Eliot Hearst and John Knott blog about blindfold chess
Monday, September 10, 2018

Obituary: Eliot Hearst (1932–2018), Psychologist, Author, and Chess Player

Eliot S. Hearst, the co-author of Blindfold Chess, passed away in Tucson, Arizona, in January 2018. This post contains two obituaries that focus on the twin passions of his life: chess and psychology. The first obituary, by Al Lawrence, appeared in the May 2018 issue of Chess Life. The second, by Hearst’s onetime Indiana University colleague James H. Capshew, focuses on Hearst’s academic psychology career. A shorter version of Capshew’s obituary will soon appear in American Psychologist.

Eliot Hearst, right, playing an informal game with Bobby Fischer in August 1962.

Eliot Hearst: Contributions Deep, Wide and Witty

By Al Lawrence. This article appeared in the May 2018 Chess Life and is posted here with permission of US Chess.

The generations of top American players active in the 1950s and early 1960s are a fascinating mix of personalities and I am nostalgic for them. You read Chess Life, so you know many of the names—from Fine, Reshevsky, and Denker to Evans and Bisguier and of course, Fischer. But you may have missed one of my personal favorites, a 20th-century Renaissance man of culture and wit named Eliot Hearst, whose long and illustrious life ended January 30, 2018, in Tucson, Arizona.

Born in New York City in 1932, Hearst was actually the first notable chess player I ever met, and the one who opened up the real chess world for me. In the late 1960s, he found himself toward the start of his academic career at the University of Missouri-Columbia. To promote the chess club, he gave free simultaneous exhibitions. As I wrote in “My Best Move” (January 2018 Chess Life), knowing nothing about Hearst or organized chess, I was one of his challengers on a freezing night in 1967.

He was already a distinguished full professor of psychology, having completed a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Columbia University in 1953 and finishing his Ph.D. in experimental psychology a speedy three years later. He then spent two years in uniform at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, a half-dozen years at the National Institute of Mental Health and a year as a Special Fellow at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. But at our first meeting, he was only the distinguished figure speeding along from board to board inside the rectangle of tables at the Tiger Hotel. More than 40 years later, his emails to me still signed off with “Cheers for Old Mizzou!”

In the years before Missouri, he played a bit of big time chess. He learned the moves in the fifth grade from a teacher. The Manhattan Chess Club rejected Hearst as too young, but, along with contemporary Larry Evans, Eliot garnered the finer points when they were both admitted to the Marshall Chess Club, just missing a first-hand connection with Frank Marshall, who passed away in late 1944. By 15, Hearst was competing in the U.S. Junior and in 1950, still a teen, he won the prestigious New York State Championship ahead of Arthur Bisguier and Max Pavey, making master. He followed up by winning the Marshall Chess Club Championship. He qualified for the U.S. Championships of 1954 and 1961-2, finishing mid-field, and turned down further chances at the title for professional reasons. Perhaps Hearst’s best-known game is his mating-attack victory with black against Bobby Fischer in the 1956 Rosenwald tournament. Yes, Bobby was only 13, but he had just three rounds earlier uncorked his “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne.

But it was in 1960 that Hearst secured his mooring in the mainstream of American chess history. It was during a time of perilous flareups in the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR, only a few months after the Soviets had humiliatingly shot down and captured pilot Francis Gary Powers in our “secret” U-2 spy plane and a scant year before the Berlin Wall isolated the Allied sector. As a member of the U.S. squad at the World Student Team Championship, Hearst ventured into a citadel of USSR chess—the Palace of the Pioneers in Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg)—to help commandeer first place ahead of the Soviet team led by Boris Spassky. It was the only time the U.S. has ever won the World Student Team, never before even coming close. And it was the first time since the 1937 Olympiad (the Russians didn’t show up) that any American chess team had won any world championship. “I think a tear or two were shed,” when the Soviet band struck up The Star Spangled Banner, Hearst wrote. The team was feted on its return. Read Hearst’s detailed, first-hand account of his Student Team’s historic victory.

Former Chess Life Editor Frank Brady gave the young Dr. Hearst his own column, “Chess Kaleidoscope.” “I loved it,” Brady said. “He threw everything in there—it was full of commentary and news.” And full of wit as well. In 1964, after Fischer’s still unmatched 11-0 sweep of the U.S. Championship, Hearst wrote that he’d beaten Fischer in 1956, and liked to believe that Fischer hadn’t improved since then. Readers loved it. “It was what made me want to write some day for the magazine,” GM Andy Soltis, the longest-running and most popular Chess Life columnist, told me.

Brilliant and urbane, Hearst didn’t hide a well-tuned sense of the silly. His July 1962 column included his extensive “Gentle Glossary,” with apologies to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Among my favorites:

Good Bishop: your opponent’s bishop.
King’s Indian Reversed: naidni sgnik.
Reshevsky, Sammy: an 80-year-old chess prodigy.

