The newly minted Grandmaster watches her opponent play their move, and she feels a buzz in her mind. Her intuition says her opponent’s move was a blunder, and there’s an opportunity in the position now. She needs to think, to calculate, so she looks away from the board. She hears in her mind the last few moves, and she senses the position as if on a ghostly board in another dimension- one she can’t see or touch, but she can feel with absolute clarity. She senses the power bursting from each invisible piece, like forces of nature colliding. A smile flashes on her face- she’s found the move.
The old master, a legend 30 years ago and some say far past his prime, steps away from the board. He needs time to consider his options in a complex position against a much younger opponent. He always thinks better when pacing, so he goes to the side of the playing hall and paces there. Before him as he walks is a floating board. It’s invisible to everyone else, but clear as day to him. It’s the board his father taught him to play on, and it’s served him well his entire career. He walks, he studies the board, and finds what he’s looking for, a move that ratchets the tension, deepens the complexities. It turns the position into a minefield for his opponent. He may be old, but he isn’t going down without a fight.
Our brains have ways they like to do things. Methods and mental representations they’ve been perfecting since the day we were born to try to make sense of the world.
Imagine for a moment that a friend has asked you how to get from your home to the nearest shopping center. It’s a trip you’ve made probably hundreds of times, you know the way very well, and are easily able to respond. Between the request and your response, your brain did something. Exactly what it did will be slightly different for each of us.
Some of us rapidly ran through the trip in our mind, like a video of the trip on fast-forward. Some recalled street names and how many blocks there are between each turn. Some saw blurry photos of key landmarks along the way. Some see a top-down view of the route, like we’d see on a map. Some feel a faint pull of something like gravity in the direction of the shopping center. Some had a combination of a few methods.
For each of us, the input (question from our friend) and the output (communication of the route) are the same. But the bit in the middle, the part where our brain processed the route, varies wildly person to person.
In Chess, the same thing happens. The input is the same: we see the board in front of us. The output is the same: we play a move. But the bit in the middle – the bit where we recognize, process, and calculate – that bit is different for every one of us.
The form it takes is our conceptualization model.
Mental Representations in Chess
Every time we play Chess, we create a mental representation of the position. Move-to-move we aren’t consciously aware of it, much in the way you probably weren’t aware of how your brain processed the route to the shops until I pointed your attention at it. But we become very aware of our mental representations in Chess as soon as we start trying to calculate or “see moves ahead”.
Our conceptualization model is the method our brain uses to represent board information to us. Some of us will naturally want to use mental pictures, others will use logical connections and verbal reminders, most of us will have some combination.
The key is that our conceptualization model is aligned with the way we think. It makes a big difference. Let me show you what I mean:
Take a moment and think about how you get to your nearest shopping center again. Take notice of what your brain does and how easily it does it.
Now try a different method. If you saw pictures of landmarks in your head before, this time try to identify all the street names and count how many blocks before each turn. If you saw a sped up video of your driving route there, try to picture a top down map instead. Force yourself to do something different this time.
You probably still managed it, but I’ll bet it was a little bit awkward, jarring, and uncomfortable. Your brain had to work harder, and the result you got in the end was worse. Chess information is far more complex than remembering the route to the shops, and the issues are multiplied with that complexity.
When we try to do something that’s not natural to our brain, we have to work much harder and end up with a worse result. When we align our conceptualization model with our brain’s preferred thinking style, the bit between seeing the position and deciding on a move takes much less effort and yields a stronger result.
But so many Chess players never find their natural conceptualization model, as they’re too busy trying to “visualize”.
Sadly, there’s a long-believed myth in the Chess world that we have to visualize things if we want to be any good. For naturally visual people, this isn’t really a problem. But for naturally non-visual people, approximately 40% of us, this myth does a lot of damage. What we call “visualization”, seeing a board in our mind’s eye when calculating or playing blindfold Chess, is simply one type of conceptualization model. One of many ways to conceptualize. But it’s presented by the wider Chess community as the only way to do it.
You know that second, awkward method you forced your brain to use to recall the route to the shops? Imagine for a moment that everyone in the navigation community asserted that method was the best and only way to navigate? People have written books about it. There’s video after video on YouTube about it. Your navigation coach tells you to do it that way. Even the word used to describe the mental process of thinking about navigation is the name of that method. What do you do? You probably keep forcing yourself to navigate using that method. It’s always difficult, it’s always unclear, you never really improve. Eventually you decide your brain must just be wrong for navigation, and you give up.
