In early December 2016, Grandmaster Timur Gareyev accomplished an extraordinary feat: he played 48 opponents simultaneously, while blindfolded, in an exhibition which lasted upwards of 18 hours. That achievement has now earned him the official Guinness™ World Record, eclipsing the previous record of 46 boards set by German FM Marc Lang in 2011. Recently we reached Gareyev for an interview as he was on tour in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The interview has been edited for length and occasionally clarity.
Macauley: What brings you to Astana?
Timur: I’m here at the Darmen Sadvakasov — probably the strongest grandmaster in Kazakstan history — Chess Academy. Now the last name Sadvakasov is actually kind of a famous name in chess for Kazakhstan... And we’re gonna actually do a blindfold exhibition match tomorrow — so kind of a similar smaller match that I’ve been doing as I travel the world.
Macauley: Well, that brings us to the main topic, which is your world record... 48 boards besting the previous record of 46 set by Marc Lang in 2011, and I understand you’re friends with Marc.
Timur: I’m friends with Marc Lang and we actually played a tandem blindfold exhibition match back in his home town, and that was an insightful experience to see his style of play and his approach.
Macauley: Was he pissed that you took his record?
Timur: He’s so pissed that he actually wants to break my record now! Have you heard of Marc’s ambitions to go for 50? ... We’re actually kind of supportive of each other’s effort. I think the big idea would be to share the experience. I think just trying to get ahead of each other is not necessarily even the priority, but the quality of the effort and the experience for the players and the audience and the world, how well we can present and share this experience with the world is what’s going to matter for the legacy and the benefit of blindfold chess to the world of chess.
Timur: It’s amazing how you don’t necessarily have to be a grandmaster — the ultimate top performer — at times you’ll have somebody who is like 1900 just do much better at blindfold chess than someone who might be a master level player... And Marc is the living proof of that since he’s not even a grandmaster or even an international master, he’s a FIDE master who attempted blindfold chess similar to Koltanowski, who wasn’t a world champion like Alekhine, but he was able to play many many games, and probably up to this point is the most influential practitioner of blindfold chess.
Macauley: When did you start undertaking blindfold simuls?
Timur: I started off with an exhibition — an informal get together… I believe it was back in 2011, so about six years ago... [The world record] was on my mind for quite some time. I attempted the first time [to play] 4 games, and interestingly as I started off, I did feel a bit of a challenge, especially the initial moves. I started getting lost and for a moment was like, ‘oh man, can i actually do this or not?’ I had my doubts but then interestingly, the initial stage is a challenging part, and once you are able to navigate through that, you can establish good control, good vision of what’s going on with those boards, however many you are playing.
Macauley: Marc has described to me in the past sort of creating a spatial element to try to keep the positions distinct in his mind. What kinds of mental strategies have you developed for keeping the boards separated?
Timur: I think there’s many elements involved. I think a lot of it is kind of experiential. Definitely the spatial memory, just being able to relate to different boards and just kind of attributing a certain image to that experience. I feel that the more you engage different senses and the more present you are, that you maintain that freshness of mind — and blindfold chess has that quality that as you complete the match you’ll — at least the way I feel, I may play one competitive game one-on-one with a board I see, like if I play against another grandmaster, and most of the time I’ll be exhausted towards the end of the game.
Macauley: How does the experience scale, going from 4 boards, to 10 boards [such as one in Exeter, England last June], and up — 48 boards seems like a whole different thing, but what is the difference in your experience?
Timur: At the World Record event the average rating was 1700-1800, which is actually the higher range of opponents that I’ve faced in smaller matches. There was one or two matches that had maybe stronger players over all, but really the world record event presented the most challenge. So I would say 4 games against players of that level would take about 45 minutes, then you’ve got the 8 games, that would take probably about 2 to 2.5 hours. So I think it goes up exponentially. If you’re playing twice as many games, it’s not going to take twice as long, it’s going to take 2.5 times as long. 15 games — I played several of those — will take 5-6 hours. 35 games I played — that was the big one in preparation for the ultimate world record event we played in California — it took me close to 12 hours.
Replay any of the 48 games from the list below:
Macauley: So you went from 35 against an average rating of 13-1400, to 48 with an average rating of more like 17-1800 hundred!? That's a big jump!
