One form of chess I have all my students try, both young and old alike, is blindfold chess. Blindfold chess is simply a game of chess without a physical board and pieces. You play the game within your mind. At first, it seems an impossible task but, with some practice, you can improve quickly. Students ask me why I have them learn this form of chess and my answer is because it improves their concentration and ability to focus.

I use blindfold chess to help keep my own mind sharp and increase my ability to focus, an important mental skill to have at any age. As we get older, we tend to become forgetful and our ability to concentrate becomes more difficult. Just as your eyes lose their ability to focus on objects as you get older so too does your mind. Some of my younger students have asked me if blindfold chess involves simply memorizing the game’s moves. The answer is no. To play blindfold chess, you must see the chessboard clearly in the mind’s eye! You are playing a real game of chess, only you have no physical board or pieces. You have to remember the position of the pawns and pieces on the board. In short, you have to see the entire board within your mind!

When I teach blindfold chess to my students, we start with some exercises, mental stretches if you will, to get their brains warmed up. These exercises are designed to help students develop their ability to focus. The first exercise is a tour of the chess board. Close your eyes. Take ten deep slow breaths. Now, visualize a vinyl tournament chessboard as seen from above. The board has alpha-numeric symbols around it’s edges so you’ll be able to easily navigate around the board. In your mind, you can fly like a bird. You are now going to slowly fly clockwise around the four corners of the chessboard, naming each square along the board’s edges as well as the color of each square. Start with the square a1. Next, visualize the board’s center squares and the squares that immediately surrounding them. Say the name of each square out loud. Note each square’s color.

This first step is designed to get students to mentally focus on the landscape of the chessboard. Next we slowly add pawns and pieces to our imaginary chess board. However, before starting this exercise, I place a single pawn on a vinyl tournament chessboard and have my students take a close look at that pawn. The pawn they are looking at is one that has a large scratch running down it’s side. I use this particular pawn because its large scratch is easy to visualize. Then I have my students close their eyes and visualize the scratched pawn on e4. I ask them what square the scratch is facing. Is it facing towards e5 or perhaps f4? We repeat this exercise with a few more pieces (on different squares), all of which have specific physical flaws due to my pet pit bull who has a penchant for chewing on plastic chess pieces.

These two initial exercises are practiced daily for about two weeks. Because I work with beginning and intermediate students, I don’t push them too hard with regard to playing blindfold chess. I ask students to practice these visualization exercises for ten to twenty minutes each day. After this two week period, we move on to their first game of blindfold chess.

Rather than have students try to play a complete game of blindfold chess. I have them start by playing the first five moves of the game, stopping and then starting another five move game. This allows them to become comfortable with visualizing a full set of pawns and pieces in play. Student’s alternate between e and d pawn openings. Once they become comfortable with visualizing their first five moves (and those of their opponent), we add another two moves to each game. We continue this process until a full game of blindfold chess can be played. How long this takes depends on the student.

When students start playing through the first five moves of a game, I have them imagine what the board looks like from the pawn or piece’s viewpoint. I have them follow the path the pawn or piece travels. Are there any opposition pawns or pieces that can be captured? Are any of the opposition’s pawns or pieces able to capture the piece in question?

Interestingly, my students who learn blindfold chess tend to hang less pieces in their regular games because they are seeing the entire board and have a more intimate relationship with the pawns and pieces in play. I suspect the reason for this is because students are playing through the positions in their heads, thanks to the above exercises, while playing the physical game. This translates to them paying more attention to their game. Their memory also improves from such exercises which makes it easier to learn more complicated ideas. A win win situation!

Visualization goes a long way towards developing or improving focus and blindfold chess really helps to develop this skill. However, it takes time to be able to play a complete game. Slow and steady wins this race. Playing blindfold chess is especially helpful to those of us who are middle aged and prone to moments of forgetfulness. Try it out and see if it doesn’t help your memory and focus. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).