Obviously, I’m overstating it here, but it’s not too far away from the experience of non-visual people in Chess, especially those with aphantasia.
There is no evidence that any conceptualization model is inherently better for Chess than any other. They each have strengths and weaknesses, and they can all be trained and improved. We’ve had top-tier players with models of all kinds.
If your model works for your brain, then it works. Ignore what anyone else says.
Visual and Verbal Thinking
Since the 1930s, psychology studies have played with the idea that people are naturally either visual or verbal thinkers. They are either guided primarily by images their mind creates, or their inner monologue. These visual and verbal thinking styles aren’t just preferences either; they’re observable, measurable, biological differences in our brains. A 2015 study by Kazuo Nishimura had subjects complete complex mental tasks while hooked up to various devices to measure neurological activity. They found some subjects activated the sections of the brain known to produce internal visual imagery while others activated the parts of the brain connected to self-talk.
When presented with the same complex mental tasks, some of us naturally want to use visuals, and others want to use verbal methods. Same tasks, different approaches.
In a 2002 study, Dr Linda Silverman at Rutgers University showed that these visual and verbal alignments are not an either/or argument, but instead occur across a spectrum.
Each of us exist on this spectrum somewhere. Some of us are strongly visual, some strongly verbal, and most of us are in the middle somewhere, learning one way or the other.
Linda Silverman also designed a questionnaire to help people find their rough location on the spectrum. I was a guest on Hannah Sayce’s stream in September 2023, and I walked her through the questionnaire live. She released a video of the event, and you can do the questionnaire alongside us.
When I first did this questionnaire, I learned a lot about my Chess, but I learned a whole lot about my life in general. Maybe you will too.
Finding Your Conceptualization Model
Identifying and learning to trust our natural conceptualization model can be difficult, especially if we’ve been playing Chess for many years. It can take deep reflection, analysis, and guidance to reach it. In October 2023, I released a 5-part email series through the Master Skill Newsletter to guide subscribers through a process akin to that I use with my coaching students.
The feedback was fantastic, so I’m making it available again for blog readers.
You can find every part of the Finding Your Model Series available for free below:
- Part One: The Two Biases
- Part Two: Pictures and Voices
- Part Three: Objects and Spaces
- Part Four: The Process I
- Part Five: The Process II
To get on the list for my email newsletter, sign up for my free 5-day Conceptualizing Chess Series. You’ll be automatically added to my list after it’s completed.
For one-on-one guidance finding your model and rapidly improving your conceptualization skills, you can hire me for coaching.
Conceptualization Models of Great Players
The Visual-Verbal thinking spectrum and the idea of differing conceptualization models are largely new and unexplored territories in the Chess world. As such, it’s difficult to identify the models of past players with certainty- especially players on the verbal side of the spectrum.
For the list below, I’ve made educated guesses based on written evidence and descriptions given by the player or those close to them. I’ve had the great fortune to discuss this with several current players, and have categorized them accordingly.
These should be used only to help you find players that may have similar models to yours, and not as assertions of how visual or verbal any player was or is in their general thinking outside of Chess.
Special thank you to Eliot Hearst and John Knott for writing the excellent book, Blindfold Chess, in which I found much of the evidence I used to categorize the historical players in this list.
Strongly Visual (33% of players)
GM Andrew Soltis once asserted that “nobody sees 64 squares and 32 pieces at the one time”. Val Zemitis, who had been close friends with Fritz Sämisch during his life, responded to Soltis stating that Fritz did in fact see the whole board at one time.
Zemitis was adamant about this, and even provided Sämisch’s recommendations for how to build and train complete board vision.
Sarapu once described the ability to play blindfold Chess as a “gift of the gods” that allows one to visualize the whole board “the same way one is capable of imagining the portrait of the Mona Lisa with your eyes shut.”
His use of an art metaphor implies that his conceptualization model may have been both visual and quite clear to him. Players more toward the verbal side tend to be less definite with the visual elements of their descriptions.
“My parents would send me to bed early on school night but I was not ready to sleep. Instead I analyzed positions on the dark ceiling of my bedroom. I was surprised at how easy it was to visualize the board and the pieces (they looked just like the set I always played on). I thought every serious Chess player could do this. I was wrong.”
