Problems of Blind Chess Players
Jan Balata, Zdenek Mikovec, Pavel Slavik
Department of Computer Graphics and Interaction,
Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Czech Technical University in Prague
Prague, Czech Republic
Abstract—A chess game is very popular also for visually
impaired players. To some extent we can see similarities to
blindfold chess game of sighted players. However blindfold chess
is played by master players only. Thus blind beginners are facing
demanding conditions for playing chess. We started with initial
observation of a game play of blind chess players and indicated
signs of using mental images, limits in learning efﬁcient chess
play, or accessibility problems. We extracted 114 ﬁndings from
the semi-structured interviews conducted with 5 blind advanced
chess players. Based on these ﬁndings we propose directions for
future research and development.
As chess game is a very popular board game which has its
amateur and professional form. There are also many visually
impaired players on various level of playing. We can identify
international1and local organizations of visually impaired
chess players, which organize tournaments, training courses
and help visually impaired players with accessibility issues
related to chess playing.
The situation of blind chess player is similar to the blind-
fold chess game. However the blindfold chess game is typically
played by experienced (master) player against weaker player or
several players at the same time. The master players are able to
efﬁciently code the chess game state in their memory, which
allow them to efﬁciently solve the game situations without
necessity to see the chessboard (see Section II).
The chess player who started to play chess after loss
of vision has to build up efﬁcient structures in visuospatial
working memory and long-term memory without the visual
stimuli. There are several interesting research questions that
can be investigated:
1) Do the blind master players use similar mental images
(see Section II) for problem solving (playing chess)
as a sighted one?
2) Is the loss of vision limiting learning of efﬁcient use
of mental images by master players?
3) What is the role of chessboard; for which type of
activity (playing, training, analysis of games) and
what level of experience is the chessboard needed;
what is the best form of it?
II. RELATED WORK
There is a signiﬁcant amount of research work focused
on accessibility of board games  and various chessboard
Fig. 1: Accessible chessboard with pin-hole system for visually
impaired players (from The Haryana Chess Association).
designs2,3(see Fig. 1). There are also many mobile based as-
sistive technologies and applications for visually impaired ,
. However, these focus mainly on accessibility of the user
interfaces. There is few research focused on the blind chess
players’ mental representation of the game and processes
related to efﬁcient storing of the game state and problem
solving of game situations. Moreover, research on cognition
and information communication (Cognitive Infocommunica-
tions ) should be considered as it closely relates to problem
solving and efﬁcient information representation.
A. Experts and Mental Images
In experts’ problem solving situations an effective use
of mental images (e.g., in computer programming , or
surgery ) plays an essential role. However mechanisms
involved are not clear, in spite they are especially important
for efﬁcient training of mental images usage.
One of the key problems is internal representation of
mental images. They contain less detail, what brings a compu-
tational advantage in localization and inference operations .
Thus to become an expert chess player, it is necessary to learn
how to efﬁciently represent the mental image of the chess game
states including operators. This is believed to be achieved by
long periods of training and studying previously played games.
One of the richest source of evidence of the essential role
of mental images in the experts’ problem solving situations
and insights into mechanisms involved can be found in the
ﬁeld of blindfold chess research (see Section II-B).
B. Blindfold Chess
Reuben Fine  emphasizes the role of hierarchical, spatio-
temporal Gestalt formations and possible interference with
In a series of experiments Saariluoma et al. – show
that blindfold chess relies mainly on visuospatial working
memory. The differences in players’ skills are related to differ-
ences in long-term memory (LTM) knowledge. In experiments
with dictated games (moves are spoken in chess notation) the
expert players show an almost perfect memory when moves
are legal, however their performance drop when moves are
illegal. They found out that visuospatial memory is essential
for encoding and LTM for later processing. They showed that
for expert players only the position of piece being moved is
critical. They also did not ﬁnd any difference between auditory
and visual perception mode.
