Blind Ambition

Mar 21, 2010, 12:35 PM |

    As much as anything else, chess is a game of determination. Such determination can be witnessed most noticably in the small cache of visually handicapped players that dot the chess landscape.
   Chess is also one of the few endeavors in which a blind person is on nearly equal footing as a sighted player.  The blind player has a few difficulties to overcome and may require some special equipment, but since chess is a mental exercise more so than a visual one, the only real problem that needs to be solved is that of communication between the contestants.

     One of the most fervent and helpful organizations that I examined is The Braille Chess Association of Ireland. They give the following caveat: 
Chess is said to be one of the few sports where blind people can compete independently and on equal terms with their sighted counterparts and while this assertion may be largely true certain disadvantages should not be overlooked.
     (a) The fact that a blind player takes longer to survey the position
          on the Chess board;
     (b) The difficulty of knowing precisely how much time is left on
          the clock;
     (c) The shortage of available information on the latest developments
          in Chess;
     (d) The difficulty of getting to tournament venues which are often off
          the beaten path and the problem of mobility during the event;
     (e) On the rare occasions when it happens, not being able to observe
          the antics of an unscrupulous opponent.

I'm not visually impaired nor do I personally know any chess player who is, but when I came across this picture of a braille chess set, something set my mind, and curiosity in motion.

 I had some questions on the current situation with blind/visually impaired players, but want first to explore the historical situation.
    My dear friend, Deb, sent me a clipping from Chess Review, March 1945, concerning a blind Russian chess problemist named Alexander Malyshev who was a chess composer before WWII.  He was blinded in the war but continued composing with the help of his brother. The article gives the following problem, composed after the war:




     The earliest blind player of note I could find was George Lumley of Manchester was born around the same time as Morphy. The Norwich Chess Club gives this information:
Paul Morphy had excited the chess world with his blindfold exploits and although the club’s first visitor, the young blind player George Lumley, was far below the status of the great American player, considerable interest was aroused by his visit in March 1859. He was invited back again in January the following year. Rainger in his chess column provided this retort to one reader : “Had you attended the chess meeting on Friday evening last there would have been no necessity for your query respecting the play of Mr. Lumbley (sic). We beg to apprize you that Mr. L. did play four games simultaneously with the following result :- he won two games, lost one and the last was drawn.” Lumley, who came from Manchester, was particularly
unusual in that he actually was blind. He earned a meagre living giving displays throughout Britain during 1859-1862 and then disappeared without trace.

     Chess Player's Chronicle vol. 18 1860 mentions:
The blind Chess player, Mr. Lumley, has just arrived in London, and played, at the Philidorian Chess Rooms, three games at the same time. This blindfold performance is the more extraordinary, as this young man, being blind for several years, and having only learnt Chess since he became blind, has had, therefore, no opportunity of studying the game from books. We give one of the games as a specimen of his play, it was played against an Amateur, who is a Pawn and two moves player. [a total of four games are given]

     Vol.20, 1862 of the Chess Player's Chronicle states:
Lumley, The Blind Chess Player.—The Chess world of our town—and we are happy to know that few places of similar size stands superior in devotion to this game of games—has been quite in a pleasing state of excitement, in consequence of a visit from the above extraordinary player, who had announced his intention of competing against six of the most experienced votaries of the noble game. The tourney took place on Monday and Tuesday evenings. The following entered the lists against Mr. Lumley the first evening:—Messrs. Tapper, jun., Whittaker, Cheetham, and E. Sharman; and on the second, Messrs. Harris, W. Dulley, W. Woolston, Tapper, jun., Cheetham, and E. Sharman. The extraordinary play of Mr. Lumley elicited the highest admiration, whilst his unassuming manners and his heavy affliction caused the utmost sympathy to be felt for him.

     I found another game, a loss for Lumley, in The Bristol Chess Club History, 1883

     The Illustrated London News, Sept 8, 1883 mentioned yet another blind player:
America is a world of wonders. The latest addition to its list of these is a "deaf and blind poet," named Morison, who, says the Picayune, has been astonishing the New Orleans people by defeating the most skillful chess players. "He has a board on which the men stand fitted into sockets, and with his hands he feels the field, by the sense of touch alone watching the movements of the enemy, forming his combinations against him, analysing the most intricate situations, and coming off victorious most of the time.