– Hans Jung in a letter to Hearst and Knott for their book, Blindfold Chess
Established in a meeting with Lefong. He sees a fully detailed, full sized board in his mind as if it was in front of him.
When he was younger and playing more OTB, it was in 3D. Now he plays more online, it’s 2D. He can comfortably switch between them whenever he likes.
Intersestingly, Lefong doesn’t consider himself a particularly visual person in other areas of his life. For most players, their conceptualization model aligns exactly with their normal thinking styles, but Lefong may be an exception.
P.A. Graham described Joseph Henry Blackburne as “a man who to a great extent thinks in pictures”.
There are stories of Blackburne’s feats of photographic memory, including one where he recalled the contents of a misplaced debt records books without making a single mistake.
He seemed to take information in visually, with incredible clarity. It’s safe to assume he probably did the same in his Chess conceptualization.
Established in a meeting with Hannah.
Mid-Spectrum Visual (30% of players)
Najdorf described his mental representations during blindfold games as being “something inexplicable, yet concrete and objective… a total abstraction within each unity.”
In 1947, Karel Skalicka reported that Najdorf once said the board in his mind had “some kind of unconscious existence” and that he did not, in any way, see “photos” in his head of the positions on the board.
It is possible that Najdorf was a spatial visualizer, seeing the patterns and structures of the board in an abstract way, and not as a photorealistic image. It’s also possible he should be placed on the verbal side of the spectrum somewhere.
Richard Reti regularly encouraged other players to train their blindfold Chess, crediting it as a huge part of his own rapid rise in skill.
He recommended a player go through a series of steps to develop their blindfold visualization skills, and these steps include both visual and verbal techniques. If Reti were strongly visual, I suspect he would not include so many logic-based steps in his process. Therefore, I have categorized him a mid-spectrum visualizer.
Established in a meeting with John.
Eric describes his conceptualization model as being like shining a flashlight in a dark room. “I remember what’s over here, then over here, and how it’s all connected.”
He visually represents chunks of the board at a time, and uses logical methods to connect these chunks. This is a common mid-spectrum visual model.
Hear Eric talking about it in this video on his YouTube channel.
Mid-Spectrum Verbal (12% of players)
Alexander Alekhine is one of the greatest Chess players of all time. He wrote extensively about his play, and included descriptions of what went on his head while he conceptualized.
He wrote that he did not rely on visuals, but instead on what he called his “logical memory”. He always kept a clear verbal record of the key threats and squares in the position, and would let other less important details slip. When he needed to recall those other details, he would use logic to work them out again. GM Krogius offers the example that, to remember where the b-pawn was, Alekhine would remember that he’d needed to stop Nc4 earlier; therefore the pawn is on b3.
Alekhine would use visuals here and there, often “flashing” a picture of sections of the position in his mind when he needed to double-check something.
This combination of logical/verbal techniques and flashes of visuals qualifies him as the rare mid-spectrum visual player.
Strongly Verbal (25% of players)
In a statement for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1960, Koltanowski wrote:
“My mind is a gramophone record. When I want to know what move have been made, I start the record in my mind. Then I listen.”
He clarified further in his 1990 book:
“I do not see the board or pieces in my mind; I just remember the moves and ‘feel’ the position.”
IM David Pruess is the most prominent and popular Chess player known to have aphantasia, an inability to create mental pictures. By default, his conceptualization model needs to be non-visual.
Despite his aphantasia, Pruess has no difficulty recalling games, calculating in his head, and playing blindfold Chess, and talks about each of these things regularly in his content.
During the historic study by Alfred Binet in the 1890s, Samuel Rosenthal indicated that his model was non-visual:
“I do not proceed on a visual basis, but on a mathematically reasoned strategy. These men who play visually lack certainty in their games and they lose most of them.”
When pushed by Binet and his team, Rosenthal admitted to some visual element, but incredibly vague- like “seeing shops on a familiar street while preoccupied”.
This might be sufficient evidence to place Rosenthal in the Mid-Spectrum Verbal section, but his quote would imply he did not consider himself a visual player, so I’ve kept him here.
If you have any takeaway, let it be this: There is no right way to conceptualize. We’ve had world class players from across the spectrum.
Find what works for you. You’ll be fine.
Here’s to the journey,