Like several of his 1960 teammates, Hearst left chess. In academia, chiefly at Indiana University but also at University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University, and the University of Arizona, he amassed an illustrious career of notable publications and prestigious honors. In 2009, he brought together his brilliance in two fields to co-author the definitive work on blindfold chess.

Hearst is survived by his sister, Marlys Witte, of Tucson, Arizona; two children, Jennifer, of Berkeley, California, and Andrew, of Brooklyn, New York; and his longtime partner, Elaine Rousseau, of Tucson.

Eliot Hearst’s contributions to chess didn’t end with my selection of highlights. He served three years as a precocious vice president of US Chess, directed many scholastic and local tournaments, and organized the first Eastern Open. He captained successful U.S. international teams that included Fischer.

Hearst’s contributions to our game were deep, wide, and witty.

Obituary: Eliot S. Hearst (1932–2018)

By James H. Capshew, Indiana University

Eliot Hearst spent his life pursuing his twin intellectual loves—chess and psychology—and was a remarkable contributor to both. He was a devoted father, raising three children.

Born in New York City, Eliot Hearst spent his childhood, adolescence, and youth gaining experience in that urban mecca, sampling a wealth of cultural opportunities. He became interested in chess at an early age, joining the Marshall Chess Club at age 12, and pursued it seriously throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Among his tournament successes were victories in the Eastern Open, New York State, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., championships, and several top-5 finishes in U.S. Open tourneys. He had a well-known tournament win over Bobby Fischer, another chess prodigy from New York. Hearst gained the titles of Senior Master and Life Master from the U.S. Chess Federation. In addition, he was the Captain of the U.S. Olympic Chess team (1962), a vice-president of the U.S.C.F., an organizer and director of many tournaments, and a featured columnist for Chess Life in the 1960s. He once remarked that he devoted more time to serious chess than to academic psychology until he was about 30 years old.

Hearst became a psychology major at Columbia University and received his B.A. summa cum laude in 1953. He began the graduate program in experimental psychology as a Harry J. Carman Fellow in 1953-54, served as teaching assistant for Fred S. Keller in the introductory laboratory course, and received his M.A. in 1954. For the next two years, he continued his doctoral training under William N. “Nat” Schoenfeld as a teaching and research assistant. “His vast knowledge of the sciences and humanities was impressive,” Hearst recalled, “and he was the best teacher I ever had.” Hearst’s dissertation investigated effects of time-correlated reward schedules in the pigeon, and was awarded in 1956, only three years beyond his baccalaureate degree. He spent the next two years on active duty in the U.S. Army, stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, where he worked in the departments of experimental psychology and of neurophysiology.

Staying in the District of Columbia until 1964, Hearst was a Senior Experimental Psychologist at the Clinical Neuropharmacology Research Center, a joint unit of the National Institute of Mental Health and Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital. His experimental work expanded to include pharmacological, neuroanatomical, genetic, and biochemical correlates of behavior as well as classical and instrumental conditioning. In 1964-65, Hearst took up a NIMH fellowship at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, under John R. Vane (a future Nobel Prize winner) in the Department of Pharmacology. On one occasion, after dinner at Vane’s residence, Hearst played blindfold chess with Vane as well as his two daughters simultaneously. Returning to the U.S., he was recruited by the University of Missouri, where he was appointed a full professor of psychology. In 1966, he was awarded his first NIMH grant, to study “Basic Processes in Learning and Behavior Change.” His still-ardent interest in chess was on display in the second issue of Psychology Today in 1967, where he contributed a thoughtful review (and the journal cover motif), “Psychology Across the Chessboard.” After five years at Missouri, where he supervised four PhD dissertation students and published over a dozen research papers, he moved to Indiana University in 1970.

At Indiana’s Department of Psychology, he continued his experimentation on conditioning in pigeons, and taught both graduate and undergraduate students, in courses on animal behavior, learning theory, and history and systems of psychology. An approachable yet demanding mentor, he patiently guided hundreds of students, teaching them scientific methods and effective writing techniques. Augmenting his experimental work, Hearst’s reputation for scholarly synthesis and integration was growing, and he published several review essays. In 1974, Hearst co-authored a monograph with Herbert Jenkins that reviewed behavioral studies on the relations between stimulus and reinforcement.

As the centennial of the founding of the first laboratory of experimental psychology—in 1879 at Leipzig by Wilhelm Wundt—approached, the Psychonomic Society commissioned Hearst to organize and edit a major volume containing historical assessments of the major subfields of psychology, written by research scientists. The nearly 700-page book, The First Century of Experimental Psychology, was published in 1979, and contained an introductory essay by Hearst. Garnering positive reviews, the book was reprinted multiple times, including a paperback edition.

Hearst’s expertise in psychology was avidly sought, and he served on several editorial boards between 1963 to 1985 as well as reviewing for many other publications, and he successfully resisted offers to become the editor of other journals in favor of his own writing projects. Elected to the governing board of the Psychonomic Society, he served from 1977-82. During his Indiana years, Hearst was awarded prestigious fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (1974-75) and the James McKeen Cattell Foundation (1981-82) and was elected to the Society of Experimental Psychologists in 1981. He was a fellow of five divisions of the American Psychological Association: Experimental Psychology, Physiological and Comparative Psychology, Experimental Analysis of Behavior, History of Psychology, and Psychopharmacology.