Probably the most famous, and successful, visually impaired chess player was Al Sandrin who suffered from glaucoma. He was the Chicago city champion, the Illinois State champion and US Open champion in the 1940s when he was in his early 20s, and, though not completely blind at the time, he was nearly so. Later he won several Braille Chess Association titles and participated successfuly in the Blind Olympics. He was a piano tuner by trade but operated a small chess club in Chicago.


Exactly how do blind players communicate since, for the sighted person Chess is generally, and for the most part, a visual game while for the blind person, a tactile one.  It's the idea of bridging this difference that attracts my real interest.

The above board for the blind appeared in The English illustrated Magazine in 1905.

In 1888, The BMC published letter from Henry R. Hatherly, President of the Nottingham Chess Club on Chess for the Blind:
     Of all games, chess is the one which from its peculiar nature appears to be best adapted for the enjoyment of the blind, and when it is considered how numerous are the deprivations which loss of sight entails, it is difficult to account for the fact that no systematic attempts have been made to introduce the game of chess into our asylums and institutions for the blind.
     No other game possesses greater charm or more infinite variety, and no other game is so absolutely free from any taint of gambling. Probably one great difficulty in the way of rendering chess a common recreation for the blind consists in the awkward and cumbersome shape of the ordinary pieces, which, differing in height, size, and shape, are very liable to be knocked over, and when moved must be lifted bodily off the board to avoid unseemly collisions : not only are they awkward in use, but there is no recognized method of distinguishing the White from the Black pieces by those who have the misfortune to be deprived of sight. It might greatly facilitate chess playing by the blind if a different form of chessmen could be introduced. Why, for instance, could not chessmen be constructed to resemble in size and shape an ordinary draughtman, the emblem of the piece (such as is commonly depicted on chess diagrams) being stamped in bold relief thereon, the Black pieces being milled at the edges to distinguish them from the White, which could be left smooth. The wonderfully keen sense of touch which is generally developed in the blind would enable the hand to be passed lightly over the board, without any risk of upsetting a piece, and the position could be accurately realised by the sense of touch alone. The squares on the chess-board could also be specially adapted for the case of the blind by leaving the White squares smooth and cross-hatching the Black ones with a graver. It is very possible that chessmen in this form would meet with the approbation of players generally; not only would they be far more portable than ordinary chessmen, but the risk of upsets and breakages would be reduced to a minimum ; they could also, by simply reversing them, be used as draughtsmen ; travellers, problem composers, and solvers would find them very handy to use. The chief point, however, is to provide a form of chessmen and board which shall facilitate play amongst the blind, and so add one more to the limited enjoyments of their darkened lives.

All this indicates that the need to fnd ways to facilitate this communication had been recognized over a century ago.

Generally, the pegged board, such as in the photos above, has been used to allow blind players to communicate. Variations on this theme include the travel chessboard for the blind:

Less traditional styles have also been attempted - a most intriguing one is this Cambodian set for the blind:
On display at the Cleveland Public Lbrary, the associated blurb reads:
Modeled in the form of Cambodian deities, based on statuary from Angkor Wat and Nokor Wat. Figures are clearly discernible. The dancing figure of "Apsara," Nymph of the Lower Heavens, standing on a bell, is the prototype of the Pawn. Each bell is set to sound a different tone, thus enabling a blind player to follow the Pawn's movement across the board.
Sculpted and cast especially for the donor and his blind chess player friend by the Curator of the Museum at Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

However, to me, a chessset is just an interface between the abstact and the concrete and simple adaptations of a sighted set somehow seem to circumvent the the real issue of the differences between the perceptions of the blind and the sighted player.

In 2005 The Noguchi Museum of Long Island City, NY, held a show called The Imagery of Chess Revisited that harkened back to the famous 1944 art show, The Imagery of Chess. The later show included a "Design Gallery Student Competition."  One of the honorable mentions was Deborah Tan, a junior at Parson's The New School of Design. Ms. Tan created what appears to be a chessset that had been completely re-thought from the ground up, as opposed to the traditional adaptations. Here are two somewhat different incarnations of her marvelous design:


According to one critique: Each piece has a distinct shape, and the white and black pieces have different surface textures. The squares of the board are indicated by raised markings and Braille inscriptions. The chess set is also visually interesting and pleasing.

