How to improve your chess visualisation skills

I suspect every ambitious chess player at some point imagined themselves playing a simultaneous blindfold exhibition. You sit in your comfortable leatherback chair, the black, silk blindfold blocking out all light. The crowd gasp in awe and your opponents are flabbergasted as you announce winning move after winning move. You smile gleefully and take another sip of coffee.

Koltanowski playing a blindfold match in Edinburgh, 1937
Koltanowski playing a blindfold match in Edinburgh, 1937

In reality you sit in front of your chessboard, learning endgames. You try to visualise a variation in Nunn’s Understanding Chess Endgames, but despite the small number of pieces and pawns on the board, you just cannot see past Black’s second move. What you need is to practise your visualisation skills.

In this post I describe exercises that may help you develop your chess visualisation skills. They are more or less in ascending order of difficulty.

VISUALISING THE CHESSBOARD

The first thing to do is to learn the colour of each square; it will help you in many other aspects of visualisation. Fortunately there are some clues or aids in the design of the chessboard to help with this task. When you learned the rules of chess, you may have come across the saying ‘white is right’ to remind you how the board should be orientated. Knowing this, you know h1 and a8 are white, and since black and white squares alternate and there are 8 squares in each file and rank, then a1 and h8 must be black. There are diagonals from corner to corner, so if a1 and h8 are black, then so are b2, c3, d4, e5, f6 and g7. You can use these and other aids to simply memorise the square colours.

If that is not for you, then a method or model to identify a square’s colour without necessarily memorising it, is as follows: imagine the files have numbers instead of rows, so a, c, e and g will be odd (1, 3, 5 and 7), while b, d, f and h will be even (2, 4, 6 and 8). Now create a rule that file-row combinations of even-even and odd-odd make Black, while any even-odd combinations make white. Let’s take c7: c is an odd row, 7 is an odd number, odd-odd make Black, so c7 is a Black square.

Now, not everyone can quickly translate a letter to a number. But the pattern recognisers among you might have noticed something about the group of ‘odd’ file letters and the group of ‘even’ file letters. Can you see it? Yup, the evens all have an upward ‘extension’, while the odds don’t; they’re just ‘half-height’. Using this knowledge, it may be easier to see that an ‘extended’ letter with an even number is Black, as is a ‘short’ letter with an odd number.

Notice how a, c, e and g stay below the line, while b, d, f and h extend above it
Notice how a, c, e and g stay below the line, while b, d, f and h extend above it

Once you have memorised the square colours, or have found a method to quickly work out a square colour, you can move on to the exercises.

Exercise 1: The lay of the land: You are going into battle when you play chess, so you best get to know the lay of the land, the chessboard.

Part A: The extent of the land. This first exercise eases you into visualisation. First, visualise an empty chessboard in front of you. Now visualise the four corners one by one. Say the name, or coordinates, and the colour of each; a1 black, a8 white, h8 black, a8 white.

Part B: The central ground and the rivers and roads. Visualise the four centre squares; d4, d5, e4, e5. Call out their colours. Then run along the two diagonals, calling out each square and its colour. Finally, make a cross with one of the centre rows (4 or 5) and one of the centre files (d or e), again calling out each square and its colour. When you cover a square for the second time (say d4 or e5), then say to yourself that you’ve been there before.

Part C: The side roads. Think of any square – as always, when you think of a square, immediately say its colour too. Now name the two diagonals it sits on. For example, d2 – black. Diagonals are c1-d2-e3-f4-g5-h6 and a5-b4-c3-d2-e1. Of course since all squares on a diagonal are the same colour, there is no need to say ‘black’ after every square.

VISUALISING THE PIECES

Exercise 2: Introducing the armies. Mentally place each piece and pawn on its correct starting square. Start on a1 with a white rook, calling out the piece, the square coordinate and its colour. Once you’ve set up the whole board, building the picture of the board as you went along, start taking the men off. Again name the piece, square and colour.

Exercise 3: Running the length. Place a knight on any square on the first rank. Let’s say c1, black. Nominate a square on the eight rank, say f8, black. Move the knight in the least number of moves to the nominated square, calling out the coordinates and colour of each square the knight lands on. For our example that might be c1 black, b3 white, c5 black, e6 white, f8 black. Now trace your steps back to your starting square; f8 black, e6 white, and so on.

Exercise 4: Surrounded! Visualise any square. Now name the squares from which a knight would be able to attack that square. Say your square is d7 white. Then you would need to think of b6, b8, c5, e5, f6 and f8. Since knights always change square colour when they move and your starting square was white, then all the squares you name in your answer must be black.

Exercise 5: A battle, not a war. Place two pieces on your mind’s eye chessboard. Make it two different pieces, for example a queen and a rook, or a bishop and a knight. Name the square and colour they start on – you choose where they start. Let’s make it a rook on c7 black and a bishop on a3 black. Say whether each piece attacks the other – no for our example. Now make a legal move with one of the pieces and do the same; name the square and colour each piece is on and say whether they attack each other. For example 1. Re7 black, bishop on a3 black, bishop attacks rook, rook does not attack bishop. Do this for as long as you like. If it becomes too easy, add a piece. Maybe move two of the pieces instead of just one.

VISUALISING A GAME

mid-viz

Exercise 6: Advance, pause. From the starting position, imagine the first few moves of your favourite opening. Let’s say you go for five moves. Now visualise what the position looks like after those five moves. When you have that position set in your mind, use a real chessboard and place the men in their position. Don’t make the moves, just place them where they should be after move five. If five is too many, start with one and move your way up. Or you could focus on your side’s men only, then add the opposition men as you get better.

