Can you play blindfold chess?

Do you want to impress your friends with a feat worthy of Beth Harmon from the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit? Then learn how to play chess blindfolded!

Blindfold chess has been around for centuries. It has always been popular
as a handicap tool, allowing masters to give odds to less experienced
players. Also, on some occasions, top GMs battle each other blindfolded on equal
terms. The most famous regular event of this type was the Amber Chess tournament. It was held from 1992 to 2011 and featured a combination of rapid and
blindfold chess — a format that was unique and highly entertaining for the
spectators.

Have you ever tried playing blindfold chess? What about your friends? For a
club player who hasn’t trained this skill, even one board may be too much.
However, my conversations with a few 2700+ GMs revealed that for them 8-10
boards is a normal workload that doesn’t require any special preparation. For
example, Alexei Shirov, who recently turned 49, gave a timed blindfold
simul on eight boards against reasonably tough opposition and scored a
respectable 6.5 points out of 8. According to him, it was only his second time
giving a simul of this type.

Generally speaking, there is a positive correlation between a player’s
strength and his or her ability to play chess blindfold. However, it may be possible
that some players are particularly gifted in this department. Or maybe the very
top guys are not interested in such experiments?! Anyway, the current world
record for most games played in a blindfold chess simul belongs not to Magnus
Carlsen or some former World Chess Champion, but to GM Timur Gareyev from the
US, whose FIDE rating peak was 2682 in February 2013. On December 3, 2016, he played
48 opponents with a mask over his eyes and sitting on an exercise bike,
resulting in 35 wins, 7 draws, and 6 losses. Can you even imagine how that
could be possible for a human?

What are some of the benefits of being able to play chess blindfolded?

  • Impress your friends. Some people refer to themselves as “chess players” to reinforce
    an image for being smart. The ability to play chess blindfold takes it to
    a whole new level, since amateurs believe that being capable of doing that is some kind of magic. I am not sure it will work in a relationship, but there is a chance that
    your partner will be impressed if you mention this trick! The creators of The
    Queen’s Gambit mini-series used this reputation to their advantage, showing how
    Beth Harmon was able to play out entire games in her head by staring at the
    ceiling. From what I have heard, many viewers were mesmerized by the process.
  • Improve your game. Such training can be particularly effective if you
    have trouble visualizing long lines during regular play or you often forget
    where the pieces are when calculating.
  • Have fun. When Alexander Alekhine was in hospital during World War I,
    he entertained himself and other patients by playing blindfold chess against
    them. This was quite typical of chess players in the 20th century. Nowadays,
    most of us are so addicted to smartphones that it is hard for us to switch from
    a source of instant gratification to something more demanding, such as playing
    blindfold chess. Still, why not try?
  • Keep studying in a tough environment. Once again, this is less relevant
    nowadays since you may read the book on an electronic device when traveling.
    Still, if you prefer the good old paper books, sometimes it is a nuisance not
    to be able to visualize long subvariations without having a board next to you.
    Also, even if you have one, setting it up and replaying each line can be a
    nuisance. Maybe this was why Magnus Carlsen learned how to read chess books
    blindfold from a very young age.

You can find plenty of videos of Magnus Carlsen
playing chess blindfold on YouTube. In the one above, you can see him take on
ten opponents at a time at Harvard.

Hopefully I was able to persuade you to try out this spectacular chess
variant. Let’s move on to practice. Here are a few exercises that will help you
master the art of playing chess blindfold:

  1. When on public transport, perform the following routine in your head: try jumping with the knight across all of the board, or work out the shortest route from one square to another. For example, what is the best way for a knight to make it from b1 to g8?

2. Check out the “Mind Mirage” mini-game in Magnus Trainer. The objective is to memorize where the chess pieces are placed and keep track of their movements in your head. As you progress through the levels, the difficulty gradually increases, providing a great training opportunity for players of different skill levels.

3. Read chess books without using a chessboard. Make sure you can visualize and evaluate reasonably accurately even the longest and most complicated variations. You can start with books where authors give very brief notes and eventually advance to the modern opening manuals where authors don’t shy away from offering a ton of computer-generated lines that are both long and mind-blowing for a human.

4. Play blindfold chess against a friend. The easiest way to do it is using the chess24 Playzone, where in the settings you can choose either to hide all the pieces (an arrow will indicate the last move) or to hide only your own pieces. This is the mode that top grandmasters have been using to play Blindfold Banter Blitz. 

5. Solve studies blindfold. There are special books where you are given the notation of the initial position and must work out the best continuation in your head. Or you can take a look at a regular study, memorize it and then solve it sometime later in the day. Naturally, this exercise can greatly vary in terms of difficulty. For club players, the goal could be to visualize the position and give a simple mate in one or something similar. At the same time, top Grandmasters can take on sophisticated studies that are hard to tackle for untitled players even while looking at the board.

Warning: playing chess blindfolded is a very
demanding pastime that is known for sapping your energy. Practicing it
excessively can be dangerous for your psychological health and wellbeing! Doing
some exercises could be beneficial, but trying to push yourself aggressively
and set records, practicing all day long, is probably not good.


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