In 1984, IU honored him with the title of distinguished professor of psychology. The citation noted Hearst’s wide range of topics, including the nature of reinforcement and punishment, discrimination and generalization, learning, cognition, memory, and biological constraints on behavior. “His modus operandi is to enter an area under dispute, identify the critical issues, and, with a few deftly crafted experiments, resolve the principal controversies,” an admiring colleague stated, adding, “this is all the more amazing when one considers the diversity of the topics he has researched.” His penchant for synthetic review was on display again in 1988, when he contributed “Fundamentals of Learning and Conditioning” to the 2nd edition of Steven’s Handbook of Experimental Psychology, an authoritative classic first published in 1951.

Regular renewals of his NIMH grants continued until 1988, until he decided to devote more time to library research and writing, although he continued to have an active lab until retirement. Hearst supervised 10 doctoral dissertations at Indiana and served as committee member for 20 other PhD candidates. In 1988, he spearheaded the organization of the centennial celebration of the IU psychological laboratory and co-edited a centennial monograph containing data on every graduate degree in psychology, lists of faculty and department administrators, and a narrative history.

After 26 years, Hearst retired from Indiana University in 1996, and the department hosted a “Hearst Fest” with a dinner reception that included his former students. Returning to New York, he served as an adjunct professor at Columbia University, his alma mater. He received a grant in 1998-99 from the Harvard University McMaster Fund to study blindfold chess. Moving to Tucson in 1999, where his sister was on the faculty of the University of Arizona, Hearst obtained another courtesy appointment there in the psychology department, where he continued to advise students. Along with a co-author, John Knott, he published his chess magnum opus in 2009: Blindfold Chess: History, Psychology. Techniques, Champions, World Records, and Important Games. The book was well received in the chess world, and Hearst wrote occasional blog postings on blindfold chess into his 80’s. After a brief illness, Eliot Hearst died in Tucson on January 30, 2018, at 85 years of age.

The contributions of Eliot Hearst to Indiana University and to scientific psychology will be commemorated through an endowed professorship in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, generously funded by Hearst and given in memory of his daughter, Nicola Jane Hearst (1971-1999).

Permalink  |  Posted by Admin at 02:38 PM

Friday, December 15, 2017

Blindfold Chess: The Memory Factor and Mnemonic Techniques

This article is a PDF. You can download it here.

Permalink  |  Posted by John Knott at 05:44 PM

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Timur Gareyev and Blindfold Chess: An Appraisal by John Knott

This article is a PDF. You can download it here.

Permalink  |  Posted by John Knott at 11:34 AM

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Working Together: The World’s Two Best Blindfold Players Succeed in a “Tandem” Simultaneous Display

Most of you have probably witnessed a regular simultaneous display given by one person and you understand exactly how it is conducted. To be sure you know the details of such an arrangement an example may be useful. At the start of, say, a 20-board “simul” the exhibitor walks successively from Board 1 to Board 20, usually taking White and making the first move in each game. Then he returns to Board 1 and answers each opponent’s reply in succession. This general procedure continues as various games are finished. On the other hand, in a standard tandem display (also known as “leapfrog chess” or “piggy-back chess”) two exhibitors alternate moves so that after one exhibitor completes his moves on all boards the second exhibitor takes over and plays the next move on every board. Then the first player takes over again on all boards, followed by the second player on all boards, and so forth as the number of games in progress of course diminishes due to wins, draws, or (heaven forbid) losses by the partnership. The partners are never allowed to consult with each other, except when a decision has to be made about whether to accept or offer a draw, or to resign. The important point is that neither player ever makes two successive moves in any game.

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 02:54 PM

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Carlsen’s Blindfold Blitzkrieg: A Unique Way to Play (and Succeed!) in a Speedy, Timed Simultaneous

The setting was unusual for a blindfold simultaneous chess exhibition by a grandmaster. It was held at the 20th anniversary of the annual Sohn Investment Conference, which is the world’s largest meeting of prominent financial experts: investors, hedge-fund managers, and bankers. Each member of the audience, with the exception of a few special invitees, had to pay $5,000 for the opportunity to attend; most of the over $4 million that was raised is to be used to support research in and treatment of childhood cancer, from which Ira Sohn died. Held at Avery Fischer Hall in Lincoln Center in New York, the event usually features numerous speakers on financial issues, but this time Magnus Carlsen’s blindfold display may have created as much attention as many of the speeches.

