There’s a funny, fundamental quirk about humanity: we assume our brains all work the same.
The modern world understands neurodivergence and things of that nature far more than it used to- that’s not what I’m referring to in this instance.
I mean the fact we all assume the color I perceive as blue is the same blue you perceive, when it could be totally different. I mean that we assume smells smell the same for each of us, that we all dream the same way, the we each use similar mechanisms for thought. We are limited to our own cognitive experience of the world, and assume everyone else’s must be comparable.
This bias is deep in the world of Chess improvement. It creeps in everywhere, but nowhere moreso than in Chess visualization.
The common story is that we have to see a board in our mind if we’re to have any hope of reaching any decent level of skill. We talk about “picturing” a position, “seeing” moves ahead. It has to be visual, we assume. It’s right there in the word visual-ization.
But does it?
Do we need mental pictures to play Chess?
When most Chess improvers think of visualization, they consider the image popularized by the Queen’s Gambit. Not necessarity the “pieces-on-the-ceiling” bit, but the fully realized, clear, visual representation of the board in our mind.
They imagine the accomplished blindfold player must see the mental board in tremendous detail, with each piece and square so visceral it could be in front of them. How else could a blindfolded player keep track of it all?
In the 1930s, a Belgian-American master by the name of George “Kolty” Koltanowski set a world record for number of games played in a simultaneous blindfold exhibition. In fact, he set this record twice- going back and forth with his more-famous contemporary, Alexander Alekhine.
Kolty set a record for playing 34 blindfold games at once. No boards, no scoresheets, no hints. Just him, his memory, and 34 different games of Chess.
When they hear this, most Chess improvers think of Kolty cycling through 34 crystal clear images of positions in his mind, making his decision, and moving to the next one. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Thankfully for us, Kolty was a prolific writer of newspaper columns, totaling over 10,000 in his lifetime. In one of them, he discusses his blindfold records and what actually went on in his head while he achieved them.
In a 1960 column, he wrote:
“My mind is a gramophone record. When I want to know what moves have been made, I start the record in my mind. Then I listen.”
In his 1990 book, he clarified further:
“I do not see the board or pieces in my mind; I just remember the moves and ‘feel’ the position.”
You’re reading that correctly. Koltanowski set the blindfold simul world record twice with no pictures in his head. None at all. He used methods that felt natural to him and his mind instead.
So what does that mean for us?
It means our definition of “visualization” is far too narrow. If one of the best blindfold players we’ve ever seen had no pictures in his mind, there doesn’t need to be anything “visual” about it.
That’s why I prefer to use the word “conceptualization”. Everyone conceptualizes, but they don’t necessarily visualize.
It doesn’t matter how your brain builds its concept of the board- only that it does. Whatever method it uses to represent board information will work fine.
And that’s great news for many of us. And especially great news for one group among us.
Chess and Aphantasia
In 2015, in a coffee shop in London, two researchers gave a label to a cognitive phenomenon that has been alluded to in writings since ancient times. They coined the term “aphantasia”, to mean the phenomenon where someone is unable to produce pictures in their mind. As an aphant once described it to me, “the computer is operating, the monitor’s just turned off.”
The research into this phenomenon is still in its infancy, but it’s estimated that 2-3% of the population have it. Some researchers think this number may be much higher, as many people with aphantasia are not actually aware they have it.
(If this is the first time you’ve heard of aphantasia and you want to learn more about it, start here.)
People from all walks of life are pulled into the gravity well of this intoxicating, frustrating, brutal, and beautiful game we call Chess. And when people with aphantasia get pulled in with the rest of us, they’re often quick to hit a wall. And understandably so.
They keep hearing the word “visualization” and they start to doubt themselves. Visualizing is exactly the thing they can’t do! It only takes a quick search on Reddit to find post after post of aphants searching for answers, trying to avoid the creeping sense of despair that they’ll never get good at the game.
As Dr Kevin Scull from the Chess Journeys podcast told me, “I’ve been waiting to hit my limit; the point where my aphantasia stops me from going any further.” (You can hear my episode with Kevin here.)
It’s time we changed that narrative.
