Aphantasia in chess

by ChessBase
5/7/2024 – It is the ability to mentally picture things. That seems the most natural thing in the world, but some people are unable to do it at all. They cannot imagine a sunset, see any vivid details, vibrant colours, in their minds. Or they may only produce a mental image that is blurry and lacks detail. Michael Bacon, the Armchair Warrior, is a USCF Expert with aphantasia. He has written about how the condition relates to chess. | Image Credit: Andrew Mason

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About a week ago I clicked onto a link found at the website of the Coast to Coast Am radio programand noticed this: Aphantasia: why are some people unable to picture things in their mind? Why, indeed, was my first thought, because I am one of those people. I clicked onto it immediately and read the article. Since then I have read many articles pertaining to aphantasia, the urls of some will be found in chronological order at the end of this post.

In a recent post I wrote: "[In the above position] I could 'see' 21 Bxe5, followed by 21…Nxe5 22 dxe5 Rxe5 23 Nf3, attacking the Rook. That is about as far my chess vision allows. I can 'see' that because it is all forced." That was the day before discovering the article. I wrote 'see' because I cannot actually “see” anything when my eyes are closed; all I see is black.

The article at The Conversation begins:

When asked to close their eyes and imagine a sunset, most people can bring to mind an image of the sun setting on the horizon. Some people may experience more vivid details, such as vibrant colours, while others may produce a mental image that is blurry or lacks detail. But recent research has found that some people don’t experience mental imagery at all.

This lack of mental imagery is called aphantasia. People with aphantasia are often surprised when they learn others see mental images in their minds. Many people with aphantasia have said they assumed others were speaking metaphorically when they described seeing something in their “mind’s eye.

Because of chess I knew some players could see a picture of the board, or many boards, when they play blindfold chess, or any kind of chess without sight of the board, for that matter. Some players are able to keep a mental picture of myriad games in their mind’s eye. I thought they were freaks. Turns out I am the freak because, “it is estimated that roughly four per cent of people have aphantasia.”

I asked my friends the question: when you are playing chess can you visualize the board and pieces when you close your eyes? Can you move a piece and see the new position? Not one person contacted said they could not visualize anything. Some thought this was a ridiculous question. "How the hell can you play chess without that?" one asked. My roommate, the Legendary Georgia Ironman, was incredulous upon learning I could not visualize a chess position. “That’s scary,” Tim said. He questioned me, asking, “How do you analyze a position? How is it possible you could win tournaments and become an expert without being able to analyze in your head?”

I did not start playing chess seriously until the age of twenty, and because of that fact, I have always known there was a ceiling for me that would never be broken. Now I know it was not just beginning late that held me back. After winning the Atlanta Chess Championship with a score of 5-0 in 1976 I discovered Backgammon, becoming Atlanta and Georgia Backgammon Champion. In Backgammon one need not visualize future positions. There are simply too many possibilities, because the roll of the dice determines the next move. After the Backgammon bubble burst and the boom ended I returned to tournament chess. But although my rating increased, putting that much sought after crooked number (2) at the front of my rating, I was never again as strong a player as I had been before leaving chess for Backgammon.

I decided to write this article because this is all new to me. I want to know how many other players cannot visualize. Therefore, I ask you to contact me at the email found at my Armchair Warrier website. I give my word that nothing written will ever be seen by anyone other than me, unless permission is given by those who contact me. In addition, I ask any and all who read this to share it with others. You can also tell us about your experience in the feedback section below.

Here is a partial list of the articles, by date published, read in the last week:

Mike Bacon: My Life in Chess

When young I lived one street over from a Boys Club, which is where much of my time was spent playing all sports, with a focus on baseball. After earning a college scholarship from the Boys Club I met a professor who altered my life by asking a question, "Do you play Chess?"

After defeating Dr. Doig, my philosophy professor, several times, he decided to organize a Chess tournament with the winner gaining free entry fee to a USCF tournament. I won the tournament and played in my first USCF rated tournament. I lost all six games played. From that I earned my first USCF rating, which was only in the triple digits and began with an 8.

The day after the tournament I purchased a thick chess book, Chess Openings in Theory and Practice, by I. A. Horowitz, which became my companion as the book was devoured. I had been hooked, lined, and sinkered by the Royal Game and dropped out of college while devoting the majority of my time to studying and playing chess. I became a habitué of the Stein Club and began playing in USCF rated tournaments.

I travelled to San Antonio in 1972 with a strong Master, Branko Vujakovic. In my game against the man behind the tournament, Bill Church (of Church's Fried Chicken fame), he asked me if he could stop the clock. I knew that clocks could not be stopped, so I asked him why. "Bobby Fischer has just landed and I need to go greet him," he said. After cogitating for a nano second I replied, "Only if I can accompany you, sir." He grinned, and I was the second person to congratulate Bobby and shake his hand!