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 10:56 AM

Thursday, September 19, 2013

GM Gareev’s Blindfold Displays Have Created Exciting Publicity, But Are Not Really “Simultaneous”

American grandmaster Timur Gareev, who emigrated from Uzbekistan a few years ago, is now one of the top tournament players in the U.S. The 25-year-old won the North American Open in 2012 and tied for third in this year’s regular U.S. Championship. With a B.A. degree in Business Marketing from the University of Texas at Brownsville, he has been actively promoting scholastic chess as well as his own achievements in playing blindfold chess.

His frequent blindfold displays, so far all west of the Mississippi River, have produced the greatest interest in that kind of play by an American since George Koltanowski’s glory days touring the U.S. from the late 1930’s to the 1950’s. Before settling in San Francisco, Koltanowski twice set world records for number of opponents played simultaneously without sight of any boards or pieces, by opposing 30 in Antwerp, Belgium in 1931 and 34 in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1937. (Franco-Russian Alexander Alekhine’s blindfold exhibition against 32 in Chicago in 1933 forced Kolty to play to regain the world record with his 34-boarder). Since then, the world simultaneous blindfold record has been captured by GM Miguel Najdorf, playing 40 in 1943 and 45 in 1947 in South America, and (64 years later!) in 2011 by German master Marc Lang, who took on 46 at once in Sontheim an der Brenz, Germany. Blogs about Lang’s successively increasing size of displays, leading to his recent world record performance, have appeared on this website, which readers can consult for exhibition details and games.

These facts provide a historical background for our current focus on Timur Gareev’s blindfold displays. According to numerous media reports in newspaper chess columns, magazines, and websites Gareev has played as many as 27 and 33 games simultaneously while literally blindfolded and facing toward his opponents, instead of simply playing with his back to them, as is customary. Many sources include a photo of him playing blindfolded, as well as the physical arrangement of his opponents, and so there seems no good reason to reproduce any of those photos here. His 27-board display took place in Oahu, Hawaii in December 2012 and he won 24, lost only 1, and drew 2 of the games, a truly excellent score. However, the opposition included mostly middle-school students without USCF ratings and therefore it is hard to judge the quality of the opposition. The exhibition took 9 hours.

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 05:39 PM

Monday, February 20, 2012

Video: 60 Minutes Report About Magnus Carlsen and Blindfold Chess

Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 01:07 PM

Friday, December 16, 2011

After 64 Years: New World Blindfold Record Set by Marc Lang Playing 46 Games at Once

In 1947 GM Miguel Najdorf, while sitting in an isolated room, played 45 games simultaneously in São Paulo, Brazil. In another room his opponents sat with regular boards and pieces in front of them, and their and Najdorf’s moves were transmitted to each other via standard chess notation using a microphone. This performance exceeded his own previous world record of 40, set in 1943 in Rosario, Argentina. Until a few weeks ago, since 1947 only one player had played as many as 35 blindfold games at once under well-controlled conditions. That successful master was Marc Lang of Günzburg, Germany, who handled 35 opponents in November of 2010, surpassing blindfold champion George Koltanowski’s still-existing European and pre-Najdorf world record of 34 simultaneous games set in Edinburgh in 1937 (in 2009 Lang had set a new German record of 23). Lang’s only remaining goal was to exceed Najdorf’s 45 games and thereby gain the world record. For the past year he has been preparing to do just that, which he accomplished by playing 46 opponents on November 26-27, 2011.

It is remarkable that Lang is only a FIDE master, with an ELO rating around 2300. Except for Koltanowski (who did achieve an International Master’s rating in 1950 and was later awarded an honorary Grandmaster title by FIDE in 1988), the greatest simultaneous blindfold players of the past were top world-class tournament and match players like Harry Pillsbury, Alexander Alekhine, Richard Réti,and Najdorf. Lang’s ELO rating places him behind many hundreds of players of today who have gained International Master or Grandmaster titles and won major tourneys. The question remains whether Lang could have reached a much higher ELO rating had he not devoted himself to his computer business and family and rarely played in regular tourneys, or whether possession of excellent memory skills, a fairly high level of chess mastery, and strong motivation are about all you need to become a world blindfold champion.

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 05:36 PM

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Consecutive Blindfold Rapid Games: FM Lang Sets New World Record of 60, Beating Koltanowski’s 56

Several of my previous blogs have described German FIDE master Marc Lang’s exploits at playing many blindfold games simultaneously. In that type of exhibition he played 35 at once last November, surpassing the previous European record of 34 games set by George Koltanowski at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1937. He intends to play 46 games in the same manner in November 2011, to beat the current world record of 45 set by GM Miguel Najdorf in 1947 in São Paulo, Brazil.

Meanwhile, he has just broken the world record for playing many rapid blindfold games in succession, not simultaneously. In 1944 American GM Reuben Fine introduced this type of blindfold display, and with each sighted opponent and Fine having 10 seconds per move, his maximum number of opponents was 10 against very strong opposition in Washington, D.C. (+9, =1). In 1951 Koltanowski (“Kolty”, as everyone called him) decided to play far more than 10 consecutive games at the same speed and took on 50 relatively weak players in San Francisco, scoring +43, -2, =5 . The display took 8½ hrs. Of course Kolty played all the games without sight of a board and pieces, whereas all his opponents had regular boards and pieces in front of them. Later on, in 1960, Kolty exceeded his previous record by playing 56 successive games at 10-sec-a-move (+50, =6), again in San Francisco in an exhibition lasting 9¾ hrs. once more against relatively weak opposition. More details of all these events are described in our book on pages 90 and 112.

