I have witnessed first-hand two activities which I consider to be humanly impossible, and yet there are a few rare individuals who do possess these supernatural abilities. One of them is real-time spoken translation of languages. The other is the ability to play multiple simultaneous games of blindfold chess. This blog discusses only the latter, of course. I will present a brief history of blindfold chess, describe what I have seen done, and end with one of the most amazing performances known to mankind.
I should also add that it is commonly written that blindfold chess is fairly easy for “any strong player”, but as we will see below, even relatively weak players are capable of playing blindfold chess.
I first witnessed blindfold chess a couple of years ago when I saw IM Ben Finegold play 6 simultaneous games blindfold, winning 5 and drawing the sixth, though I suspect he could have also won that last game if he had wanted to.
Of course he wasn’t literally blindfolded. Rather, he simply turned his back to the boards as he played, as has been the custom since it was first done by Sa’id bin Jubair over 1,300 years ago. Before Jubair’s time the blindfold exhibitioners would be literally blindfolded and actually feel the pieces with their hands. There was nothing tactile going on with Finegold. It was a purely mental activity. He would call out his moves as he cycled through his opponents, and a moderator called out their moves for him to visualize.
As I indicated, blindfold chess has been around for a great many centuries. The feat was first accomplished in Europe when the Saracen Buzecca played 3 games simultaneously in Florence in 1266. Two of these games were blindfold and the third was over the board.
In spite of this and other early displays, the great Philidor created a sensation when he played 2 games blindfold in Paris in 1744. Many masters have since given blindfold exhibitions, including Morphy, Blackburne, Réti, Alekhine, Tarrasch and others. Here’s a short game played blindfold in 1880 by Tarrasch that’s quite interesting.
Pillsbury could actually play chess and checkers simultaneously while blindfolded even as he also played a card game called Whist! In 1902 Pillsbury played no fewer than 21 blindfold games simultaneously in Hanover. His opponents were participants in the Hauptturnier there, and were no slouches at the game. Pillsbury even let them consult each other on their moves; nonetheless, he only lost 7 of the 21 games, winning 3 and drawing 11.
As impressive as these feats were, no one has ever matched the blindfold skill of former USCF President and Grandmaster George Koltanowski, who was born in Belgium but emigrated to the United States.
Koltanowski set a world record in 1937 by playing 34 blindfold games, winning 24 and drawing only 10. He lost not a single game in the course of the 13 and a half hours of play. In 1960 he bested that record in San Francisco where he played 56 blindfold games at once and again did not lose a single game.
You can read online the San Francisco Chronicle’s obituary of “Kolty”, who died in that fair city in 2000 at the age of 96.
In 1952 Koltanowski played blindfold against Humphrey Bogart, who was active in the LA chess scene for many years.
Koltanowski met his wife, very appropriately, on a blind date.
Blindfold chess continues to this day, of course. Here is a link to last year’s Blindfold Chess World Cup, which was won by Xiangzhi Bu, +6 –1 = 3.
Today, it is rather commonplace for a strong player to be able to play a game or more blindfold. However, as I will now explain, even players who are less than strong are capable of this amazing feat.
I know this because I have done it myself, and I am far from being a strong player. Here are the circumstances of my achievement. A couple of summers ago I took my younger daughter to a creative writing summer camp at Michigan State University. Some faculty acquaintances of mine let me use an office while I was waiting for my daughter, and we drove back home, a trip of an hour and a half or so each way.
On one of these drives back home I was getting sleepy at the wheel. So to keep my mind active and awake, I gave my PDA to my daughter in the back seat, and told her to put the chess game on two-player mode and I would play her while driving. We could call out our moves to each other. I told her that I would play for as many moves as I could until I became hopelessly lost, and then we could simply start over.
I was white and played 1. e4, which proceeded into a fairly standard Ruy Lopez opening. We actually played through the opening and into the middle game, and I was still able to continue, much to our mutual amazement. We continued to play until we arrived at home, the game not yet over. So we set up a board on the dining table with the current position, and agreed to finish the game the next day. I would continue to play blindfold for as long as I could.
I did study the position at the table visually, fixing it and my plans in my mind for the next day. When we resumed, I was ready. I was able to win some material, and eventually won the game when my daughter resigned.
I had played an entire game of chess blindfold as a Class E player!! Amazing! Here are a few more remarks on that game. I generally tried to trade pieces when possible, under the assumption that the simplified board would be easier to remember. Following this line of thinking, I believed that the end game would be easier than either the opening or middle game just because there would be fewer units on the board to remember. However, I found this not to be the case. The end game was every bit as difficult as any other part of the game.
I will also admit that my daughter did give me a hint 3 or 4 times during the course of the game. She would say something like, ‘Are you sure about that move?’ and then I would rethink the position, realize my error and call out my corrected move for her to play.
The entire ordeal was quite exhausting, as I had to concentrate like never before. But I also found it to be exhilarating and even useful as an exercise. I have not yet tried it a second time, but perhaps writing this blog will spur me to do so.
I think this game was truly remarkable, not because the game was interesting, but precisely because I am not a strong player. I was able to do this over the age of 50, having been playing chess only about two years at the time. If I can do this, you may surprise yourself at your own abilities to play blindfold. If any of you decide to try it, please leave a comment or send me a message. My blindfold game follows.