Blindfolded Chess


Blindfolded Chess

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Amir Bagheri    (2006-06-23)
Blindfolded Chess

THE chess-world (for there is a "world" in chess as in other matters) has lately been startled by a very extraordinary performance at one of the "divans" of the metropolis. A young American has played ten games at once, against an equal number of players, without, on his part, obtaining a single glimpse at any one of the chess-boards. The feat is not new; but never before was it performed so triumphantly as in the present day. The writers who have ferreted out the early history of this beautiful game have found the name of one Tchelebi, who, nearly nine centuries ago, was able to play at chess without seeing the board. Many persons in the East acquired the art of playing by feeling instead of seeing pieces; but that is a very different affair, since in such a case the sense of touch comes in aid of the memory. In 1266, a Saragen, named Buzecca, came to Florence and at the Palazzo del Popolo played three games at once, looking at one board, but not at the other two. He won two of the games, and made a drawn or abandoned game of the other. As all his competitors were skilful players, his achievement caused irrepressible astonishment. At various times, in later centuries, this mode of play was exhibited by different persons--Ruy Lopez, the author of one of the earliest treatises on chess; Mangiolini of Florence, Zerone, Medrano, Leonardo da Cutri, Paolo Boi, Salvio, and others, many of whom were Spaniards. Boi is reputed to have played three games at once without seeing the board. Damiano, an Italian, who wrote a treatise on chess more than three centuries and a half ago, gave what he called the "Rules" for learning to play without seeing the board; but his rules are worth very little, amounting chiefly to a recommendation to cultivate the memory. Keysler, in his Account of Turin (1749), says: "The late Father Sacchieri, Lecturer on Mathematics at Pavia, was a remarkable instance of the strength of the human understanding, particularly that faculty of the soul we term memory. He could play at chess with three different persons at the same time, even without seeing any one of the three chess-boards. He required no more than that his substitute should tell him what piece his antagonist had moved, and Sacchieri could direct what step was to be taken on his side, holding, at the same time, conversation with the company present. If any dispute arose about the place where any piece should be, he could tell every move that had been made, not only by himself, but by his antagonist, from the beginning of the game, and in this manner incontestably decided the proper place of the piece. This uncommon dexterity at the game of chess appears to me almost the greatest instance that can be produced of a surprising memory." The most celebrated player of the last century, however, in this peculiar achievement, was the Frenchman Andre Danican, who then, and afterwards, was generally known by the name of Philidor. In 1743, when Philidor was about eighteen years old, M. de Legalle asked him whether he had ever tried to play from memory, without seeing the board. The youth replied, that as had calculated moves, and even whole games, at night in bed, he thought he could do it. He immediately played a game with the Abbe Chenard, which he won without seeing the board. After that, a little practice enabled him to play nearly as well in this as in the ordinary fashion--sometimes two games at once. The French Cyclopedie told of a particular game in which a false move was purposely made by his antagonist; Philidor discovered it after many moves, and replaced the pieces in their proper position. Forty years afterwards, he was residing in England, where he astonished English players by his blindfold achievements at a chess-club in St. James' Street. He played three games at once, with Count Bruhl, Mr. Bowdler, and Mr. Maseres, the first two of whom were reputed the best players at that time in England. Philidor won two of the games, and drew the third, all within two hours. On another occasion, in the same year (1788), he played three games at once, blindfold as before, and giving the odds of pawn and move to one of his antagonists; again did he win two of the games, and draw the third. His demeanor during these labors surprised his visitors as much as his skill, for he kept up a lively conversation during his games. Many eminent chess-players, including M'Donnell, La Bourdonnaye, Staunton, etc., have achieved these blindfold wonders, in greater or less degree, since the days of Philidor. M'Donnell, a famous player about thirty years ago, played his moves even more rapidly without than with the board; he did not object to any amount of conversation in the room during his play, but disliked whispers. La Bourdonnaye could play within a shade of his full strength without seeing the board; he won against good players, on some occasions two at a time; but when trying the threefold labor, his brain nearly gave way, and he wisely abandoned all such modes of playing his favorite game. Mr. Staunton, the leading English player at present (but who has almost ceased to play since he undertook the editing of an edition of Shakespeare), some years ago played many blindfold games with Harrwitz and Kieseritzky, foreign players of note.

Amir Bagheri    (2006-06-23 12:26:28)
Blinfolded chess ( part II )

