The Mind’s Eye

The mysterious phenomenon of aphantasia

Chess
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.”

This was completely superseded by Alfred Binet, the French psychologist who devised the first workable intelligence test (the Binet-Simon scale). In 1894 Hachette published his Psychologie des Grands Calculateurs et Joueurs d’Echecs. Reviewing it, Galton recanted his original view: chess masters playing blindfold, he conceded, “do not see the chessmen and the complete  board all at once and with clear definition . . . They appreciate the positions of the men as hidden centres of forces.”

This conclusion was most beautifully observed by Vladimir Nabokov in his 1936 novel The Luzhin Defence (Nabokov himself was a composer of chess problems): “When playing blind Luzhin was able to sense these diverse forces in their original purity. He saw then neither the Knight’s carved mane nor the glossy head of the Pawns — but he felt quite clearly that this or that imaginary square was occupied by a definite, concentrated force, so that he envisioned the movement of a piece as a discharge, a shock, a stroke of lightning.” I suspect most chess players would recognise something of their own mental processes in that wonderful passage.

There are, after all, chess players who are born blind: what does it mean to say that they are “seeing” moves? The recent documentary film Algorithms followed the exploits of young Indian blind chess players: it was a good title, as algorithms are what the brain is using when it reduces the near-infinity of chess to calculable proportions.

Perhaps the greatest of all blind chess players was an Englishman, Theodore Tylor (1900-1968). He developed his skill at the Worcester College for the Blind. From there he went to Oxford, where he captained the university’s chess club — as well as getting first-class honours in Jurisprudence, and later becoming a Fellow of Balliol. Tylor managed the best score of all the British masters in the great Nottingham tournament of 1936. The winner, Mikhail Botvinnik, noted how Tylor “felt” the position on a braille chess set: looking at the board would have been pointless for him. Ironically, Tylor’s most spectacular victory occurred in the 1929 Hastings tournament against George Koltanowski: in 1937 the Belgian-born player beat the record for simultaneous blindfold games, taking on 34 opponents in Edinburgh, winning 24 games and drawing ten. In this game, however, the blind Tylor “sees” more than the fully-sighted Koltanowski.

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.e4 e5 5.Bc4 Be7 6.0-0 0-0 7.Qe2 exd4 8.Nxd4 Re8? (Unpardonably careless. After 8…Ne5! Koltanowski would have equalised) 9.Bxf7+! Kxf7 10.Ne6!! (Perhaps this is what Koltanowski had missed. He must capture the Knight, otherwise his Queen is trapped) Kxe6 11. Qc4+ d5 12.exd5+ Kf7 (12…Kd6 13.Nb5+ Ke5 14.Re1+ Kf5 15.Qd3+ Kg4 16.Qh3 mate is not advisable) 13.d6+ Nd5 (Desperate ingenuity. Koltanowski realises that 13…Kf8 14.dxc7 wins his Queen) 14.dxe7 Rxe7 15.Nxd5 Ne5 16.Qf4+ Kg8 17.Nxe7+ Qxe7 18.Bd2 (The smoke has cleared. White has a winning material advantage and Black’s king is still vulnerable) Ng6 19.Qg3 Be6 20.Rfe1 Qf7 21. Bc3 Rf8 22.Re3 Bd5 23.Rae1 h5 24.h4 c5 25.f3 b5 26.b3 a5 27.Qg5 b4 28. Ba1 Qf5 29.Rf7 and Koltanowski resigned: after 29…Qxg5 30.Rxg7+ Kh8 31.hxg5 he is helpless against Tylor’s devastating threat of a discovered check from the Bishop on a1.