Pawn Star


Tuesday 24 October 2006, Commodores Room, Guernsey Yacht Club, 7.10pm. 35 year old Swedish chess grandmaster Tiger Hillarp-Persson paces nervously and then swiftly leaves the room. He seems tense, and with good reason.

Imagine you are due to play a game of chess with an opponent who was also playing five other players at the same time. Imagine that your opponent was playing all six games without having sight of the board and had to remember where all of both his and your pieces are throughout the game. You might think you're in with a pretty good chance of winning. But when you're playing a grandmaster, it's not that cut and dried.

This is not as crazy as it might sound. Blindfold chess is a recognised method of play in which the players don't have sight of the positions of the pieces, or any physical contact with them. Moves are communicated via a recognised chess notation. This method was first played relatively early on in the history of chess, with the first game being played in the seventh or eighth century AD in the Middle East. Originally, in Europe, it was used as a way to handicap a chess master when facing a weaker opponent. Sometimes it was played just to show off!

Tiger returns to the room a few minutes later and takes his place in front of his six opponents (all members of the Guernsey Chess Club) who are sat side by side. His opponents are:

Board 1 - Brian Gabriel Board 2 - Peter Rowe Board 3 - Terry Harnden Board 4 - Greg Lowe Board 5 - Kerry Bateman Board 6 - Jonathan Spicer

Whilst Tiger isn't physically blindfolded, he does sit with his back to them. At 7.25, arbiter David Sedgwick announces the rules. 'This is an exhibition, not a competition', he states, 'so Tiger will be given a little help if need be!' He goes on to say that Tiger will no doubt be looking for a 6 - 0 victory.

At 7.27 Tiger calls out his first move. In fact he makes his first six moves one after the other with a similar move on each of his boards. Then Brian Gabriel makes his first move with Tiger making his next move on board 1 immediately after. The game goes on like this with each player making his move and Tiger making his move before moving on to the next board. After Jonathan Spicer's first move, Tiger takes his first pause of the night. He is silent for only about twenty seconds before making his next move.

Tiger's success depends on absolute silence, a clear focussed head and amazing levels of concentration and mental stamina. At first he seems very composed and quite relaxed but as time goes on, his pauses last longer and longer and it is impossible not to wonder exactly what is going through this man's head.

Having said that, it is not as if there was ever any doubt that Tiger could perform. Exactly one hour after the first game begins, it ends with Brian Gabriel resigning his king. One down, five to go!

About twenty minutes later, Tiger has to leave the room briefly taking care not to look at any of the boards as he leaves. He returns a couple of minutes later, almost moonwalking to avoid catching sight of any of the boards and continues playing. Minutes later, Kerry Bateman resigns his knight. In the next ten minutes, both Greg Lowe and Terry Harnden resign leaving only Peter Rowe, Treasurer of the Chess Club and Island Champion, and Junior Chess Club member Jonathan Spicer, the youngest competitor of the evening.

After another thirty five minutes, Jonathan resigns leaving Tiger with only one opponent to worry about. Just five minutes later, Peter Rowe resigns. Tiger stands up to a round of applause from the small audience and faces his opponents for the first time of the evening to shake their hands. He beat them in just two and a quarter hours.

This event, sponsored by Fortis, comes at the end of the 32nd Fortis Guernsey International Festival which was won by visiting Israeli grandmaster Leonid Gofshtein. The event was attended by a small intimate audience and raised 125 for the Guernsey Blind Association.

It was Fortis' Fred Hamperl, who has recently attained the level of FIDE master, who proposed and organised this event. 'I thought it would be interesting for Tiger to play six experienced players to get a cross section of the club', says Fred. With all of Tiger's opponents being members of the Guernsey Chess Club and therefore not exactly novices, it begs the question, how did he do it?

'I don't use any special tricks', Tiger says. 'It's basically all down to memory. I don't go through all the moves of each game each time, but I have trained myself to remember the position of each of the pieces on each board, to remember themes, or patterns of moves. When walking around tournaments, I glance at other people's boards and then later talk to them about their exact position at a certain point when they can't remember themselves!'

However, the truth is that strong chess players do not necessarily need to have extraordinary powers of visualisation and memory. Many professionals don't try to picture the entire board and all the pieces on their individual squares like an amateur might, instead relying more on knowledge and experience of certain patterns, much like a musician might use his or her knowledge of a certain scale to play a solo. Every experienced chess player has the different 'phrases' or moves at their fingertips and when they arise in a game they will be familiar to them. The player is not remembering enormous strings of random patterns but a string of common phrases, like a child remembers a nursery rhyme. In fact, most reasonable players can remember all the moves of a game they have just played.

Ironically, Tiger claims it would be more difficult playing blindfold against non-chess players. 'When playing an experienced player', he says, 'I would know or at least be able to predict the kind of moves he or she might make. But when opposing someone with less experience, they tend to make moves that are outside the usual patterns of seasoned players so they are more difficult to predict.'

Blindfold chess has been recommended in moderation by many sources as a method of increasing one's playing strength as well as one's memory in general. In fact research has shown that people who maintain 'healthy cognitive loads' like playing chess, doing crosswords and other activities appear to have lower rates of dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other mental problems. Still, it's important not to overdo it. Although blindfold chess may be perfectly feasible for an experienced player, it still places a lot of stress on the brain. Simultaneous blindfold exhibitions were officially banned in 1930 in the USSR as they were deemed to be a mental health hazard. It was thought that they put so much pressure on the brain that there was a serious risk of permanent brain damage. Perhaps partially due to the later mental health problems of several prominent players, many believed that blindfold play was too taxing and led to mental sickness or even death. Some chess players who have played blindfold have said that they couldn't drive a car immediately after the game, and that they sometimes hallucinated or got very bad headaches and eye problems. Some players find that they can't get the images of the board and the pieces out of their minds after a display. In fact even Garry Kasparov has declined to test his blindfold play.

A leading neuro-pathologist at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire suggests that world chess champions who devoted themselves only to chess tend to die young, while those with broader interests tended to live longer, healthier lives. He also explains that placing too much continuous strain on the brain could result in brain haemorrhaging.

For Tiger, however, there seems to be no risk of mental illness. After such an ordeal, one might assume that he would feel exhausted, irritable and on the verge of insanity. On the contrary, Tiger is relaxed, alert and even chatty. 'I feel much better than I thought I would', he says. What's even more amazing is that he's not an expert at blindfold play: 'I've only done this once before and it was a long time ago. But I won those games too!' He confesses, though, that he was not fully confident from start to finish: 'At one point I nearly lost it and started to become too impulsive.' He also admits that Peter Rowe (the last opponent he had to beat) was playing better than him for two moves and that there were two ways it could have gone.

It's comforting to know that not even grandmasters are infallible!

Written by John Gaskin of Fortis Guernsey (sponsors of the event) October 2006.