Not only does her set solve several problems, such as easy piece and square recognition with simplified placement and solid positioning of the pieces, but, in a kind of role-reversal, a sighted person could quickly adapt himself to using the board also.


 Additional Information:
Jessica Lauser on the US Blind Championship
List of US OTB Braille Tournamnet winners
Winboard for JAWS (Job Access With Speech -a screen reader for the Blind)
KChess - a non-visual-friendly chess interface
Talk64 - a chess interface for the Blind that even reads pgns
How to write chess notation in Braille

  Competitive games between visually handicapped and sighted players and between visually handicapped players.
  Tournament Directors shall have the power to adapt the following rules according to local circumstances.
  In competitive Chess between sighted and visually handicapped players (legally blind) either player may demand the use of two boards, the sighted player using a normal board, the  visually handicapped player using one specially constructed. The specially constructed board must meet the following requirements:
     (a) at least 20 by 20 centimetres
     (b) the black  squares slightly raised
     (c) a securing aperture in each square
     (d) every piece provided with a peg that fits into the securing aperture
     (e) pieces of Staunton design, the black pieces  being specially marked.
   The following regulations shall govern play:
1. The moves shall be announced clearly, repeated by the opponent and executed on his board. To make the announcement as clear as  possible, the use of the following names is suggested instead of the corresponding letters, algebraic notation to be used: A - Anna; B - Bella; C - Cesar; D - David; E - Eva; F - Felix;  G - Gustav; H - Hector. Castling is announced. "Lange Rochade" (German for Long Castling) and "Kurze Rochade" (German for Short Castling). When promoting a Pawn the player  must announce which piece is chosen.
2. On the visually handicapped player's board a piece shall be considered "touched" when it has been taken out of the securing aperture.
3. A move shall be considered "executed" when:
     (a) in the case of a capture, the captured piece has been removed from the board of the player whose turn it is to move.
     (b) a piece is  placed into a different securing aperture.
     (c) the move has been announced. Only then the opponent's clock shall be started. As far as points 2 and 3 are concerned the normal rules  are valid for the sighted player.
4. A specially constructed Chess clock for the visually handicapped shall be admissible. It shall incorporate the following features: (a) a dial fitted with reinforced hands, with every five  minutes marked by one raised dot, and every 15 minutes by two raised dots. (b) a flag which can be easily felt. Care should be taken that the flag is so arranged as to allow the player  to feel the minute hand during the last five minutes of the full hour.
5. The visually handicapped player must keep score of the game in Braille or longhand or record the moves on a tape recorder.
6. A slip of the tongue in the announcement of a move must be corrected immediately and before the clock of the opponent is started.
7. If, during a game, different positions should arise on the two boards, they must be corrected with the assistance of the Arbiter and by consulting both players' game scores. If the two  game scores correspond with each other, the player who has written the correct move but executed the wrong one must adjust his position to correspond with the move on the game  scores.
8. If, when such differences occur and the two game scores are found to differ, the moves shall be retraced to the point where the two scores agree and the Controller shall readjust the  clocks accordingly.
9. The visually handicapped player shall have the right to make use of an assistant who shall have any or all of the following duties:
     (a) make either player's move on the board of the  opponent.
     (b) announce the moves of both players.
     (c) keep the game score of the visually handicapped player and start his opponent's clock (keeping rule 3 (c) in mind).
     (d) inform  the visually handicapped player only at his request of the numbers of moves completed and the time used up by both players.
     (e) claim the game in cases where the time limit has  been exceeded and inform the Controller when the sighted player has touched one of his pieces.
     (f) carry out the necessary formalities in case the game is adjourned.
10. If the visually handicapped player does not make use of an assistant, the sighted player may make use of one who shall carry out the duties mentioned under point 9 (a) and (b).
   These rules were adopted at the IBCA Congress in Benidorm 1985 and approved by the FIDE 1985 General Assembly.