Marc Lang

Above: Marc Lang during the 60-board successive blindfold exhibition. He was “told” his opponent’s moves through ear phone messages via a computer speaker that was automatically triggered by each move of his opponent. He also wore ear protectors above the earphones because a “Volkfest” was going on nearby with very loud live music!

Today very accurate and durable chess clocks are easily available and we are in the computer age. As a result, there is a new and different way of playing rapid or “blitz” chess, as compared to use of a bell or buzzer that rang every 10 seconds in the Fine and Kolty era. Chess clocks or computer timers are usually set so that each player has a total of five minutes for the entire game. For a 40-move game this would average out to fewer than 10 sec a move, a generally faster clip than in the earlier era, although a player could take more than 10 seconds for some moves if he found it necessary (and he might move within a second or two at times, especially early in the game).

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 10:20 PM

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Urcan Questions Validity of Paulsen’s Simul Blindfold 12- and 15-Board World Records in 1858-59

In our book (pages 30 and 396-397) we credited Louis Paulsen with raising the world simultaneous blindfold record from 5 to 7 to 8 to 10 to 12 to 15 opponents during the years 1857 to 1859, although we stated that “regrettably, it has not been possible to discover more details of several of Paulsen’s displays”. There are many question marks instead of definite dates, overall scoring percentages, total time taken, etc., in our table on pp.396-397! Johannes Zukertort took on 16 opponents without sight of any boards or pieces in 1876 and was then hailed as the new world-record holder, presumably because he had exceeded Paulsen’s best total of 15 seventeen years before. We relied on reports in Bell’s Life in London, The Field, and Hooper and Whyld’s authoritative and encyclopedic Oxford Companion to Chess as sources for most of our statements and details.

However, in a recent column on the Chess Cafe website, dated July 30, 2011, the eminent chess historian Olimpiu Urcan of Singapore reports that his extensive research on Paulsen’s displays indicates that, while there is no doubt that he gave many blindfold displays on 10 boards, important questions remain about his 12- and 15-board exhibitions, especially the latter. The actuality of the supposed 12-board display in St. Louis in June 1858, which had been mentioned without details in several places after 1860, is apparently most dependent on material from a column by Max Judd in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat of November 14, 1875, which provides a game played by the father of a man who forwarded to Judd the score of his father’s game against Paulsen over sixteen years before and who reported that Paulsen scored 11 wins and 1 draw in that display. Urcan supplies the game, vs. O. Monnig, Sr., which was the one draw, but he mentions that other sources imply that Paulsen gave only 10-board displays in St. Louis during that period. So it is not completely clear that Paulsen gave a controlled 12-board display at any time.

The question of whether Paulsen ever gave a completely acceptable exhibition of 15 boards is much more uncertain. Urcan reports that any such display was reported in several newspapers to have occurred in November of 1858 in Dubuque and not in 1859, the usual year given for his supposed record-breaking exhibition of 15 boards. But the display was stopped after 9 hours and about 25 moves with no games finished, although reporters said Paulsen “would have won them”. The exhibition was probably terminated because it was 10 PM and the players were tired. If these reports are accurate, Paulsen never gave a complete blindfold display against 15 opponents and therefore the event should not be considered to have set a world record.

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 08:01 AM

Monday, July 25, 2011

Most of Us Underestimate Our Blindfold Skill: Try Blindfold Play as It Will Help Your Regular Chess

(The following article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Chess Life. Its title there was “Jeepers, Creepers: Who Needs Those Peepers?” The author, GM Andrew Soltis, and Chess Life magazine have given us permission to reprint the article on this website, with very minor formatting changes. It should inspire readers to try playing blindfold and gives examples that provide some instructional hints.)

Of all the creatures on this planet, chessplayers are among the least likely to be accused of modesty. But there’s one skill in which we underestimate ourselves. Believe it or not, it’s blindfold chess.

I suspect that you are better at blindfold than you think. In fact, I’d bet that at least a third of Chess Life readers can play through a game score mentally.

Furthermore, I’d wager that a substantial number of readers can play their own game without sight of the board. A smaller group can play more than one blindfold game simultaneously. And there are some — well, like Hikaru Nakamura — who can play 10 boards blind.

I know what you’re going to say: “Not me. I can’t picture the entire board in my mind.” But almost no one does that in blindfold chess — or in any other type of chess, for that matter.

Focus on those quads

White: GM Loek van Wely (FIDE 2683)
Black: GM Vassily Ivanchuk (FIDE 2750)
Melody Amber Blindfold Tourney 2007

blindfold chess diagram

This could be a Black-to-play-and-win position from our monthly quiz. Before reading on, cover up the next paragraph and try to solve it.