There are several theories that help to explain the way
the chess player mental processes work, like chunking the-
ory , long-term memory theory , theory of working
memory , or template theory . The template theory
was applied to blindfold chess game  and it seems to
be a unifying theory that can explain the mental processes
C. Blind People and Visuospatial Images
Even though congenitally blind people are not accustomed
to use visual stimuli they are able to generate visuospatial
images . Thus, they can learn to efﬁciently play chess,
although only with access to proper learning materials (Braille
script textbooks or accessible chessboard).
D. Haptic vs. Visual Space Coding
Although there are clear similarities of space representa-
tion, like non-Euclidean and egocentric nature , the study
of Newell et al.  shows that the visual and haptic repre-
sentation of space are not directly compatible. The difference
however cannot be explained by holistic (visual) versus serial
(haptic) encoding of the space. It also shows that haptic
representation may have some associated verbal coding.
III. USER STUDY
We conducted a user study in order to get deeper insights
into how blind persons start with chess play, their customs,
training for tournaments, note-taking during the play, imag-
ination of the chessboard, usage of accessibility aids, and
problems they encountered during tournaments.
Five visually impaired participants (all males) were re-
cruited via two methods: an e-mail leaﬂet sent to a chess clubs
uniting visually impaired players, and snowball technique. The
participants ranged from 40 to 70 years (mean = 51.40, SD =
13.33). Two participants had Category 4 visually impairment
(light perception), three participants had Category 5 visual
Participant Age Gender Category Onset Skills
P1 56 M 4 L expert
P2 72 M 5 L expert
P3 49 M 5 L advanced
P4 40 M 4 C intermediate
P5 40 M 5 C intermediate
TABLE I: List of participants, their age, gender, category of
impairment (4 – light perception, 5 – no light perception ),
and onset of impairment (C – congenitally blind, L – late
blind), and chess skills.
impairment (no light perception) . Two participant were
congenitally blind, three participants were late blind. All
participants were regular chess players; two of the participants
can be considered as expert players (played on international
level), one of the participants as advanced player (played on
national level), and two of the participants as intermediate
players (played on regional level and/or for entertainment).
We conducted ﬁve semi-structured interviews with visually
impaired chess players. All the interviews were conducted
remotely via mobile phone call. The interviews lasted from 20
to 30 minutes. The experimenter started with the brieﬁng. Then
the experimenter asked the participants about their ﬁrst steps of
chess play, customs, frequency of training, taking notes during
the play, imagination of the chessboard during the play, train-
ing aids, or problems they encountered during tournaments,
etc. After the interview the participants were debriefed and
received their payment (transfer to bank account).
Our equipment consisted of standard desktop PC equipped
with microphone and speakers. We used Skype application
with Skype Out capabilities for connection with mobile phone
network. Communication between experimenter and partici-
pant was recorded using MP3 Skype Recorder v3.1.
We extracted 114 ﬁndings from the semi-structured inter-
views and we clustered the ﬁndings according to the following
topics. Twenty six in Society and Entertainment topic; 43 in
Chess Playing and Training topic; 21 in Assistive Aids topic;
and 24 in Problems while Playing topic.
Society and Entertainment. All of the participants used
to play chess at professional level (i.e., were organised in
various chess clubs and attended ofﬁcial chess tournaments).
Intermediate participants stopped playing because of lack of
the time (have various hobbies or they were busy otherwise),
however all of the participants continued playing at least for
fun with friends and family.
Intermediate participants also experimented with online or
e-mail chess playing. Some reported, that they used to play
correspondence chess. However, all participants mostly play in
person. They meet their playmates at tournaments or at chess
All participants agreed on the main source of entertainment
from playing chess – problem solving, combinations, intel-
lectual effort, tactics, strategy, or competition. P4 said “I’m
fascinated by decision process in evaluation of what is a good
move and what is a bad one.”
Chess Play and Training. Congenitally blind participants
learned chess from teachers at specialized school for visually
impaired children, on the other hand late blind participants
learned chess from their parents in their childhood. In their
most active seasons the participants trained typically 3 times
a week and played on around 3 tournaments during a year.
