. I was trying to learn the square names before I had even solidly memorized the chessboard square patterns. I had gone down this path for months before I realized it simply wasn’t working for me.
I solved this by realizing that the last thing I needed to know is the White or Black perspective, so before then I have to be flexible. So I would visualize the entire board, all four quadrants at once, and then go to the left file and say, “This file is either a or h, this file is either b or g, and so on.” Then I would start at the bottom rank and say to myself, “This is 1 or 8, this is 2 or 7, and so on.” I began to do it over and over. It became a mantra: A or H, B or G, C or F, D or E, E or D, F or C, G or B, H or A, 1 or 8, 2 or 7, 3 or 6, 4 or 5, 5 or 4, 6 or 3, 7 or 2, 8 or 1. Of course, while I was saying this, I was seeing the rank or file in my mind, associating the image with the sound. I felt it was important to actually say it. I hoped it would help me to follow commentators better. Sometimes they rattle moves off so quickly it is hard for me to keep up.
I decided to purposely ignore the name of every square for a while. The names of the squares change depending on your perspective, but the pattern itself never changes. So I emphasized the pattern, the pattern, the pattern. I also began to pay attention to the light-squared, or white tank, and do the same process with the white squares that I was doing on the dark squares. I began to note all the patterns that emerged. The four tanks always face forward whether your white or black, the guns are always where they are supposed to be, White guns face front and left, black guns face front and right. It’s the same no matter what perspective. I ignored the names of the squares altogether. While someone else might think “b2,” I would think “white’s perspective, body of the dark squared tank lower left hand quadrant.” Of course, in this case I wasn’t saying this out loud; I was just seeing it that way in my mind. I saw it that way for each and every square, noting both the light and dark squares around it.
But, as has happened before, I ran into other visualization problems. Going from one quadrant to the other was still difficult. In my mind, I was now beginning to see the 16 square patterns of each quadrant very solidly—but putting all four of them together was still quite fuzzy. I was having trouble with the borders, crossing from one quadrant to the other. Rank and file wasn’t as much of a problem, but diagonals were. I was able to solve it by noticing the emerging patterns. For example, b1 (White’s perspective) to h7 causes you to cross quadrants in a way that makes it harder to visualize until you notice the patters that emerge. Note that the b1 square in the example is the white tank left corner bottom tread. It moves over the body of the tank in that quadrant, pops into the next quadrant on e4 (the white tank corner gun square of the lower right quadrant), before emerging again in the upper right hand quadrant at the white tank’s lower left corner tread. Note that the “bookends” pattern is always the same. The patterns are the same on either side, in the middle quadrant it’s different. It’s true of every single diagonal.
The patterns that emerge are consistent with every diagonal. The interrelationship of the squares is both consistent and unique—which makes the board more real and memorable. The same is true of the rank and file. The 1 or 8 row is always the back corners of both black and white tanks. The 2 or 7 row is always a mixture between the body and side guns of the white and dark tanks, and so on. Every rank, file, and diagonal has a consistent, yet unique, pattern.
I have just gotten to the point where I am able to cross quadrants without becoming confused. And I did this by placing a queen on my mental board and moving her around, noting the relationships of the ranks, files, diagonals. I’ve been practicing this for a while without any real aim in mind—just hoping that at some point I would be able to visualize better. I also think that in time I won’t need the tanks, that the patterns will become so etched in my mind that I’ll see the entire board as a single unit instead of four quadrants. No doubt those destined to be IMs or GMs commit the board to memory subconsciously, without any apparent effort. I need training wheels. But in time I think the training wheels will drop off.
As I have said, I’ve been working on this for months. I have actually been seeing chess positions in my mind for several months now, began seeing them better after I started this, but this morning something happened that I believe is directly related to my visualization exercises of the board. I was reading a variation in the book, What it Takes to Become a Grandmaster, by Andrew Soltis. The variation was an answer to a quiz, and it was in the back of the book. I became lazy and didn’t want to turn back to the diagram in front of the book in order to play out the position. But then I suddenly discovered that I didn’t have to—I could recall the position in my mind, and as I read each move, I found that I could play the position in my mind simply by reading the notation. It was almost as though I were physically at the board. It really surprised me. Until that moment, I didn’t think I had it in me. So here is my method in a nutshell:
Bottom line method
1) Note both the light and dark tanks, where they are located, how they are related to each other, and how each intertwines with the other. Note the patterns that emerge. It’s important to get a feel for them, not just a visual representation.
2) Choose one quadrant at a time—play a bishop on each quadrant to reinforce the diagonals for both light and dark squares. Or if you’re smarter than me (no great trick) try doing it all at once with all 8 tanks. If you’re already capable of doing that, you’ll catch on very quickly to the patterns without any border problems created by working a quadrant at a time.
3) Do NOT attempt to attach names to the squares too early. Simply note that each rank and file has two names and two locations depending upon the perspective (Black or White). Practice this with a mental mantra a or h, b or g…, 1 or 8, 2 or 7, etc.
5) Play a queen on your empty mental board across quadrants to reinforce all the ranks, files, diagonals, and note the unique patterns that form. Think of the squares in relationship to the tank images.
6) Only when the pattern is solid in your mind, and you have practiced being flexible with perspective, can you now begin to quickly associate the squares with their notation. You’ll know you’re successful when you can instantly see that the square you call b2 from white’s perspective is the square black would call g7 from his perspective.
With this skill you can carry your chessboard with you wherever you go. It’s totally portable, totally mobile, it takes up no weight, and you can use it without ever having to your lift your eyes from the chess notation you’re reading--you can use it anywhere. Best for me, I can use mine while I’m cleaning up around the house. That way, I don’t have to hear those commonly uttered words from my wife, “You’re at the computer playing chess again?!!”