Black “saw” that White’s last move threatens 27. Qxh4. He also saw that 26…Qxe1+ doesn’t lead anywhere. But he found that 26…Bxg2+ 27. Kxg2 h1(Q)+! leads to a forced mate (28. Qxh1 Qg4+ or28…Rf2+).

Now if you saw all that — or even a fraction of it — you may have noticed how your attention was focused on the lower right corner of the board. You probably paid no attention at all to the knight at d7 or White’s queenside pieces, not to mention the distant pawns. You may have looked at only 16 squares, on the e- to h-files.

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 10:27 PM

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Simultaneous Blindfold: FM Lang Plays 35, Can He Beat Najdorf’s World Record of 45 in 2011?

Over the course of the last year and a half we have written two blogs on this website about the German FIDE master Marc Lang’s successive and dramatic increases in the number of blindfold games he has played all at once. He moved from playing 15 simultaneously in June 2009 to becoming the holder of the German record of 23 in November of the same year. Just recently (Nov.27-28, 2010) he successfully took on 35 opponents in Sontheim, Germany, which eclipsed the 34-board performance of George Koltanowski in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1937. Koltanowski’s accomplishment became the world record for number of simultaneous blindfold games played up to that time, but a decade later Miguel Najdorf played 45 at once in São Paulo, Brazil and this currently stands as the generally accepted world record.

So, with 35 games, Marc Lang now holds both the German and European records. Only Najdorf’s achievement stands between Lang’s and the world record. He expects to play 46 late next year to establish a new world record and it seems likely that he will reach this goal. Psychologists would consider all the displays mentioned above, as well as others described in our book, to be among the greatest memory feats that humans have accomplished.

Lang’s recent display received exceptional coverage in the German television and general print media, perhaps as much as or more than has been devoted to regular world chess championship reports. Maybe that is because no German GM has been a solid world championship contender for many years! If you know the German language you can read a detailed report of Lang’s 35-board display here, which also includes a listing of all the individual board results, photos and videos of the exhibition, as well as other historical and relevant material. It even shows Lang playing chess at home with his two young children and observing wife, or riding his bike to maintain his general physical health and to keep in shape for his strenuous displays. We reproduce here the U-tube video from German TV, which will give our readers a view of the playing arrangement and computer-controlled setup, as well as many other features of the exhibition. Unfortunately, the audio part of the video is in German, but the visual part is easy for most of us to follow, even without a knowledge of that language.

Rather than sending our readers to German language websites, I think they would like to find out some details and sidelights of Lang’s recent display written in English. He has corresponded extensively with me and much of what follows is derived from his emails. His final score was 19 wins, 13 draws, and 3 losses, a very good winning percentage of 72.9%. The whole event took 23 hours from about 9 AM on Saturday, November 27 to about 8 AM on Sunday, with a total of four breaks (half-hour each). Lang sat in the center of the exhibition room, facing all his opponents whose chess positions were concealed from him by cardboard barriers in front of each game. Lang has used this arrangement before and he could chat and joke with each opponent if he wanted to. Also, seeing the people he faced probably enabled him to build up stronger associations with the moves that had occurred in each game. Lang allowed opponents to be replaced by another person if they got too tired and did not want to stay until the finish.

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 01:53 PM

Monday, July 05, 2010

Economist Kenneth Rogoff and Blindfold Chess

The financial crises of the past few years have adversely affected almost all of us. Of course they are among the most common topics that politicians, bloggers, newscasters, Main Streeters and Wall Streeters, and just about everyone else discuss endlessly and debate vigorously. The publication last year of This Time Is Different by world-renowned economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart offered a historical investigation of disastrous monetary decisions from 66 countries over the last 800 years, not focusing on the application of recent economic theory but presenting data that many contemporary economists neglect, are ignorant of, or think are irrelevant to today’s major issues. The book is a best seller, having sold nearly 100,000 copies since last September’s publication.

So the book is basically non-theoretical in focus, unlike most current economic tomes, and is very factually oriented. An article about it by Catherine Rampell was featured in The New York Times of July 4, where she describes it as a “quantitative reconstruction of hundreds of historical episodes in which perfectly smart people made perfectly disastrous decisions.” Readers of our website can find the article here. Or they could have seen Rogoff in person on one of his numerous appearances on CNN and other television channels. However, they may be surprised that Rampell devotes some space to Rogoff’s chess career, which I think certainly did merit mention.

At the age of 17, Rogoff played first board for the United States team that won the Chess World Student Olympiad in Haifa, Israel, in 1970. He finally gained the grandmaster title in 1978 and soon afterward completely gave up serious chess! He decided to devote himself to the field of economics and after graduate work at MIT, he eventually became chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and later accepted professorships, first at Princeton and then at Harvard, where he is now located.