Whether Koltanowski had aphantasia or not, it’s clear that there was nothing visual about the way he conceptualized. And if playing 34 blindfold games at once doesn’t indicate that the dude was good at Chess, I don’t know what does.
I’ve seen these non-visual conceptualizers time and time again. They make it work and do quite well. And Kolty shows there’s no limit to how far a non-visual conceptualizer can go.
Aphantasia is not a disadvantage in Chess. It just requires a different approach.
Tools to conceptualize without a mind’s eye
I’ve been researching Chess conceptualization deeply for around 3 years at this point. That journey has led me to build a business, speak with hundreds of Chess players, collaborate with some of the greatest Chess instructors in the world, and become the only dedicated Chess visualization/conceptualization coach in the world.
In that time I’ve seen a dizzying number of different methods people have created to conceptualize a board. Many of which are not visual at all. And I’ve noticed some common elements and tools among the non-visual conceptualizers.
Below, I’ve included these tools and techniques.
Before I jump into this, I need to make it clear I do not have aphantasia. I can see pictures in my mind. The insights I’ve collected here are from my many conversations, coaching sessions, and email exchanges with non-visual thinkers. As such, I won’t pretend to have all the answers- I’m still learning about all of this myself.
I intend for this to be a live document, and I’ll add to it here and there when I discover more. If you find something useful, let me know. Or if you’d like to contribute a tool of your own, comment below.
Not everything in this list will be useful to you and your particular brain, but each item works for someone. Give them a go, see what works for you.
An initial difficulty many aphants face is holding the various details on the board itself in their mind. Without a visual reference, square colors, diagonals, and distance between squares all become quite tricky to navigate. These tools should help you there:
The Odd-CAGE Rule for instantly determining square colors
The Odd-CAGE Rule has two parts.
- All odd-odds and even-evens are dark squares. All others are light squares.
It’s easy to tell which ranks are odd or even – they’re numbers! But how do we tell which files are odd or even?
- If the letter of a file is in the word CAGE, the file is an Odd file.
If both the rank and the file are odd, the square is dark. If they’re both even, the square is dark. If one is odd and one is even, it’s a light square.
For example, we know C5 is dark because 5 is an odd number and C is in CAGE (odd-odd = dark square).
Likewise, we know H3 is light because 3 is odd and H is not in CAGE (odd-even = light square).
You can practice with this color-training tool.
The Math Method for diagonals
This a logic-based method for identifying if square share a diagonal. It will take some practice, but will eventually become automatic. It’s based on this rule:
If the difference between the ranks of any two squares on the board is the same as the difference between the files of those squares, the squares share a diagonal.
Here are the steps:
For any two squares on the board:
- subtract the second rank from the first rank
- subtract the second file from the first file
- Ignore any negatives.
For example, to find whether b2 and g7 share a diagonal, we could do the following:
- The rank of b2 is 2, and the rank of g7 is 7. So we calculate 2 – 7 = -5
- The b-file is file number 2, and the g-file is the file number 7. So we calculate 2 – 7 = -5
- We ignore any negatives.
The answers to both steps are the same (5), so the squares share a diagonal.
Master the board quadrants
This is a time-honored method for learning how the chessboard goes together. I first discovered it in the writing of George Koltanowski himself. This is how he became comfortable with his own mental board back in the day.
- Print out an image of a full, blank chessboard. (You can use this one.)
- Cut the board into the four quadrants, dividing it along center in both directions.
- Using a pencil or marker, start exploring the details and drawing lines, circles, whatever as you notice things. Some things to look out for:
- which square coordinates are part of which quadrant
- the pattern of dark to light squares and how they repeat in each quadrant
- each square’s position inside it’s quadrant- how far from the edges is it?
- how each diagonal shape in a quadrant always connects to a corresponding diagonal shape in neighboring quadrants.
Once learned, you can call on these details when navigating your own non-visual mental board.
Keeping track of the action
Once we know how the board goes together, we need to get comfortable with following what’s happening in a position in our minds. Here are several techniques and approaches that may assist in that area.
The story of the position
Alexander Alekhine once described what went on in his head during blindfold games. He said that he rarely used mental visuals and instead relied primarily on his “logical memory”. He would keep his focus always on what’s important about a position and how it goes together, even allowing himself to forget details here and there when they stopped being relevant.