I hadda wonderful time in Texas and met some wonderful people, including GM Henrique Mecking, who was my age and rented a car...which he drove wildly, as in on the SIDEWALK! You shoulda seen the people scattering! That's where I first met Mr. Six Time, Walter Browne, one of the three Chess players I defeated...at BACKGAMMON! The other two are Larry Christiansen, who came to Atlanta to give a simul sponsored by Church's Fried Chicken. After the simul, and a game lost to Larry C., we played at Mike Decker's home, staying up until the crack of dawn playing BG for only a quarter a point. I won about twenty bucks as Larry kept looking at me funny, as in, "I beat this guy like a drum in Chess, so how can I be losing to him?"

In the 1974 Atlanta Chess Championship I came from nowhere to tie for first with an Expert from New York, Wayne Watson both at 4-1, but I received the trophy because I was from the Great State of Georgia. There was no ACC in 1975, but in 1976 I won the title with an undefeated 5-0, so technically I was the ACC Champ from 1974-1976.

When I was pushing forty I had lost the desire to put in the effort it would have taken to earn the Master title, so I played for the love of the game, which I still have, although it's sometimes frustrating. I spent many wonderful years working at the House of Pain, or technically, the Atlanta Chess & Game Center.

After learning I have aphantasia it was obvious I had gone about as far as possible with chess, considering the fact I did not start until an adult at twenty. After learning I have aphantasia the roommate said, "You mean you cannot analyse? How the hell can you play Chess?" And one older player, a NM, whom I had previously defeated, lamented, "How the hell could I have lost to a dude with a blank mind?!"

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genem genem 5/8/2024 09:41
@WilsonPaul - Very interesting comment. The Kolty speculations piece together nicely. And I sense truth in your phrase - "keeping up with facts".
Good amateur chess players develop a mental scheme for detecting / categorizing / chunking all the changes that occur on a chess board that are caused by each half-move, without undo effort and errors. They recognize the patterns that these changes categorize into.
Great chess players recognize huge quantities of much more elaborate positional chunks, and these recognitions hint at the best couple of move options before calculation begins.

I do not have aphantasia. Yet when looking at the chess board, while contemplating maybe moving Bg7xNd4, I cannot mentally see a bishop on d4. And tho I cannot unsee the bishop on g7, and can somehow ignore it.

Overall, I suspect that the perceptage of people who have aphantasia is larger than the tiny percentage of people who can truly mentally envision a visual picture of a position on a chess board. I tried to scientifically study Eidetic memory in grad school, but I couldn't find anybody who had it.
This entire discussion reminds me of Eidetic memory (distinct from Photographic memory).
WilsonPaul WilsonPaul 5/8/2024 07:15
I first started realizing I had aphantasia back in high school in the 1980s due to playing blindfold chess with my friends. (I realize it was not named aphantasia unti 2015.) There were about 8 of us that were all about equal at chess (about 1400-1600 ratings) and that showed in regular board games where we might win one day and lose another day to each other. But I was always the winner at blindfold chess against every one of them, and I was the only one that could play more than one at a time! This caused a lot of conversations among friends, and it was clear the others were visualizing the board while I was not - I was just keeping up with facts instead. So I was no worse off in regular chess over a board without visualization, and I was actually far better off without an actual board when playing blindfold chess.

I played a very defensive pawn oriented game of chess, that in retrospect may have been due to not being able to visualize possible attacks. So I somehow realized that I needed to defend, and I did that very well, typically waiting for the other person to make a mistake. At some point I realized that the game that I played was not original to me - was called the Colle System, or Colle-Koltanowski System. And then I found out that Koltanowski had the held the record for the most number of blindfold games at a time for a long time. He played 56 blindfold games at the same time, 10 seconds per move, in 1960 and won 50 with 6 draws. Now I was clearly never that good, not even close, but it made me wonder if he too had Aphantasia since he played the same style and was great at blindfold chess.

So while I do tend to think that Aphantasia may make it more difficult to play an attacking game style (maybe), it clearly does not prevent one from playing great chess. It may even have some advantages if one also has a great factual memory.
arzi arzi 5/8/2024 03:07
Mr Toad:"As you say, nothing is pure."

Yes, but the main thing is that there are differences between people. Some people have more "talent" than others. It is a fact and not a guess. We people are not the same and that is a good thing. Those with more talent don't need to train as much as the average man/woman. However, they won't achieve greatness if they don't work hard for it. Some people never achieve greatness because they are missing something small and important in their genes. Purity is just an opinion about some vague ideal that, however, has no actual physical form. It is as absurd to say that only the color blue has purity, when it is actually just a certain frequency of electromagnetic radiation. Some people love Elvis when others listen nothing but Led Zeppelin. Both are right and happy.
Mr Toad Mr Toad 5/8/2024 02:14
Thanks for your reply, arzi. As you say, nothing is pure. However, there is this feeling inside of us that purity exists and we all strive mightily to achieve it. The "Evergreen Game" from 1852 struck many of us as the essence of chess - in its purist form. The Mona Lisa represents "purity" for many artists. This is the human condition and inspires us to give of our best.

But we subdivide our search into neat categories for many practical reasons. This allows of clarity. There are champions who run marathons but there are also relay team champions. There are Bullet champions and also Chess960 champions.

