Grandmaster Larry Christiansen
Grandmaster Larry Christiansen, 3 time US Champion, was our special guest on 6/16/07 during the 14th Annual Western PA Championship at CMU. At the time of his visit, he was rated 2670!
One of the highlights of the day was his blindfold game against Hibiki Sakai. Hibiki, who just finished 6th grade, was the top rated local player in Grades K-6. His June 2007 rating was 1844.
Afterward, many spectators wanted to play Larry. He took a lot of them on, mainly at Queen odds. Being busy with the tournament, I didn't see much of these games, but I didn't hear any about anybody else scoring against the GM.
Going from right to left in the photo above, his opponents were:
1) Kevin Mo (6) 1664
2) Gaibo Yan (7) 1550
3) Randall Gough (7) 1535
4) Ben Molin (5) 1421
5) Eric Stern (8) 1405
6) Daniel Priore (6) 1390
7) Adam Brnardic (11) 1391
8) Anthony Priore (7) 1399
9) Kemen Linsuain (5) 1373
10) Jonathan Naser (8) 1308
Number in ( ) is grade just completed, followed by rating.
Playing 10 blindfold games at once means keeping track of 640 squares and up to 320 pieces in your head. It is an amazing juggling act of memory and imagination. Most Grandmasters can play at least a game of blindfold chess, but multiple games is another matter. In 1960, a Hungarian International Master named Janos Flesch set the world's record by playing 52 simultaneous blindfold games over a 13 hour period in Budapest. Before him, the Polish-born Grandmaster and Miguel Najdorf played 45 blindfold games in 1947. Some purists question Flesch and Najdorf's claims to the world record because they supposedly had access to ongoing scores of the games. Next in line for the record would be Belgium champion George Koltanowski. Over the course of a long career, Koltanowski probably played more blindfold games than anyone. Over a period of decades, he toured the world, giving blindfold exhibitions wherever he went, mostly playing 10 games at a time. In 1937, shortly after his 34th birthday, he played 34 blindfold games simultaneously in Edinburgh, Scotland. He finished with 24 wins, 10 draws, and no losses. Koltanowski died in the year 2000 in San Francisco at the age of 96. If you want to read a fascinating account of how he got started in blindfold chess and his tours around the world, get hold of his book, Adventures of a Chessmaster, published in 1955.
One of the most amazing stories in the history of blindfold chess involves an American named Harry Nelson Pillsbury. In 1896, he gave an exhibition in London where he simultaneously played 12 games of blindfold chess, 6 games of blindfold checkers, a card game called Whist (a progenitor of bridge), AND, at the start of this exhibition, memorized the following list of words provided by two University professors: "antiphlogistine, periosteum, takadiastase, plasmon, ambrosia, Threlkeld, strepococcus, straphylococcus, micrococcus, plasmodium, Mississippi, Freiheit, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, athletics, no war, Etchenberg, American, Russian, philosophy, Piet Potgelter's Rost, Salamagundi, Oomisellecootsi, Bangmanvate, Schlechter's Nek, Manzinyama, theosophy, catechism, and Madjesoomalops". The next day, he still remembered all the words and recited them from start to finish, and then recited the list again, backwards . Want to know what these strange words mean? Look here: http://www.monmouth.com/~colonel/chess/pillsbury.html .
A famous player named Edward Lasker wrote about another of Pillsbury's exhibitions in his book, Chess Secrets I learned from the Masters: "He played strong chess and made no mistakes [presumably in recalling the position]. The picture of Pillsbury sitting calmly in an armchair, with his back to the players, smoking one cigar after another, and replying to his opponents' moves after brief consideration in a clear, unhesitating manner, came back to my mind 30 years later, when I refereed Alekhine's world record performance at the Chicago World's Fair, where he played 32 blindfold games simultaneously. It was quite an astounding demonstration, but Alekhine made quite a number of mistakes, and his performance did not impress me half as much as Pillsbury's in Breslau".
Coming back to GM Christiansen's blindfold exhibition, there were also a number of mistakes, and unfortunately these cost him 6 games. He started out strongly on all the boards, quickly building up favorable positions. After about a dozen moves or so, he started confusing the positions on boards 6 and 8. Generally speaking, he knew all the games, but vagueness about little details here and there caused him to pitch his Queen or Rook in positions that he surely would have won in regular over the board play. As a result, he dropped games to Kevin Mo, Eric Stern, Daniel Priore, Adam Brnardic, Anthony Priore, and Kemen Linsuain. He won the other four. The last game to finish, against Gaibo Yan, was the most exciting. After a strong opening, a little inaccuracy led to a sharp, tactical game where Gaibo appeared always on the edge of winning. First Gaibo went for material, then he tried playing for checkmate. He played one forcing move after the next, but each time the Grandmaster kept finding the only defence. "How did he see that?," Gaibo remarked after the game about a particularly tricky move. Well, by that time, Christiansen only needed to keep track of one game, and his 'vision' of the board was particularly acute. In a few short moves, he leapt out of the mating net and began gobbling up pawns. When the smoke cleared, Christiansen had a King, Rook, and 1 pawn (the a-pawn), against Gaibo's King and lone Rook. There would be drawing chances in such a position, but Larry Christiansen cut Gaibo's King off on the far side of the board. His technique during this phase was very precise. Gaibo played on until a move before mate hoping for a mishap, but there were none. It was an exciting finish to the exhibition. While the overall performance was not on a par with some the legendary displays mentioned above, it was, nevertheless an interesting lesson on the strengthens and limitations of human intelligence.