Late blind participants started playing with chessboard
for sighted and gradually switched to chessboard for visually
impaired. P1 reported how the game changed for him since he
lost sight: “Time to time, I forget a piece. I have to orient on
a chessboard by heart.”. He also reported that he uses strong
lamp to lit the chessboard when he plays with sighted players
as he has remains of sight.
It seems that the biggest problem for visually impaired
is training and studying new materials – mainly the chess
diagrams (chess diagrams explore and discuss several variants
of future moves from the particular state of chess game, see
Fig. 2). Late blind participants reported that they used to
study literature, however they had to switch to a computer
software after the sight loss. P2 reported that he stopped
studying chess diagrams and only focus on replaying whole
games (from the beginning to the end). P1 said that when
he encounters an interesting book he makes a photocopy and
tries to analyse it with optical character recognition (OCR)
software. P1 downloads all the games from tournaments he
visits and studies the games on his computer. On the other
hand, intermediate participants did not use chess diagrams at
all, they learned chess only from magazines printed in Braille
script and they prioritize training by playing not by studying
chess literature and theory. For example P3 reported that before
he lost his sight he used to enjoy solving 3-4 move mate
During the tournaments the players are often asked to ﬁll
in a scoresheet. Expert and advanced participants reported that
they used oversized scoresheet while they had remains of sight
and later they switched to a tape recorder. P1 reported that
he had problems ﬁlling in oversized scoresheet when he was
tired and in time pressure – also his handwriting was often
not legible. Intermediate players were never asked to ﬁll in a
When the participants were asked how they imagine a
chessboard during a game their responses differed based on
their chess skills. The expert participants memorize the chess-
board in chess notation form. P1 explained: “I simply know
that bishop is on G7, but I do not imagine the chessboard
spacialy in my mind.” He also reported a problem when the
game is changing quickly and he forgot a piece and did
not include it in his calculations. On the other hand, P4, an
intermediate participant, (ever thought he was congenitally
blind) reported that he visualize the chessboard in the same
way he can touch it: “I can see a limited space with some
objects under some angles to each other. I can imagine their
Fig. 2: Example of chess diagram discussing possible moves
and development of the game (from The Streatham & Brixton
distances as I can touch the pieces on a board. It’s a inner
sight which has nothing to do with eyes.”. However he also
mentioned that he plays mostly from his memory and the
chessboard is just for the control. P3 reported that he imagines
the chessboard like in a real world (he attributes this to the
fact that he used to see), however he does not imagine how
particular piece looks like, only its place. P5 said: “As I get
older I need more contact with the board.”
Assistive Aids. The expert participants use ChessBase4
game database for storing and replaying interesting games.
They also download new games as they appear online (with a
help of friend or family member). Advanced and intermediate
participants did not use ChessBase at all. All participants
reported they used some kind of software for playing chess.
Mostly they used or tried Fritz5–“They did not create the
app in the way visually impaired can use it.”, said P4. Other
applications for playing chess mentioned were K-Chess Elite6,
which was highlighted easy setup of difﬁculty, or Winboard7.
P3 mentioned that while using computer chess program, he
also plays the game on a chessboard simultaneously.
All participants used some kind of screen-reader, mostly
JAWS8, except for P1 who has remains of sight and used
All participants used chessboard for visually impaired.
Some participants mentioned troubles putting a piece into
a hole mainly under the time pressure. When they were
asked how to improve current chessboard some participants
mentioned using magnets instead of pin-hole system. P4 also
explained how they created their own pieces when they were
traveling. He used cardboard squares with symbols engraved
for different pieces. P5 would like a chessboard with integrated
functions like clock, an ability to preview particular setup of
pieces, or to take quick notes about moves played.
Problems while Playing. As the biggest problem for blind
chess players P1 described orientation on a chessboard: “I’m
used to orient by sight since I was young. It is hard for me
to orient on a chessboard by heart.”. Similarly P3 and P5
mentioned problems of memorising the game.