Very recently, however, all the honors of Europe, in this department of indoor games, have been run away with by two young Americans, Morphy and Paulsen. Paul Morphy, a native of New Orleans, seemed to be born with chess in his blood; he played almost from childhood; and at thirteen years of age he proved a formidable antagonist to Herr Lowenthal, a noted Hungarian. In 1857, when just twenty years of age, Morphy encountered Paulsen, a native of Iowa, only a little older than himself, at a chess congress in New Orleans (Editor: It was New York!). All the gray-beards struck their flag to Paulsen, and then he struck to Morphy. Of Morphy's subsequent achievements in regular play, which stamp him as perhaps the first living chess-player (we say this with fear and trembling; however, for the knights of the game are a sensitive race), we will not speak here, for our purpose is only to notice the blindfold performances. At the chess congress above mentioned, he finely played a blindfold game with a leading German player. Early in 1858, he struck the New Orleanists with amazement by playing six games simultaneously, without seeing any other the boards; winning five of them, and exhibiting beautiful play throughout. He then came to Europe, not only to "lick the Britishers," but "all creation;" and it must be admitted that he made great progress towards that achievement. At a meeting of the Chess Association at Birmingham, in August 1858, he played eight games simultaneously, without sight of the boards. His opponents were Lord Lyttelton, and seven other persons, mostly presidents or secretaries of provincial chess clubs. Against such players, and under such tremendous conditions, he won no less than six games out of the eight, drawing a seventh, and losing the eighth. In the following month, he went over and astonished the Parisians in a similar way; he contended blindfold against eight practised players at once, at the Cafe de la Regence, a famous resort of chess-players; and out of these did not lose even one; he was the victor in six, and drew the other two. In the spring of 1859, Morphy contended against eight of the most experienced members of the London Chess Club, including Mr. Mongredien and Mr. Walker, two distinguished players. He won two games, and drew the other six--all the players except himself being wearied out by a very protracted sitting. A few days afterwards, he played with eight members of the St. George's Chess Club, including Lord Cremorne, Lord Arthur Hay, and Captain Kennedy; he won five, and the rest were drawn through want of time to finish them. Nevertheless, inconceivable as these mental labors are, Morphy yields to Paulsen in blindfold play. There are whispers of twelve or fifteen games having been tried simultaneously by the latter; but the number ten has been most certainly reached, under conditions of the utmost publicity. On the 7th of October in the present year, at a Divan in the Strand, ten players accepted Mr. Paulsen's challenge to grapple with them all simultaneously, the boards being placed out of his sight. One of the players was M. Sabouroff, secretary to the Russian Embassy in London; the other nine comprised many names well known among chess-players. Ten chess-boards were placed on ten tables in the room. An arm-chair, turned away towards a window, was mounted on a dais. At two o'clock in the afternoon, Mr. Paulsen, a quiet, courteous young man, with not a trace of "brag" in him, took his seat in this arm-chair. For twelve mortal hours he never rose, never ate, never smoked, and drank nothing but a little lemonade. What were his mental labors during that time, we shall see. His ten antagonists took their seats at the ten tables; and each table speedily became the centre of a group of spectators, whose comments were not always so silent as in fairness they ought to have been. Paulsen could not see any of the chess-boards. Herr Kling, a noted player and teacher of chess, acted as general manager. He called the boards by numbers--No. 1 to No. 10. Paulsen audibly announced his first move for board No. 1; Kling made that move; the antagonist replied to it; Kling audibly announced the reply; Paulsen considered what should be his second move, and when he had audibly announced his decision, Kling made the proper move on the board. Here No. 1 rested for awhile. No. 2 now made his move, leading to the same course of proceeding as before. Then No. 3 in the same way; then No. 4; and so on to No. 10; after which No. 1 began a new cycle, by playing a second move; and thus they proceeded over and over again. Now let us see what all this implies and involves. Chess is not one of the most frolicsome of games; indeed, ladies generally declare it to be very dull, seeing that a chess-player is apt to be "grumpy" if spoken to on other matters while playing. The truth is, there is a demand for much mental work in managing a game well; the combinations and subtleties, the attacks and counter-attacks, are so numerous and varied, as to keep the mind pretty fully occupied. Nevertheless, a fine game between two fine players is mere child's play compared with this wonderful achievement of Paulsen. He was obliged to form ten mental pictures; and every picture changed with every move, like the colored bits in a kaleidoscope. Most persons, even though knowing nothing of the game, are aware that it begins with thirty-two pieces of different colors and forms, and that these move about over a board of sixty-four squares. After every change of position in any one of the pieces, Paulsen must have changed his mental picture of the board, the field of battle, and then made that a fixture until the next move was made. This is hard enough in even one game, against an antagonist who has his eyes to help him in planning attacks and defences; but how hard must it be against ten! It is difficult to conceive what is the condition of the mental machinery under such circumstances; and yet, there he sat, the calmest man in the room. When told of his antagonist's doings, one by one, he looked quietly out of window, and rubbed his chin, as a man often does when thinking, and then announced his move--never mistaking No. 1 for No. 7, No. 9 for No. 3--never failing to recover the proper mental picture, and making the proper change in it; never embarrassed; never making an unlawful move, or likely to lose sight (mental sight) of any unlawful move made by his antagonists. Nor did he obtain the least pause for mental rest. Without one minute's interval, as soon as he had announced a move for one board, he was required to attend to the move of another antagonist at another board. Hour after hour did this continue--all the afternoon, all the evening, midnight, until two in the morning. He made two hundred and seventy moves in the twelve hours, twenty-seven per game average; this gave two minutes and a quarter for the consideration of each move. As all his moves were met by corresponding moves on the part of his antagonists, he was called upon to form five hundred and forty complete mental pictures in twelve consecutive hours, each picture representing the exact mode in which all of the sixty-four squares of a chess-board were occupied. Paulsen won two games, lost three, and drew five.

Thibault de Vassal    (2006-06-23 13:16:42)

A very interesting article.

by Anonymous

From Chambers' Journal

This article is from the journal LITTELL'S LIVING AGE (Third Series, Volume XVI, January, February, March, 1862), which is in the public domain.

Content by Chess Samizdat

Thibault de Vassal    (2006-06-24 14:31:15)
Chess Samizdat

I just read many Chess Samizdat articles (some from chess players around here)... Really funny and interesting. I particularly liked this quote from CJS Purdy : "The only valid excuse for withdrawal from a chess tournament is death, and then only with a death certificate" :)

From the new chess dictionary by John C. Knudsen.