Blind Ambition


Many people are familiar with Helen Keller, the blind-deaf girl whom Mark Twain called the greatest woman in history since Jeanne d'Arc.  Some are also familiar with her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, herself visually handicapped, whom Mark Twain dubbed a miracle worker.  A few might even be aware that Helen and Anne played chess.

Helen, with the white pieces,  in the process of taking Anne's Queen.

Here's something probably fewer are aware of:

British Chess Magazine  April 1908

We are indebted to the Deutsche Schachblatter for the pleasing information that a practical attempt has been made in Paris to unlock the delights of chess to the blind. A number of specially constructed boards and sets of men have been presented to the Institute by a lady philanthropist. The chequered squares are represented by smoothness and roughness instead of by a colour difference; the opposing forces are also distinguished by their rough or smooth construction. The result of the experiment is, unfortunately, not stated.

In this connection, the following passage from "The History of my Life," by Miss Helen Keller, the well-known deaf, dumb, and blind lady, of America, is of interest :—" When kept indoors by a wet day, I pass my time like other girls—knitting or crocheting, or in playing with a friend a game or two of draughts or chess. I have a special board on which I play; the squares are sunk in, so that the men stand firm. The chessmen are of two sizes, the White larger than the Black; thus, by passing my hand lightly over the board, I have no difficulty in following my opponent's play. The slight disturbance caused by the movement of a piece from one square to another tells me when it is'my turn to move." Chess lovers will best appreciate the possibilities of delight for their afflicted fellows the suggestion contains.

a close up of Helen's board



The incomparable life story of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan!




Gorgeous, thank you both so much for reminding me of the pair, and this time I am even more in awe than i previously was, I think I need to read Helen Keller's writings.


Thanks so much for this touch of humanity! So needed today!


I'm reading her autobiography right now. It's not just a fascinating story but a font of wisdom.

For example, this passage from p.39 could easily pertain to chess:


This was a wonderfully uplifting article batgirl. Thank you so much for sharing.




- 28 Jan, 2004


A long-term interest, I see. Interesting article, thanks.


Very nice article.  


I never knew she was born with sight and hearing, apparently lost at 19 months from scarlet fever. I was always fascinated with her ability to learn without sight or sound. 

I might read her book. Aaand no more jokes about what her dogs name was.


lovely, you do great work, BG!


Brilliant work.




@batgirl put's together the best articles on this site, I read every single one. Helen Keller is an American hero but her teacher Anne Sullivan is often not given nearly the credit she deserves.


Really cool dig, BG. And Keller's autobiography is a fascinating must-read.


It's hard to imagine the extent of Helen's intelligence and fortitude.  As a blind-deaf girl, she was considered totally unteachable. Probably the fact that she could see and hear for her first 18 months played a big role.  She had some help from Mary Lamson who had helped teach Laura Bridgman, a blind-deaf girl (from age two) who learned to communicate many years before Helen Keller. Lamson had been to Norway where she me with Ragnhild Kaata, blind-deaf since age 4, and the first one with those handicaps in that country, maybe the world, who learned to speak.  At any rate, one can only imagine what it must demand on an individual to learn to communicate it in any fashion with no visual or auditory input whatsoever. 

Yet, with no formal training at all prior to age 7,  at age 13 Helen taught herself French, to a degree, and studied Latin (and later German) in addition to having had already learned to speak (in a fashion - she could formulate words but they were often hard to understand. She called limitation this her biggest regret):


Before October, 1893, I had studied various subjects by myself in a more or less desultory manner. I read the histories of Greece, Rome and the United States. I had a French grammar in raised print, and as I already knew some French, I often amused myself by composing in my head short exercises, using the new words as I came across them, and ignoring rules and other technicalities as much as possible. I even tried, without aid, to master the French pronunciation, as I found all the letters and sounds described in the book. Of course this was tasking slender powers for great ends; but it gave me something to do on a rainy day, and I acquired a sufficient knowledge of French to read with pleasure La Fontaine's "Fables," "Le Medecin Malgre Lui" and passages from "Athalie." I also gave considerable time to the improvement of my speech. I read aloud to Miss Sullivan and recited passages from my favourite poets, which I had committed to memory; she corrected my pronunciation and helped me to phrase and infect. It was not, however, until October, 1893, after I had recovered from the fatigue and excitement of my visit to the World's Fair, that I began to have lessons in special subjects at fixed hours. Miss Sullivan and I were at that time in Holton, Pennsylvania, visiting the family of Mr. William Wade. Mr. Irons, a neighbour of theirs, was a good Latin scholar; it was arranged that I should study under him. I remember him as a man of rare, sweet nature and of wide experience. He taught me Latin grammar principally; but he often helped me in arithmetic, which I found as troublesome as it was uninteresting. Mr. Irons also read with me Tennyson's "In Memoriam." I had read many books before, but never from a critical point of view. I learned for the first time to know an author, to recognize his style as I recognize the clasp of a friend's hand. At first I was rather unwilling to study Latin grammar. It seemed absurd to waste time analyzing every word I came across—noun, genitive, singular, feminine—when its meaning was quite plain. I thought I might just as well describe my pet in order to know it—order, vertebrate; division, quadruped; class, mammalia; genus, felinus; species, cat ; individual, Tabby. But as I got deeper into the subject, I became more interested, and the beauty of the language delighted me. I often amused my-self by reading Latin passages, picking up words I understood and trying to make sense. I have never ceased to enjoy this pastime.


Keller and Sullivan's story is very telling in terms of how knowledge we acquired.

Basically, to orient in the complex world around humans develop/construct very simple mental models, mental maps, mental imagery, or as James Mustich, in that Keller's book review I gave previously, calls imaginary construction.

All our mental tools for action is mindset, what one has constructed in their mind's eye. It is not about what is "real" outside of us, it is about the imaginary mind's eye images that are inside us in the form of mental maps or models.

All teaching is critically dependent on this. It is teacher's responsibility to help the learner construct a proper mindset. It is what Sullivan masterly achieved with Helen, a deaf and blind person acting solely with the help of mental imagery of the real world outside.

Now compare that with two second graders I witnessed here in an Atlanta after-school program, with a full visual capacity who were absolutely blind, failed to see elementary piece contacts in this game,

1.e4 d5 2.Bd3 Bg4 3.exd5 Bxd1 etc.

It turns out Helen, a blind person, saw more in her mind's eye than these second graders with fully developed vision. 

Natalia Rozhkova and Olga Ivanova, Blindfolded play



I understand what you're saying. It should be noted that while describing and understanding the outside world was an important and continual process, it was a long time before Sullivan was able to get Helen to grasp the concept of abstraction. Just like her "aha" moment with water that jet propelled her into language, it took another " aha" moment - when she realized her brain was physical but thinking was a non-tangible - that propelled her into the world of abstract thought.


When she went to college, she found the form of instruction there was completely incongruous to her particular needs. . . and no one really cared or helped.  This put extreme pressure on an already nearly impossible situation. Yet she excelled.  I'm not sure what the lesson is in that. Does adversity lead to excellence if one is up to the challenge?  Or is it that one can learn regardless of the methods?


Amazing story.  I knew about Helen Keller when I was growing up.   Then I got to relearn about her when my daughter did a report on her during elementary school.  And we watched the old black and white movie together.  

And I never knew she played chess!!


Gives new meaning to the term blindfold chess.