A review of Blindfold Chess: History, Psychology, Techniques, Champions, World Records, and Important Games by Eliot Hearst and John Knott

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Blindfold Chess: History, Psychology, Techniques, Champions, World Records, and Important Games
By Eliot Hearst and John Knott
McFarland & Company, 2009
ISBN: 9780786434442

Many players may regard blindfold chess as a parlour game or at best a feat of memory, though sometimes spectacular when many games are played simultaneously. An amusing byway, like many chess variants, but no more than that.

To be honest, I was of this opinion until I read Reti’s account, summarised here on pages 65-66, of how in learning to play blindfold chess well, devising a method that worked always, he increased his playing strength in classical chess tenfold. Because he needed to acquire a deep understanding of the properties of the board and the individual pieces. Larry Christiansen, also, found that blindfold chess had a beneficial effect on his general play:

The strain of calculating variations in over-the-board chess seemed a breeze compared to the rigours of keeping ten games on track without sight of the board. My results shot up during this period. (quoted on page 130).

And Krogius, a grandmaster and psychologist, believed that blindfold chess helped develop the ‘dynamic qualities of thinking and attention’ and that:

…such training helps the development of combinative vision… The reading of chess books without the aid of a board is also to be recommended. Korchnoi has employed just this method for some time. (quoted on page 140).

There may, therefore, be rewards and very real practical benefits to exploring this form of the game.

As for Eliot Hearst and John Knott’s work, it is undoubtedly the most comprehensive book ever written on the subject. It is set out in three parts. Part 1 looks at the history of blindfold chess, taking in Philidor and his few predecessors and many successors, and ending with the Amber series of tournaments which took place between 1992 -2007 (the blindfold chess component of the tournament made its first appearance in 1993). Part 2 surveys the psychology of blindfold chess, and of chess generally, and looks also at the memory techniques used by the players. Finally, Part 3 contains some 444 games played when one or both players were without sight of the board.

The best blindfold player was undoubtedly Alekhine, though many of the great and the good – e.g. Morphy, Pillsbury, Capablanca, Kasparov – dabbled with this form of the game. Tony Miles gave a blindfold simultaneous display once, and he wrote an entertaining account of his experience, which is quoted here.

One especially fine section of the book concerns itself with Miguel Najdorf’s blindfold simultaneous displays of the 1940s; and the authors are to be highly commended for their research in bringing to light the full scale of Najdorf’s achievement. They make a convincing case that Najdorf should be regarded as the holder of the world record (on 45 boards), rather than Koltanowski, the generally accepted record holder. Najdorf’s sole motive in attempting to break the then world record was his need to make his circumstances known to any surviving members of his family, after Hitler had invaded his homeland Poland. Najdorf learnt after the first display that his wife and daughter had perished, but still hoped to hear from other relatives when he undertook a second display. A very moving story.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com