Exercise 7: Are you threatening me? Leading on from the previous exercise, again visualise the position after your chosen number of moves. For each piece and pawn on your side, name every opposition piece or pawn which it attacks, as well as the square name and colour that opposition man sits on. Don’t worry about exchange values, just attacks. If you feel up to it, do the same from your opponent’s point of view.

Exercise 8: Two steps forward, one step back. When you learn from a book, play through a game in a newspaper, or analyse your own games, make the main line moves on your real chessboard, but visualise the variations. You should be able to visualise the position at the end of the variation and agree with the conclusion made by the annotator. For example, if they say at the end of the variation, “and White is better”, you need to understand why. As before, if the full variation is too much, do one move at a time. Visualise it, then set it up on your board. Go back to the start of the variation and add a move.

Exercise 9: Enjoying your first day of chess? From the starting position, play three or four unusual moves. Let’s say 1. d3 h5 2. g3 Na6 3. Bh3 Rb8 4. Kf1 Rh6. Now hold that position in your mind and find the best move for White. In this example it would be 5. Bxh6.

PLAYING BLINDFOLD CHESS

Exercise 10: This means war! When you are comfortable with visualising the chessboard, the pieces and their movements, as well as snippets of games, then it may be time to play a game of blindfold chess. You are unlikely to get through a full game at first, so use the tricks you’ve learned so far. Repeat exercise 6, playing a game in your mind for say five moves, then see if you can set up the position on the board. Now start adding two moves at a time and see how far you can continue into a legal game.

Exercise 11: Blindfold Chess. When you are ready for your first game of blindfold chess against a real opponent, chess.com offers a blindfold option on its board setup.  Enjoy!

16 thoughts on “How to improve your chess visualisation skills

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  • 14th May 2015 at 6:26 pm
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    A caveat should be thrown out there: there is said to be a link between blindfold chess and mental illness and other deleterious effects. I believe I read that after Najdorf did his exhibition on something like 40-50 boards blindfolded he could not sleep for three days. The Russian school prohibited its players from playing any blindfold chess.

    Despite this, I have decided to proceed with caution. This book review (the book is basically a literature review, as is the book review of it) indicates there is an overwhelming benefit to be had from blindfold play: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2972788/ On that basis, I am doing a problem blindfolded per day, as well as IM Danny Rensch’s “Full Board Awareness” exercises. These include putting a N and Q on the board and navigating it so as to hit every square not controlled by the Q. There are two parts to this video on chess.com.

    I’d love to find other exercises for improving blindfold chess and visualization. The only other major things I know of is “Chess Mazes” –books with similar exercises to that of Rensch’s except you do it while looking at the position (because they are complex)– and a task that my coach created. The task is to take a FEN string, construct the position in your head (which is hard, so you begin with easy endgame positions), then try to solve the position without ever having looked at the board. Sometimes, when I am walking, riding the bus, or standing in line at the grocery store (or when my wife is nagging me, and I don’t feel like paying attention –just kidding!!!), I will think about the puzzle, so it is very efficient, doing chess when you are otherwise wasting time in travel or waiting around.

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  • 15th May 2015 at 7:53 am
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    Thanks for the link. The idea of mental illness not just related to blindfold play, but to chess is general, pops up frequently. I’ll have to do some reading about that.

    I too use ’empty time’ to do visualisation exercises. Just yesterday I was doing some basic board orientation (exercise 1 in this post) while climbing the stairs to the office. I was genuinely surprised when I reached the third floor; I could have sworn I had only done 2 flights! Another benefit of visualisation exercises – trick your body into doing exercise while you’re mind is too busy to realise you are doing it!

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    • 15th May 2015 at 1:16 pm
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      The mental-illness talk is a bit confusing to me, because I read a study on how good chess is for the brain. For example, I read that no known mid-strength tournament player (FIDE 1500+) is know to have ever had Alzheimer’s and other late-life brain deterioration. Maybe this business of mental illness has more to do with simply overdoing it. I think you and I are safe from that for now.

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  • 1st June 2015 at 4:57 pm
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    I just want to express my appreciation for your site, and wish you luck in your studies. I’ll be checking in regularly as I try to navigate the bewildering array of materials on improving my chess.

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    • 1st June 2015 at 8:44 pm
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      Thank you for the kind words. It is bewildering indeed, but I’m sure we’ll find a way through with dedication and application.

      Reply
  • 3rd October 2015 at 11:31 am
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    A new perspective of learning and playing chess for me. Read and seen alot of blindfolded games – but never thought how efficient it is. This reminds me of the famous Rxc3 (sacrifice) against Alekhine’s blindfolded game, What a gem he was. Bundle of thanks, Kudos.

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  • 20th March 2017 at 8:39 pm
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    The mental illness (please, define) correlation is just that: a correlation – as are any other ‘guilty by association’ issues. All the noise about chess and mental illness is total bullcrap in my view, fed by a few specific (and notable, too) cases in the chess world that have then sparked a generalisation of that idea. At least the current statistics as it seems, does not support this (just take a look around). Mental illness is, at best, multifactorial in etiology. I can will myself to ‘hallucinate’ a chessboard when I read variation-laden chess books or calculate long lines (literally an infinity-ply capacity I’ve got right now, though my practical OTB record is a 34-ply endgame line), doesn’t mean I (will automatically) have a DSM Axis-1 disorder in my medical records.

    Get Ian Anderson’s ‘Chess Visualisation Course’ 1 and 2, these were what I used to break the ply depth barriers I had back then.

    Also, don’t forget that visualisation, the most crucial piece of any chessplayer’s abilities, is just one piece.

    Reply
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