Would you like a blindfold?

by ChessBase
7/11/2008 – Blindfold chess has a long and colorful history. But did you know that blindfold chess isn't just for public exhibitions and special grandmaster events anymore? You can play blindfold chess in the privacy of your own home, as you'll learn in the latest ChessBase Workshop.

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Blindfold chess has a long and fascinating history, dating back more than a century and a half. In fact, the nineteenth century was the great heyday of blindfold chess. In those bygone days it was a "performance" form of chess, however, more than an actual competitive activity.

In the "classical" period, chess masters would give exhibitions in which they would perform various prodigious feats of memory for the entertainment of paying audiences. This was at a time when the average (non-chessplaying) person thought that the secret to mastering chess was to possess a greater ability to calculate positions farther ahead than one's opponent. Chess masters got a lot of mileage out of the notion of being smarter than the average joe in the street; smarter, able to remember more, able to calculate farther ahead -- in short, having a "bigger brain" than everyone else.

To be fair, most of these players actually did have remarkable powers of recall. There are well-documented cases in which a master would play a game of blindfold chess plus a hand of whist (a card game requiring memory skills) simultaneously, all while reciting in order a long list of random words which had been read aloud to him only a single time. These public displays weren't just for ego or "bragging rights" either; chess didn't pay any better then than it pays now, so performing memory feats in front of paying customers was sometimes a crucial component of a chess master's income.

The way blindfold chess was played usually worked like something like this: the master sat with his back to the chessboard (they didn't usually wear an actual blindfold) while the opponent (who was allowed to view the board normally) called out his moves aloud. The master would also call out his replies, moves which the opponent would physically make on the chessboard.

If both players were made to play without sight of a physical board, this was properly called "double-blindfold chess", which is occasionally played today as a special feature on the grandmaster circuit (the Melody Amber tournaments spring to mind here).

But blindfold chess (defined here as chess played without sight of all or some of the pieces on a board, physical or electronic) isn't just for top level or titled players. Blindfold chess is considered by some to be a valuable tool even for amateurs, as good practice for developing one's visualization skills.

Owners of one or more of the current crop of chesspaying programs belonging to the Fritz "family" can play blindfold chess on their computer. It's pretty easy to set up a blindfold game and this ChessBase Workshop will show you how to do it.

After firing up your Fritz (or related) program, right-click on the main chessboard and select "Board design" from the popup menu. You'll see the following dialogue appear:

Here's where we'll set up the piece configuration for a blindfold game. Click the pulldown menu beside "Pieces" to see the choices:

Three of these piece configurations apply to playing blindfold chess:

  • Blindwhite: hides the White pieces from view
  • BlindBlack: hides the Black pieces from view
  • BlindAll: makes all of the pieces invisible

Let's try a practice scenario in which we'll play the White pieces and make our opponent Black's pieces invisible. Select "BlindBlack" from the pulldown menu as shown above, then click "OK". The board will then look like this:

Make your first move normally. After a moment the computer will respond. How will you know what the computer has played? There are three ways to do it, all of which can be used in any combination:

  1. The move will be displayed in the Notation pane;
  2. If you've chosen to have the program announce moves (Tools menu, "Options" command, "Multimedia" tab, and click the radio button next to "Announce moves"), you'll hear the audio clip announcing the chess engine's reply;
  3. If you've opted to have the software use an arrow to display the engine's last move (Tools menu, "Options" command, "Game" tab, and check the box next to "Mark move with arrow"), you'll see an arrow on the board which shows the engine's last move:

Now this next will be obvious to most readers, but I'll toss this out there anyway: you're going to have to select at least one of these options or else you'll have no idea what move the engine just played. (I know there'll be at least one e-mail saying that options 2 & 3 are "annoying" and that option 1 "doesn't allow them to make the board big enough" or somesuch, but that's life; the software requires some means of telling you what move your electronic opponent just played).

That's basically all you need to know. You can select "Blindwhite" or "BlindBlack" and play with sight of half of the pieces (either yours or the opponent's, depending on the color you're playing and what you've chosen to hide), or you can select "BlindAll" for the ultimate challenge: playing with all of the pieces hidden. When you play games with your own pieces hidden just moves the pieces as you normally would: click on a square to "grab" the piece, move the mouse to the target square, then release the mouse button to drop the piece on the square.

You can play blindfold chess in any playing mode, from "Handicap and fun" levels up to "Rated game" mode. Now you have another technique to use to improve your visulization skills. Don't worry if you make mistakes playing blindfold; at least you're not doing it in front of an audience like those nineteenth century masters.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments on ChessBase Workshop. No tech support questions, please.

© 2008, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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