Blindfold Chess: The Feats of Blindfolded Chess | Chess News

A chess grandmaster pedals an exercise bike while playing fifteen simultaneous games blindfolded for five hours straight, memorizing where each of the 480 pieces is on each board. He wins fourteen and draws one, to the unanimous astonishment of the spectators. His name is Timur Garéyev, he is 35 years old and has a mental capacity at the limit of what is human. What he has just done in this exhibition in Astana (Kazakhstan) is a trifle compared to his world record, in 2016 in Las Vegas (USA): 48 boards (1,536 pieces) for 19 hours; 35 wins, seven draws, six losses. And he believes that he can improve it.

Non-chess players already often find simultaneous displays amazing by looking at the pieces: one player faces many at once, moving from board to board. For example, this Saturday Azkoitia (Gipuzkoa) celebrated the 40 years since the Spanish José Luis Larrañaga broke the world record in front of 605 rivals for almost 32 hours (535 wins, 42 draws, 28 losses). Czech-German Vlastimil Hort raised the mark to 636 boards in 1985.

The common factor of those feats, both seeing and not seeing the pieces, is pattern recognition. When Larrañaga or Hort make a move on board 17 (for example) and go to board 18, they only need a few seconds to assess who has the advantage, what threat or intends the opponent’s last move and what are their two or three most logical responses. This is due not only to the hundreds of games that they can remember consciously, but also to the thousands that are stored in the unconscious; the latter is what is called intuition in chess. The usual schemes of connections between pieces, pawn structures or typical combinations against a weak king allow them to discard in seconds many moves that would be legal but absurd, and limit themselves to those consistent with the situation on the board.

Now, doing the same thing blindly is much more difficult and demanding, even dangerous to health when taken to Garéyev’s extremes. In the Soviet Union, an almost hegemonic country in chess for more than half of the 20th century, coaches used to forbid blindfolded exhibitions against many opponents. And they had compelling reasons: several of the protagonists of world records and other great feats took months for their brains to function normally again. When Garéyev broke the record, he went several days without sleep.

For this reason, this Uzbek by birth, resident in the USA, attaches great importance to the non-purely chess aspects of his exploits. “The main reason for me to ride a stationary bike during my exhibitions is to underline that high-level chess requires good physical condition. In addition, I feel that this exercise generates energy to better resist the mental effort [probablemente, porque produce dopamina]. And I will not deny that it also serves to attract attention and make the photos even more striking ”, Garéyev explained to EL PAÍS after an exhibition in which he frequently drank water and green tea. When he broke the record, he ate small amounts of lemon-marinated watermelon, avocado, coconut oil, green leaves and hot chili peppers. And in the years before, he’d skydived and mountaineered, as well as yoga daily, and ran marathons.

A moment from Timur Garéiev's exhibition
A moment from Timur Garéiev’s exhibitionAnna Shtourman/FIDE

In addition to having highly developed photographic and logical memories, Garéyev uses sophisticated mental organization techniques during his exhibitions. He imagines that each board is a room in a palace with a different set. He does his best to ensure that two games don’t start too similarly because that would run the risk of confusing them. If he drives the white pieces on boards 1, 3, 5 and 7, his initial move is different on each of them; then he repeats the 1 in the 9 and the 3 in the 11 because being so far apart he easily distinguishes them. And with Black he sets up different defenses on the 2, 4, 6 and 8, etc.

The organizers of Astana arranged, with their best intentions, for a referee to sing the plays of each rival. But in even more demanding exhibitions, he asks that it be done in a different way: “It is important that it is the player himself who sings his movement to me because in this way each one’s voice helps me to identify it with the position on the board, and That helps me a lot.”

The fascination for blindfolded chess was already known in the 9th century, shortly after the Arabs brought chess to southern Spain, when the master Said Jubain faced four rivals with his back turned and one of his slaves transmitted the moves to him. . The first unofficial world champion (16th century), Ruy López de Segura, astonished with similar displays at the court of Felipe II. The Frenchman Philidor did the same 200 years later at the Café de la Régence in Paris.

Even more difficult. American Harry Pillsbury (1872-1906) gave a memorable display against 12 top-level opponents at a New York club. Before starting, he was read a list of 30 complicated words, associated with random numbers. Among them, the following: antiphlogistin; periosteum; takadiastase; plasmon; threlkeld; and streptococcus. After concluding the game with eight wins, two draws and two losses, Pillsbury repeated all the words several times in different order. Considered one of the great ill-fated chess geniuses, he died of syphilis at the age of 38.

A case with tragic overtones is that of Miguel Najdorf (1910-1997), one of the most charismatic chess players in history, who decided to stay in Buenos Aires after playing in that city in the 1939 Chess Olympiad while Hitler was invading Poland. He didn’t know if his relatives, Jews, had survived (actually, they were all dead), and he decided to star in news with great initial impact because that could help him resolve the anguish. What he did was break the blindfold world record twice, in 1943 in Rosario (Argentina) in front of 40 boards (+36 = 1 -3) and in 1947 in Sao Paulo (Brazil) against 45 (+39 = 4 -2).

Garéyev wants to raise his mark to 55. And in a big way: “I am not satisfied with breaking the record again like in 2016, when I myself had to be the organizer and almost the sponsor. Now it would be in the framework of a great festival of chess and memory games, where the public would have a great time”. And he adds that he is really enjoying the World Cup between Ian Niepómniashi and Liren Ding, who will play the tenth of the fourteen scheduled games this Sunday in Astana, with the Russian leading 5-4: “It’s an exciting duel. I think Niepo has about a 70% chance of winning it.”

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