Playing blindfold chess – that is, playing a chess game without looking at the pieces or the board – has long been considered one of the most impressive feats of chess strength. And no wonder! Planning the future in a normal chess game can be hard enough, but when on top of that you need to "create" the position in your head before even considering the next move, the slightest oversight (or overblindness?) can be fatal.
Because it requires a sustained concentration effort going far beyond the demands of a normal game, we often think that blindfold chess is outside of our grasp. Let grandmasters and other such mythical creatures entertain themselves with purely mental chess. We common mortals should stick to tangible boards and palpable pieces.
At least that’s what some of us say.
But the truth is, you can most likely learn to play blindfold chess no matter your current level. Playing it well is another question – as with everything else, lots of practice will be in order. Good news, though: you won’t need a chess board for that!
Below, let’s take a look at why blindfold chess is a good idea and what you can do to get started playing with nothing but your mind.
There are two ways to play blindfold chess. The first one is entirely in your mind: you announce your moves out loud and in turn your opponent announces his. For that you need to use chess notation – algebraic being the standard choice.
The second method is over an empty board, which is how blindfold tends to be played over the internet. Here you’ll move by dragging your (invisible) pieces from one square to another. When your opponent moves, you’ll see only the “track” of his last move.
It’s a simple equation: learn to play blindfold and you improve your overall chess skill.
That alone is reason enough to practice blindfold: your powers of calculation will improve, and you’ll find yourself more and more able to practice a range of positions just from looking at a diagram. You’ll also see a boost to your ability to concentrate for longer periods. And, of course, your friends will be impressed.
But aside from that, being able to play blindfold is just too much fun. It’s a perfect way to while away boredom – no need for a smartphone here. And appointments at the dentist’s are always less agonizing and end faster when you can distract your focus away from that screechy, whirring machine and on to a nice game of chess.
As you become a strong player – let’s say, 2000 FIDE and above, – you’ll probably find yourself able to play blindfold to a certain extent, whether or not you trained for it. It’s almost impossible to be a strong chess player and not pick up some blindfold skills as a matter of course.
But – and this is the point of this article – you can always speed up the process and learn blindfold chess at your own level by practicing blindfold-targeted chess exercises.
Let’s take a look at some of the exercises you can do that will soon have you playing through your first blindfold game.
Using algebraic notation, think of a given square – say, e4 – and then find out in your mind what color it is. How? A good way is to think of a square whose color you know for certain and then work your way from there. If you know that e1, being the starting square for the white king, is a dark square, getting to e4 is child’s play: e2 is light, e3 is dark, hence e4 is light.
This is important, even though when playing blindfold you typically won’t “see” any colors at all in your mind! The reason why this exercise is so helpful is because through it you start understanding the relationships between the different squares and areas of the board. Do it long enough and you will “know” that f6 is a dark-colored square as a matter of fact – that’s just what f6 is.
Once telling the color becomes too easy, it’s time to raise the bar. Let’s place some imaginary pieces on your imaginary board and try and find out all the squares it can go to.
Start easy. Where can a king on a1 go? a2, b2, b1. How about a knight on h1? f2, g3. A bishop on h7? Your turn.
This is one of the most useful techniques, and you can do it again and again with all of the pieces. As you become better at it, try to answer harder questions instinctively before working out the solution: can a bishop on a2 move to g8? Can it go to h8? This is where knowing the color of each square helps: if you know a2 is light-colored and h8 dark-colored, you can instantly tell a move to h8 isn't possible.
How many moves does it take to get a knight from a1 to h8? Practice this kind of exercise in your mind and you'll soon begin to understand, or rather to feel better the geometrical relations on the board.
As you begin to confidently move pieces around in your mind, you’ll feel a need for something more challenging. Good! Now you can get started solving blindfold chess puzzles.
Again, start easy. Take a relatively simple puzzle with a non-obvious solution – something you can’t solve at first glance. Look at it for some time and try to memorize the position. Then, set the diagram aside and work out the solution in your mind.
At first this may be a bit hard, but you'll soon get the hang of it. Here, too, you should start slow, at first trying only blindfold chess puzzles with very few pieces on the board and gradually increasing the difficulty level.
Endgames with few pieces on the board are a great way to start playing chess in your mind. Memorize a starting position well enough and then play it out in your mind. Start with the easiest endgames, such as a king and queen vs king checkmate or leading a pawn to promotion.
Eventually, this will develop into an invaluable skill for improving your endgame strength – for instance, you'll be able to memorize a difficult pawn endgame and then work it out in your mind during your next daily commute. Just beware you don’t miss your bus stop, as I sometimes did!
I know you’re just dying to start playing actual games, and that, of course, is the ultimate practice. Get a friend to help you, find an opponent online (both Lichess and Chess.com feature a blindfold chess setting) or, if that works for you, challenge yourself. At least you’ll lose no more than you’ll win!
As you start playing longer blindfold games, you’ll notice how hard it can be to keep track of all the moves played as the position shifts again and again. Without visual aids, even very strong players are prone to forgetting that a given piece has already been moved – or hasn’t yet.
This is where your previous chess knowledge makes a big difference – opening theory, middlegame, and even endgames. The more familiar you are with the position being played, the easier it’ll be to keep stock of the position at every step and make sure you know what’s going on at the board.
If you practice consistently following the steps above, I guarantee you’ll soon notice a significant improvement in your visualization and calculation skills. You’ll become a stronger player overall – and you’ll have fun in the process.
Is blindfold chess worth it? You’ll know the answer for sure when someone asks what you and your buddy are talking about – what is this “Knight f6, Bishop g5” thing – and you reply with a confident smile: “We’re playing chess”.
Alberto is a Brazilian National Chess Master, holds a degree in International Relations from the University of London and is a translator and content writer, as well as a student of foreign languages.