In other words, Alekhine would tell himself the story of the position. What’s actually happening in this position? Where are the threats, what’s important? If you can sum up a position in a few sentences, you understand it.
Obviously, the detail in your story will be reflective of your general Chess skill as well. The 2000-rated player may have a story that includes the opening being played, the positional weaknesses of either side, and a collection of candidate moves with potential continuations. The 600-rated player’s story may just be about which pieces are being attacked. And that’s totally fine – it’s likely clearer than the story your opponent has!
Start by telling the story of positions when you’re doing puzzles or playing games. Get comfortable with the sorts of things you notice.
Then start exploring openings using only your mental board, telling the stories of the positions as you go. Let the moves unfold like a narrative in your mind.
Your mental gramophone
Some non-visual thinkers gravitate toward auditory methods, much like Koltanowski did. Try using your internal monologue to track information. Say moves or piece locations to yourself, repeating them as often as necessary to keep them in your mind.
When you lose track of what’s going on in your mental board, repeat the moves or piece locations back to yourself again. For some people, this is huge. For others, not so much. See what works for you.
Quite a few of the non-visual conceptualizers I’ve spoken with share a Chess superpower- they’re amazing at remembering opening theory. If you are the same, the chances are that you are strongly sequential in your thinking.
Embrace this! Explore your opening theory in your mind. Use it as the basis for strengthening your mental representation of the board, whatever form it takes. Build sequence-based stories for the positions you’re trying to track (“this defends that which attacks that which stops that” and so on.). Experiment, explore. See what works for you.
Building your strength
No technique is useful if we don’t put in the time to train it. Here are some possible training methods for your conceptualization skills. They are difficult, but it’s in the difficulty that we stretch what our minds can do. If we stick to the easy stuff, we never grow. Give them a try, and see what works for you.
Critical with each of these is not to force your brain to do anything in particular. Let your mind do whatever it wants to do to engage with these exercises. Focus on your understanding. Let your brain handle the process in whatever way it naturally wants to.
You know those moments in major tournaments where the top players look away from the board to find the best move? Well that’s what you’re going to do with this exercise.
Go to your puzzle platform or book of choice, and start a puzzle. Before trying to solve it, first work out the story of the position. How does it all go together? What’s important in the position?
Then look away and try to run through all those details you just worked out. Repeat looking back at the board, then looking away until you have a clear understanding of the position in your mind. Then explore that position to solve the puzzle (or verify your solution, if you already worked it out).
The best method I’ve found to training our conceptualization skills, whether visual or non-visual, is through recorded Chess audio. Basically, chess notation read aloud. I like to think of it as blindfold chess without the decisions, allowing us to focus 100% on keeping track of what’s happening.
Here’s how you set it up:
- Prepare an audio recording device of some kind (I started with the Voice Memos app on my iPhone)
- Go to chessgames.com and find a game that lasts up to 15 moves (or longer if you’re more advanced). Here’s a filtered search I’ve prepared. Pick one of those games, but don’t spend much time looking at the game before the next step.
- Record yourself reading the moves out loud one by one. Leave 1-3 seconds of silence between each move. The silences between moves will give your brain a chance to picture everything. Err on the side of longer silences than you might need. It’s better to have extra time between moves than to feel rushed in your training.
Note: be sure to include turn numbers and the extra details (like checks and promotions).
For each move in the game, pause and answer these questions:
- What did the last move do?
- Did the last move attack or defend anything?
- Did the last move open up any sightlines for other pieces?
- What are the threats in the position?
When you’re ready to reintroduce decisions into your conceptualization training, blindfold Chess is the next step. Blindfold chess is really hard, and you’ll be very bad at it to start. But with practice, you’ll improve.
Where to next?
Keep exploring, keep trying things out. Leave a comment if there’s anything I’ve missed that’s worked for you on your journey.
If you’ve found this useful, you may find my free 5-day “Conceptualizing Chess Series” to be a great next step. Sign up for that with the button below.
Above all else, remember that aphantasia is not a weakness in Chess. Find a non-visual approach that works for you, and you’ll be fine.
Here’s to the journey,