The Psychology of Blindfold Chess

September 5, 2006 at 3:37 am 4 comments

When I was 12, my friend and I would often play a verbal game of chess in the hotel pool while waiting for a tournament round to finish. We didn’t use any chess pieces or clocks, but the image of the chess game would be as sharp as if we were sitting there in a room across the table from each other, with the chess set between us and record sheets tucked underneath the felt chess board. We’d start, “e4”, “c5”, “Knight f3”, “d6”, … and the game would end when one of us made an illegal move — rarely could we finish a game because our memories would fail us first.

However, if you were a chess master like Reuben Fine, you would have no problem memorizing the sequence of moves throughout an entire game. Masters play “blindfold chess” against weaker opponents at exhibitions, where they would have their back turned toward the chess board, and verbally communicate moves between themselves and their opponent.

To a casual observer, this may seem like an amazing feat, since the master has to memorize the position on every board (when they are playing several opponents at once), and know exactly what piece if any is on each square.

So how do they do it?

  1. Associations: each chess piece and board position has a wealth of associations with it gained from past experiences.
  2. Notation: A special familiar language can be used to sum up a position in a few phrases.
  3. Spatial Gestalten: The breakdown of the chess board into several sections — structures which are familiar to the expert.

When I started reading this paper, I was pleased to see that the author was Reuben Fine, whose chess games I was familiar with when I was young. I’ve studied his games, and now I read his papers.

Fine, R. (1965). The psychology of blindfold chess: An introspective account. Acta Psychologica, 24, 352-370.

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Entry filed under: Chess, Psychology.

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