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Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 07:05 PM

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Marc Lang, Holder of New German Simultaneous Blindfold Record, Will Try 46 Games for World Record

FIDE master Marc Lang, who set a new German record of 23 simultaneous blindfold games last November, has announced that he will attempt something especially spectacular next year: to beat the long-standing world record of 45 games, set over 60 years ago by Grandmaster Miguel Najdorf in São Paulo, Brazil in 1947. Fans of this website will recall that we located Najdorf’s only surviving opponent from that exhibition and he contributed his memories of that event for a blog we posted last April 11. Check our list of blogs if you would like to read it over. In another blog (June 28, 2009) we noted that Lang had recently played 15 simultaneous blindfold games and was going to try to surpass the German record of 22, set by British GM Anthony Miles in Roetgen in 1984. Lang kept his promise and took on 23 last November 21. We are hoping he can keep his new promise and in 2011 successfully achieve a new world record of 46, earning himself a distinctive place in chess history.

Since no one has apparently played more than 26 simultaneous blindfold games since 1993, when Hans Jung of Canada played that many, Lang will be taking quite a leap forward and doubling the number of games he handled in his 23-board display. The 23-board display has not received adequate coverage in the non-German chess media and Lang was kind enough to send us more material about that exhibition, including a selection of games and a few photographs. We devote this blog mainly to his play in that event and will let you ponder whether he will be able to accomplish his goal of 46 games next year.

Lang, 40 and married with two young children, is a self-employed computer programmer and antique dealer, too busy with his business and family to play chess professionally. He lives in Günzburg, 60 miles west of Munich in Bavaria, and keeps up with chess by reading many relevant books and magazines without any chessboard available, in his bed or bathroom. Lang has remarked that “blindfold is just like I’m used to studying chess”.

[Continue reading...]

Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 11:24 AM

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Intriguing, First-Ever Comparison: Grandmaster Rankings in Blindfold, Rapid, and Regular (FIDE) Play

Grandmaster tournaments and matches are much more varied today than they were throughout most of the 20th century. The “old-fashioned” events had slow time limits and players rarely had to play more than one game a day. More recent tourneys are often played at a much faster overall pace, frequently have sudden-death blitz playoffs after a relatively slow start, and may involve computers or humans-plus-computer as entries. One of the most interesting new varieties has consistently attracted the top grandmasters in the world to its venue – the annual Amber tournaments in Monaco or Nice during March or April. There the contestants play two games a day with a single opponent, one at a rapid speed (25 minutes for the entire game, with a bonus of 10 sec for each move made) with a standard chessboard and pieces to move in front of them, and the other at basically the same speed with both players “blindfolded”, in the sense that they enter their moves on a computer keyboard but can see only a blank chessboard and their opponent’s last move on the monitor facing them.

The Amber tourneys allow an eventual comparison of each player’s world ranking at blindfold chess with his or her ranking in rapid chess or in chess at the traditional slow speed (“classical”, FIDE-rated games). Would the FIDE rankings of grandmasters correlate best with their blindfold play or with their rapid play, and would players’ rankings in blindfold and rapid chess differ significantly? Supposedly obvious predictions about these correlations might prove false if data were available to test them.

Elmer Sangalang of the Philippines volunteered to calculate ratings based on the 2,376 games played in the rapid and blindfold modes over all the 18 Amber tourneys that started in 1993, including the most recent event in March of 2010. Sangalang was the editor of the 2nd edition of Arpad Elo’s “The Rating of Chess Players, Past and Present”, published in 1986, which extended and corrected material in the first edition. Now retired, Sangalang worked mainly as an engineer, actuary, and applied mathematician. He has been a consultant for FIDE on the ELO rating system since 1984.

It was not an easy job to collect complete scoretables for every Amber tourney but ultimately Sangalang was successful and he could include all games from the blindfold and rapid halves of those events. On the other hand, FIDE ratings appear regularly every 2 months and he waited for the publication of the May 1, 2010 ratings and rankings to have the most recent results available for his analysis.

His method for calculating the Amber rapid and blindfold ratings followed the standard ELO procedure (Method of Successive Approximations). The calculations began by assigning every player an initial rating of 2600, to keep the numerical values completely independent of players’ different FIDE ratings. Starting with the players’ actual FIDE ratings seemed less reasonable and would bias the results in favor of the more highly-ranked individuals. So all the numerical ratings for the three groups presented below (Blindfold, Rapid, and FIDE) are independent of each other and cannot be compared in terms of their numerical values, that is, one cannot conclude that, say, Anand’s FIDE rating of 2789 means that he is better at slow chess than rapid chess (rating of 2688) or blindfold chess (rating of 2667). However, the rankings of the players (from 1 to 29) have no such limitations or restrictions and a comparison of these in the three groups is entirely justified. To increase the statistical reliability of the results, only players who participated in at least two Amber tourneys were included below, a total of 29 competitors.

Here are the results for the three types of play. We reiterate that each of the three sets of data are independent of each other, and the numerical values of the ratings cannot be legitimately compared. Before looking at the results, readers might like to guess, for example, whether FIDE rankings would correlate best with rankings in blindfold play or sighted rapid play.

