Can You Play Blindfold Chess?

Blindfold chess has been around for centuries. It has always been popular as a handicap tool, allowing the master to give odds to a less experienced player. Also, on some occasions, top GMs duel 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 many. However, my conversation 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, recently, Alexei Shirov, who just 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 the player's strength and his ability to play chess blindfold. However, it could 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 of 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 February 2013. On December 3, 2016, he played 48 opponents with a mask before his eyes and sitting on an exercise bike, resulting in 35 wins, 7 draws, and 6 losses. Can you even imagine how that could even be possible for a human?

Magnus Carlsen giving a blindfold simul in Vienna in 2015

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 their image of smart persons. The ability to play chess blindfolded takes it to a whole new level since amateurs believe that being capable of doing so is some 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 feature 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 a hospital during World War I, he entertained himself and other patients by playing blindfolded 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 blindfolded from a very young age.

You can find plenty of videos of Magnus Carlsen playing chess blindfolded 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 in public transport, perform the following routine in your head: try jumping with the knight across all the board or work out the shortest route from one square to another. For example, what is the best way to travel a knight 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 skills.
  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 are not shy to offer a ton of computer-generated lines that are both long and mind-blowing for a human.
  4. Play blindfolded chess against a friend. Start with a more accessible version, recording the moves and peeking into the scoresheet if you forget the position. The next step is to play the game without any notes (just make sure you don't start arguing over what happened!). If one board is not challenging, try more. Also, you can try to do this online.
  5. Solve studies blindfolded. 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 throughout the day. Naturally, this exercise may 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 it all day long, is probably not good.