Question: Andy asks (on Chess Book Collectors on Facebook), “Did you use a book or article to teach yourself the best way to go about learning blindfold chess ?”
Well, I didn’t really find anything too helpful, which is strange, other than to memorize the board. Magnus said in an interview that you just have to do it to get good at it (i.e., practice, as in “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”), and that he thinks about positions all the time.
Here is an exercise for you, a perfect example. I was looking at this classic game this evening (Rotlewi vs Rubenstein, Lodz 1907):
Now, in the game, after 21…Qh4, White played 22.g3. So the immediate question that came to my mind was what to do after 22.h3(?). I was looking at this position when all of a sudden my monitor when dark, so I continued to think about the position blindfold.
First, ask yourself which squares the pawns are on, and what color of squares are those. Next, do the same thing for the pieces. You’ll find that regardless of whether you solve this problem blindfold or not, it’s just as difficult to find the ideas; the pure calculation part of it is actually easier to do via blindfold, and you can switch back between blindfold and the board from time to time if you like. Looking at the board doesn’t make it any easier, although switching from one to the other can take the pressure off from finding the answer by looking at the board or vice-versa (it’s really just psychological, once you become proficient enough at blindfold).
To blindfold well, don’t try to visualize or memorize up-front. As you ask yourself where the pawns and pieces are, which squares and colors of squares. A visual will automatically be created in your mind of those squares, although you may have to consciously do this the first time you try it, but later it will be more automatic. Blindfold chess takes time, so start out slow. The people who do this, like GM Gareyev, should tell you (I’m thinking of a Chess Life article on him, although I’ve also hung out with him personally before as well, very friendly, generous, and surprisingly outgoing young man) that when they first did a small blindfold simul that it took many hours, far more hours than it would have had they seen the board. Later, these guys can play blitz blindfold, and can play against even more boards and stronger players.
So, the upshot of this exercise was that I spent perhaps 45 minutes on this puzzle, after 22.h3, of what to do next, and I did nail the answer, came up with the same answer that Schlecter gave in the game-score comments on that link. It’s not a deep line, but it’s “wide”. IOW, you need to see a few side “ideas” or tactical devices on the side, which make the solution work.
My own thoughts on tactics are take your time, don’t make it into a blitz thing, and if you do make it into a blitz thing then simply look up the answers after a couple of minutes. I feel it’s wrong to turn tactics into a pure pattern-recognition thing, as in Michael De La Maza’s seven circles, but I’ve never done that and to each their own (although I have done similar tactics cramming). From a cognitive viewpoint, cramming means you are less likely to retain the material over time anyway, it’s mostly for a short-term performance gain. And the problem with that is that most things in chess, cramming included, help you later on down the road when you less expect it to kick in. So just focus on whatever you are focusing on, and try to really understand whatever it is you are learning, so that it will be locked in subconsciously for much later on.
One important side-note is that you want to do any long blindfold calculation with your eyes open. In my last game, I wandered off and looked toward the ceiling at one point to do some calculation. If you close your eyes, it will generally make you tired because that’s what your body thinks you are telling it to do, so only do that on short-thinks. So, in recap, blindfold chess is neither blindfold, creative visualization, nor memorization, by mechanical nature.
One thing this training may help you to come away with is the realization that chess is more a logic exercise than a visualization exercise. Nevertheless, you do visualize the lines blindfold, and the important part of that is to see the position in your “minds-eye” rather than straining to visualize first (rather than to know the position first, and visualize second).
A reason why it’s difficult to visualize chess blindfold at first is that our mind naturally wants to see the chessboard as an analog substance rather than a digital substance, which it is. Simple checkmates are often the most surprising thing in chess because subconsciously we probably want the king to tiptoe around the pieces on the squares and thus “find a way out” – i.e, using anthropomorphis.
Nevertheless, if you want to visualize a set, you can visualize the set you typically play on at a tournament, or even the chessgames.com board, etc, but you may ultimately find that you are not visualizing any particular board so much as the relationship between the squares and pieces themselves.