RankingNameNumber of
Amber Tourneys
1Morozevich, Alexander82739
2Kramnik, Vladimir 162704
3Grischuk, Alexander22703
4Anand, Viswanathan162667
5Topalov, Veselin122644
6Shirov, Alexei112633
7Leko, Peter92628
8Carlsen, Magnus42628
9Aronian, Levon52620
10Ivanchuk, Vassily182615
11Svidler, Peter52614
12Radjabov, Teimor22594
13Kamsky, Gata42586
14Karpov, Anatoly92586
15Almasi, Zoltan32581
16Gelfand, Boris 112575
17Karjakin, Sergey32573
18Lautier, Joel62569
19Bareev, Evgeny42536
20Vallejo Pons, Francisco42531
21Nikolic, Predrag62516
22Polgar, Judit42515
23Polgar, Susan22513
24Piket, Jeroen102510
25Van Wely, Loek122503
26Ljubojevic, Ljubomir112486
27Seirawan, Yasser 22481
28Nunn, John22431
29Korchnoi, Viktor22350

RankingNameNumber of
Amber Tourneys
1Aronian, Levon52703
2Anand, Viswanathan162688
3Bareev, Evgeny42683
4Carlsen, Magnus42667
5Ivanchuk, Vassily182655
6Kramnik, Vladimir162650
7Leko, Peter92648
8Kamsky, Gata42644
9Topalov, Veselin122642
10Shirov, Alexei112638
11Karjakin, Sergey32628
12Svidler, Peter52617
13Morozevich, Alexander82617
14Gelfand, Boris112613
15Karpov, Anatoly92608
16Polgar, Judit42591
17Radjabov, Teimor22553
18Grischuk, Alexander22546
19Piket, Jeroen102545
20Van Wely, Loek122534
21Almasi, Zoltan 32527
22Vallejo Pons, Francisco42515
23Korchnoi, Viktor22508
24Lautier, Joel 62498
25Ljubojevic, Ljubomir112494
26Nikolic, Predrag62478
27Seirawan, Yasser22474
28Polgar, Susan22454
29Nunn, John22432

1Carlsen, Magnus2813
2Topalov, Veselin2812
3Kramnik, Vladimir2790
4Anand, Viswanathan2789
5Aronian, Levon2783
6Grischuk, Alexander2760
7Shirov, Alexei2742
8Gelfand, Boris2741
9Ivanchuk, Vassily2741
10 Radjabov. Teimor2740
11 Karjakin, Sergey2739
12 Leko, Peter2735
13Svidler, Peter2735
14 Almasi, Zoltan2725
15Morozevich, Alexander2715
16Vallejo Pons, Francisco2703
17 Kamsky, Gata2702
18 Polgar, Judit2682
19Bareev, Evgeny2663
20 Lautier, Joel2658
21 Van Wely, Loek2653
22Seirawan, Yasser2644
23Piket, Jeroen2624
24 Karpov, Anatoly2619
25 Nikolic, Predrag2606
26 Nunn, John2602
27 Polgar, Susan2577
28 Ljubojevic, Ljubomir2572
29 Korchnoi, Viktor2564

After all the above rankings had been tabulated, statistically-determined correlations were calculated for each of the three possible pairs of comparisons: Blindfold vs. Rapid, Blindfold vs. FIDE, and Rapid vs. FIDE. Somewhat surprisingly, the FIDE rankings correlated most strongly with the Blindfold rather than with the Rapid rankings, even though both the FIDE and Rapid results involved games played with sight of a chessboard and the Blindfold games did not. All the different correlations were highly statistically reliable, but the strongest one was between FIDE and Blindfold; the next highest was between FIDE and Rapid, and the weakest was between Blindfold and Rapid. For those readers who are familiar with correlational techniques in statistics , the FIDE vs. Blindfold correlation for player rankings was +.84, for FIDE vs. Rapid +.76, and for Blindfold vs. Rapid +.72.

It is intriguing to speculate as to why a player’s world ranking (FIDE) in regular, “classical” chess would correlate best with his or her blindfold ranking, rather than with his or her regular rapid play. We offer one possibility and we welcome other suggestions from readers: Players may well be more cautious or careful in blindfold play than in rapid play with sight of the chessboard and thus try riskier lines of play in the latter, leading to more variable outcomes. (Recall the advice of world-class blindfold players like Alekhine who recommended that one “keep it simple” when playing without sight of the board). The fact that in the Amber tourneys the correlation between the Blindfold and Rapid conditions was relatively low (+.72) would be consistent with essentially the same kind of argument. At any rate, and speaking more loosely, you can predict a grandmaster’s FIDE ranking better from his Blindfold ranking than from his Rapid ranking.

We thank Mr. Sangalang for his careful and extensive work making the above calculations. Readers with questions or critical comments should send them to him or us via the “Comments” boxes below this blog. All of them will be published and answered.

Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 06:25 PM


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