Timur Gareyev’s fantastic feats of blindfolded chess

The Uzbeki-American player, who holds the world record of 48 simultaneous matches while unable to see the board, served up an astonishing exhibition at the World Championship in Astana, Kazakhstan

Timur Gareyev, during his blindfold chess exhibition in Astana.
Timur Gareyev on Saturday during his blind chess performance in Astana.Anna Shtourman/FIDE
Leontxo García

A blindfolded grandmaster rides an exercise bike as he plays 15 games of chess simultaneously for 15 hours straight, memorizing the positions of a total of 480 pieces. To the astonishment of everyone watching, he wins 14 matches and draws one. His name is Timur Gareyev, he is 35, and he has a mental capacity that pushes the limits of human possibility.

But the feat that he pulled off in Saturday’s exhibition in Astana, the Kazakhstani capital, pales in comparison to the world record he set in Las Vegas in 2016. In Nevada, Gareyev contested 48 matches (1,536 pieces) over a period of 19 hours, registering 35 wins, seven draws and six defeats. And he believes it is a record he can beat.

To the layman, simultaneous chess exhibitions are mind-boggling enough when the player can see what is happening on the boards in front of them. On Saturday, for example, the Spanish town of Azkoitia, located in the country’s northern Basque region, witnessed the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the world record established by Spaniard José Luis Larrañaga, who took on 605 opponents for almost 32 hours, managing 535 wins, 42 draws and 28 defeats. In 1985, the German-Czech player Vlastimil Hort bettered that mark by playing 636 matches simultaneously.

The common denominator in these exploits, whether the player is blindfolded or not, is their ability to recognize patterns. When the likes of Larrañaga and Hort leave behind one board and arrive at the next, they need only a matter of seconds to assess who has the advantage; how their opponent’s most recent move seeks to hurt them; and what the two or three most logical responses are. That comes down not only to the hundreds of matches that remain in their conscious memory, but also the thousands of clashes that are stored up in their subconscious. In other words, the chess-playing intuition that they have built up.

However, it all becomes much more difficult when players cannot see what is happening. Indeed, it can be harmful to their health. In the Soviet Union, which enjoyed almost total domination of the chess world for over half of the 20th century, coaches tended to prohibit blindfolded multi-opponent exhibitions. And they had very good reasons for this: several players at the center of major feats have taken months before their brains have returned to normal working order. When Gareyev beat the world record seven years ago, he was unable to sleep for days.

A moment of Timur Gareyev's exhibition
Gareyev during his exhibition.Anna Shtourman/FIDE

This is why the Uzbeki-American player, who lives in the United States, places great importance on aspects of his exhibition routine that don’t directly relate to the game itself. “The main reason why I ride an exercise bike during the events is to highlight the fact that high-level chess requires you to be in good physical shape,” Gareyev tells EL PAÍS. “I also feel that the exercise gives me more energy to cope with the mental strain [probably because it causes his body to produce dopamine]. And I won’t deny, either, that it’s eye-catching and makes the photos all the more striking.” During the exhibition in Astana, he was frequently seen drinking water and green tea. When he broke the world record, he ate small quantities of watermelon marinated in lemon, avocado, coconut oil, green leaves and spicy chiles. During his career, he has been known to go parachuting and mountaineering, do daily yoga sessions and run marathons.

In addition to having powerful photographic and logical memories, Gareyev uses sophisticated mental-organization techniques during his exhibitions. He imagines every board is a room inside a palace, each decorated in a different style. He also varies his tactics from board to board, to reduce the risk of confusing his matches. If he is the white player on boards 1, 3, 5 and 7, his first move will be different on every one of them; he then repeats his first move from board 1 on board 9, his first move from board 3 on board 11, and so on. He can easily distinguish between the matches, as they are not being played on boards that are close together. As the black player, he takes different defensive approaches on boards 2, 4, 6 and 8, etc.

With nothing but good intentions, the organizers in Astana arranged for a referee to call out Gareyev’s opponents’ moves. In even more demanding exhibitions, however, he asks for this to be done differently: “It’s important that each player I’m facing announces their own move, because the voice of every opponent allows me to identify them with their board; that really helps.”

A fascination with blindfolded chess was already in evidence in the ninth century, shortly after the Moors had brought the game to southern Spain, when the chess master Said Jubain would turn his back to the boards as he took on four opponents at once, with a slave calling out the moves. In the 16th century, the first unofficial world champion, Spain’s Ruy López de Segura, would wow onlookers with similar feats in the court of Philip II. Two hundred years later, the Frenchman François-André Danican Philidor did likewise in the Café de la Régence in Paris.

The American Harry Pillsbury (1872-1906) made blindfolded simultaneous chess harder still, when he took part in a memorable exhibition against 12 high-quality opponents in New York. Before beginning, Pillsbury was read a list of 30 complicated words, with each assigned a random number. The words included antiphlogistine, periosteum, takadiastase, plasmon, threlkeld and streptococcus. After completing his chess matches with a record of eight wins, two draws and two defeats, he repeated every word several times, in a number of different orders. Considered one of chess’s great flawed geniuses, he died of syphilis at 38.

A case tinged by tragedy is that of Miguel Najdorf (1910-1997), one of the most charismatic chess players in history. Having traveled from Poland to Buenos Aires to compete in the Chess Olympiad in 1939, Najdorf, who was Jewish, opted to remain in Argentina in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of his native country. Unaware of whether his relatives in Poland had survived (they had not), he decided to take part in chess-playing feats that would gain significant media attention, in the hope that his family would learn of his whereabouts. Najdorf twice broke the record for blindfolded simultaneous chess: in 1943, he accrued 36 wins, one draw and three defeats against 40 opponents in the Argentinian city of Rosario; and in 1947, he won 39, drew four and lost two when he contested 45 matches at the same time in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Gareyev wants to raise his unprecedented total of 48 matches to 55. And he wants to do so in style: “I’m not going to settle for beating the record in the same circumstances as in 2016, when I had to be the organizer and pretty much the sponsor all by myself. This time, it would be at a big festival of chess and memory games, where the public would have a great time.” And he adds that he is really enjoying the World Chess Championship between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren, who are due to play Game 12 of their best-of-14 title clash on Wednesday, with the Russian 6-5 ahead. “It’s a really exciting match-up,” Gareyev says.

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