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Vladimir Kramnik in 2006: He says when playing blindfold he does not "see" the pieces (Ygrek CC BY-SA 2.5)

What do we see when we play chess? Or, more accurately, what do we “see”? Until now, I had never given this fundamental matter much thought. Yet recent research by Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive neurology and author of A Portrait of The Brain, has given me a lot to think about.

Zeman has examined what he calls “aphantasia”, where people have no ability to conjure up mental images. I am in that category but it had never occurred to me that it was especially uncommon. Yet according to Zeman only about 2 to 3 per cent of people have no “mind’s eye”.

In the ensuing debate, following the BBC’s publicising of Zeman’s work, it was asserted that chess players must be those with an especially well-developed “mind’s eye” as they were able to visualise the pieces moving around the board. Yet I am a reasonable chess player who does no such thing. On the other hand I use the word “see” when writing about the discovery of a particular move — which only shows how limited language can be when describing the activity of the brain.

This impelled me to email some leading grandmasters, to ask them what they really “saw” when analysing chess positions. Nigel Short replied: “I really don’t have a clue what I see when I don’t see — if you know what I mean. The one thing I can tell you for certain is that I don’t have a physical image of knights, pawns or whatever in my head.” I also contacted the Israeli GM Emil Sutovsky, perhaps the most artistic player of his generation: his best games have an almost unfathomable beauty. I emailed him: “When you visualise chess positions, what do you ‘see’? Is it like an image? Or if not, then what?” Emil wrote back: “I’d be happy to answer any of your questions, but I don’t know how to answer this one. Never tried to think about it. Simply don’t know what to say.”

My third port of call was the former world champion, Vladimir Kramnik. This was because Vladimir is a peerless exponent of “blindfold chess”. Between 1992 and 2011 there was an annual tournament — known as Melody Amber — in which the world’s top players took part in a mixture of “lightning” and “blindfold” games (where the competitors wrote their moves rather than played them on a board). Kramnik’s performances in the “blindfold” section were so outstanding that he asked the organisers if the “lightning” games might also be played without boards.

Yet even Vladimir told me he did not know exactly what he was visualising: “It’s difficult to describe how exactly I see the board playing blindfold. It’s more or less like a diagram but in fact I am not sure I clearly visualise the pieces. Just sort of know that it is that piece on that square. Sort of.”

The first scientist to examine this was Francis Galton. In 1880 he produced the paper “Visualised Numerals”. He wrote: “Chess-players exist who can play 10 or more games blindfold, having all the time a perfectly vivid picture of each board in succession before them and seeing the chessmen on each, as made of wood, ivory, as the case may be.”

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