You’ve probably heard of blind chess before. It’s the practice of playing a game of chess without a physical representation of the board. That means no pieces, no diagram, no audio recordings of the movements. A player’s only recourse is their memory–you’re expected to keep track of the ever-changing position of the board, and moves are usually communicated via chess notation (e.g. ‘Rook to a4’). As you can imagine it’s fiendishly difficult, but most advanced players pick up the skill. It’s not unusual for Grand Masters to be able to play multiple blind games simultaneously (albeit at a lower skill than their usual ability), and the current world record for simultaneous blindfold matches (with above 80% win rate) belongs to GM Timur Gareyev, at 48 matches.
What you probably haven’t heard of before is aphantasia. It’s from the Ancient Greek phantasis (an ancestor of the English ‘fantasy’), and refers to an inability (or reduced ability) to visualise imagery. In other words if I asked you to picture a beach and then describe it to me you would probably mention the colour of the sand, sunbathers, children, the surf coming in… etc. etc. On a scale of 0-10 where 0 is ‘no image at all’ and 10 is ‘as clear as detailed as if I were there’ most people would describe their picture of the beach as around a 7.
I’m probably a 2 or a 3. I can get a kind of hazy idea of sand (it’s a yellow blob) and water (it’s a bluish blob), but it’s mentally taxing to hold it for long, and I get more of the impression of details than their visual presence. I didn’t know until recently that I was in the minority, nor did I realise that there are people who would score a 0-1. That’s the emerging clinical definition of ‘aphantasia’, and there’s beginning to be some interesting research on the topic (Keogh & Pearson, 2017; Zeman, Dewar & Sala, 2016)
So enter the research idea: how do individuals with aphantasia play blind chess? There seems to be anecdotal evidence that they can, and even some anecdotal evidence that they’re quite good at it (PaulWilsonTo, 2017). Now I should probably mention that most advice for blind chess beginners is to build up their ability to visualise the board. For many beginners the first games are played by looking at a blank board and mentally substituting the pieces.
What do you think? Are aphantasic blind chess players likely to have a disadvantage, or like PaulWilsonTo suggests, could they have an advantage? It’s an interesting area to examine, and if I ever get an opportunity it’s something I’d like to pick up in the future.
Keogh, R., & Pearson, J. (2017). The blind mind: No sensory imagery in aphantasia. The University of New South Wales
PaulWilsonTo, (2017). Aphantasic Blind Chess Players [Reddit post]. https://www.reddit.com/r/Aphantasia/comments/7i4whc/sorry_if_offtopic_but_is_it_possible_for_those/?st=jj5852pz&sh=6a52628c
Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2016). Reflections on aphantasia. Cortex, 74, 336-337.