Majority of participants also described problems with ac-
cessible literature. First, usage of special symbols in chess
notation (e.g. Ninstead of K for Knight) both in PDF
and printed materials. Second, multi-column layout in printed
magazines, which cannot be analyzed using OCR correctly.
Similarly for multi-column PDF, where there is a problem
with screen-reader reading lines of text through whole width
of page, although it is possible to typeset accessible multi-
column PDF. P3 noted “Sighted simply takes whichever book
Another problem described by P4 (and requested by P1)
were accessible chess diagrams, which are not accessible at
all in graphical form and demanding to study in textual form.
Some participants mentioned bad experience while playing
with sighted players during tournaments. Some sighted player
requested blind players to use an assistant - “He (sighted
player) uses my assistant so he does not need to play my
moves”, said P1 (typically two chessboards, one for each one,
are used when sighted person plays with visually impaired
person). P3 described what he told to sighted player when he
requested assistant: “But you are my assistant.” However, all
participants agreed that this is a sporadic behaviour and in most
of the time there are no problems when playing with sighted
Expert participants expressed problems with chess clocks,
some of them were afraid to touch them when there was a
time pressure, so they asked the adversary or people standing
around to announce the time for them.
The ﬁndings from the qualitative study suggest that even
congenitally blind chess players may use mental images for
solving chess problems (1st research question, see Section I).
Also it seems that late blind chess players retain their ability
to form mental images (2nd research question, see Section I).
These may imply that there is no need for visual stimuli when
mental images are created.
It would be interesting to research the effect of visually
impaired persons’ ability to memorize large amount of in-
formation in spatial orientation , their ability to better
memorize information in sequential representation , or
their superior haptic perceptual selectivity  on formation
of mental images. The experiment design would be similar to
Newell’s  one; we would use haptic and verbal learning
of object’s position. Moreover, it would be interesting to
investigate possible limitations of mental images formation by
congenitally blind players. The experiment would be similar
to Gobet’s  one.
Further we collected ﬁndings regarding design of chess-
board for visually impaired players (3rd research question, see
Section I). It seems that pin-hole system of the chessboard is
not optimal but the players learned how to cope with it. If
asked for alternative design, the participants mostly demanded
some kind of magnet based chessboard. Further it seems, that
the shape of the pieces do not play a big role while playing
and that more important is only position of the stones (this is
consistent with ﬁndings of Gobet, et al. ). Thus, this may
be another direction in designing accessible chessboards.
Last, we observed that one of the biggest obstacles for blind
chess players (especially expert ones) may be accessibility of
study materials, either electronic or printed. Nowadays, the
publishers slowly stop using default chess notation and replace
pieces letters with symbols, which cannot be interpreted cor-
rectly neither by OCR nor by screen-reader. Therefore, there is
a potential for developers to implement better screen-readers or
OCR systems, same as for publishers to consider accessibility
of the printed text.
In conclusion we propose ﬁve future directions for research
and development of ICT systems for visually impaired chess
•Research on how different spatial and memory skills
of blind persons affect formation of mental images.
•Research on how different is the formation of mental
images in chess play without visual stimuli.
•Development of accessible system for chess diagrams
•Development of accessible chessboard based on mag-
nets with all pieces of the same shape.
•Development of screen-readers supporting chess nota-
tion with symbols representing pieces.
V. C ONCLUSION
We conducted a qualitative user study with ﬁve blind chess
players. We collected and categorized 114 ﬁndings covering
several topics like chess playing, training and studying, prob-
lems, assistive aid, etc. We concluded with a set of future
research directions such as research on formation of mental
images of blind chess players, or development of new kind of
accessibility aids. It seems that deeper understanding of mental
processes related to problem solving situations brought by
playing chess can substantially help in design and development
of aids, that will free the mental potential of blind chess
This research has been supported by the project De-
sign of special user interfaces funded by grant no.
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