So the human instinct is to seek purity within the subdivisions. The more the merrier, say I. In fact, subdividing leads to smaller and smaller groupings, which one might logically speculate, eventually lead us to one single person - our own self.

Thus the purist form of competition is that of competing against our own self. I compete against the person with the abilities I had last month. Have I raised my game since then?

"Use what talents you possess, the woods will be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." (Henry van Dyke)
Former Prodigy Former Prodigy 5/8/2024 08:17
I do not think that I would suffer from aphantasia, yet I think much more in notions than in pictures, and visualize things rarely.
When playing blindfold, I imagine the board like a square consisting of 8x8 points which are pieces, rather than differently shaped pieces. (Few titled players imagine a board exactly the way how they see it, with exact shapes of the pieces and so on.) (After all, I studied logic, earned the master degree and then quit, as I was much better at chess than. And a majority of my hobbies do not need much of visualization, either.) Reading chess books without a board or playing one blindfold game is fine, but more boards are a problem, as I do not remember little details (Kg1xKh1, Rf1xRe1, pa2xpa3) so well. When I calculate a long variation without a book, I often need to return to the beginning or to the last diagrammed position to get back to the track. When I was a 2600-rated GM and read that players should visualise some position during their calculation to return to it later, I initially did not understand what the author was talking about, the concept looked completely strange to me. When analyzing my games, I sometimes have problems to put the pieces back to their squares. (And several other players have the same problem, including GM Karpov, whom I played in 2004.) Spending some time on that position helps me to remember it considerably better. Apparently chess talent consists of many different compounds and being weaker at one of them is not a big problem if you compensate for it elsewhere, with a phenomenal positional understanding, sharp tactical vision, good memory, imagination, hard work, profound endgame knowledge, good opening repertoire or whatever else.
arzi arzi 5/8/2024 06:40
Mr Toad:"Pure chess talent does not exist."

Nothing is pure. You cannot read before you learn to read. What are good reflexes, great memory, lack of aphantasia ...? Do they exist? What is the difference between a good and a bad chess player? Talent? Skin color? Player gender? Amount of work?

I've often heard the phrase: "I could play as well as Kasparov, but I didn't bother to work for that success, of course there is talent in me."
Mr Toad Mr Toad 5/8/2024 04:09
Pure chess talent does not exist.

"You have fast reflexes - so play Bullet"
"You have a poor memory - so play Chess960"
"You don't have aphantasia - so play Blindfold chess"
"You claim aphantasia (unprovable to date) - so no category for you"

Chess would seem to be a many-splendoured beast!
PhishMaster PhishMaster 5/7/2024 02:20
(Part two)

All these years later, recently, I have been trying to read some opening trap books in my head, again, to improve my visualization. I still do it with very limited success, but I try.

The article makes it seem like it is some kind of mental problem that the author suffers from. Sorry, I think that he is the normal one, and people, who can visualize the board easily, are the "abnormal" ones, albeit the lucky ones in the case of chess. I have spoken to countless players over the course of the last 44 years of playing, and most do not visualize well at all. GM Yermolinsky backs this up on page 62 of "The Road to Chess Improvement".

Discussing visualization of his own games with his 2200-rated opponents, he writes: "yet I get surprised every time I try to engage my opponent in a little post-game blindfold talk. Mostly, I get a blank stare in return." He goes on a little, and ends with "Makes me wonder how they can play at all." He is talking about 2200s! He could be talking about me.

When it comes to chess, I do not buy that "four per cent" figure at all.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 5/7/2024 02:20
(Part one)

I think that people, who see the board easily are the exception, not the rule...by far. I have been a Master for almost four decades, and I still have trouble visualizing the board. It is a skill that is hard to really get good at, but I believe that you can improve it, but it takes hard work....work, that most of us are not willing to put in, which is the problem.

When I first started playing, I loved the game immediately. I was in the Air Force on a long commercial flight, and did not have a travel set, so, I brought along Irving Chernev's "Combinations: The Heart of Chess". Many examples were only a few moves long, but some were much longer. By accident, and circumstance, I ended up learning the need for good visualization in chess early on. That is not to say that I got great at it, but I did try back then. After that book, I read Chernev's "1000 Best Short Games of Chess", also in my head. I stunk at it, and I was only about 19 then, so still young enough.
brabo_hf brabo_hf 5/7/2024 11:08
In 2015 I wrote on my blog an article about wrong restimages after not been able to visualize correctly a position after some moves see https://schaken-brabo.blogspot.com/2015/12/restbeeld.html
Personally I see only blurry things and no details in my mind (so I also don't see the position in your article when I close my eyes). It hasn't stopped me from becoming a fidemaster.
Playing blindfold chess is possible for me on 1 board but is basically remembering where everything is positioned. My playingstrength heavily drops when playing blindfold contrary to some others (which is probably why I don't really like doing it).
Also worth investing is if shorter timecontrols favor people with lack or limited aphantasia. I think they do.