Timur: Yeah, it took a lot of time not only to be able to prepare mentally and performance-wise, but even to have everything set up, because we had to find the right place, arrange all the logistics, pick the right bike. So once it came down to the point where I was like, hey, we got it all ready to go, a day or two before the ultimate, and everything was in order, they had everything set up, and then I’m thinking, “well now, I’ve actually got to do this!” [laughs] Indeed it is a significant jump in the level of difficulty and you could probably tell by some of the games and some of the results, I did start getting tired. But all the great support, and the environment was great, we picked the right place, we had all the right conditions in order for me to go that extra push.
You set the goal so you believe in it, and every day for about a year, it was on the top of my mind.
As you could tell there were several misses, I blundered a queen more than once, but you can still — as you know the ultimate result — 80% of wins in the match which gave me the ultimate result for at least the Guinness certification or endorsement.
Macauley: One of the factors in scaling up is just the time involved — as you mentioned, so it’s really an endurance test even more than just a mental challenge of keeping the boards, but a physical challenge. You take this to the next level with the exercise bike. Is that tied to the need to stay fresh and get into a sort of meditative mood or tell me how did that develop?
Timur: In terms of physical endurance and preparation I attempted two marathons, and one of those was actually a mega-marathon which was 43 miles in length. The ultimate challenge was to run 100, which I will do at some point. In terms of things I did every day my goal was to do about 3 hours of exercise every day.
[The cycling] idea kind of occurred spontaneously as I did an event at a scholastic tournament where we aimed for a world record in rapid blindfold games, where I played a bunch of blitz games one after another blindfolded. I showed up early, it was about 7 AM, and we were planning to start somewhere between 8 and 9 and the venue was right there at the gym and I went to do a little exercise at the elliptical machines, some weights — I figured I had a little time just trying to get in the mood, and as I started spinning the bike trying out some of the equipment, I thought why don’t we try — I don’t have to move the pieces I don’t have to stand still, I just have to announce the moves. Why not try spinning the bike while I’m doing it? So I tried it out and it worked for the blindfold blitz, and then for the next couple of events I just kind of considered the opportunity, and I tried getting the bike for every kind of event. I tried it for the classical format of just facing 10 players at the same time and it worked excellently as long as the bike wasn’t too squeaky. You could maintain that level of focus, concentration, and it adds a bit of a spectacle to the people who come in to check it out, people who are participating in a match as well.
Gareyev played some blindfold blitz with help from Jan Gustafsson when he visited the chess24 studio, in May 2016:
Macauley: So it’s not so much that it was just adding another element of difficulty, but you found that it was actually beneficial to your being able to accomplish the feat?
Timur: I know none of the blindfold masters did it in the past, and I don’t know if Marc is going to try to use my secret weapon [laughs]. Knowing his sense of humor he’s probably going to have something prepared in that regard, but it works really well for me. I actually kind of notice as you live and you get to know yourself better, I’m actually surprised that for that many years I don’t necessarily consider myself a professional player, a chess player, or someone who is — I don’t have any particular plans for reaching new heights in competitive chess. There’s great goals, and they’re definitely worth it but it’s not something I’m pursuing. And just considering the level of concentration that I maintained for many many years, when chess was indeed in my front focus — something that I dedicated my life to — it’s amazing how I was able to maintain that focus and concentration considering that more and more so I get to realize just in terms of physiology and to be able to perform the best, I actually need to constantly move or kind of just get that energy flowing for that really top level.
Macauley: We talked about the time factor and the endurance factor, what about the psychological factor of scaling up to 48 boards? Are you prone to get them confused, or at that point do you have such good technique that you’re able to separate them out in your mind. Basically, how are you possibly able to do that!?
Timur: Well, number 1, just to clarify the basics of it, is obviously I announce the chess moves. I don’t have access to the scoresheet. I announce the moves and I prefer — and the concept is very simple, but something I get from Marc — is when you say the move as where the piece is coming from to where it’s going. So for example, N-e2-to-d4 and d4-takes-e5. And I use that method for playing out the moves, whereas Marc has those moves projected out on the screen, just to avoid that confusion that could be caused by “Nb5 or d5” and then the game goes a completely different way, when those d and b those get confused.
So all the players are out there in front of me, all 48 of them, and via that method that I go through from one board to the next and I gotta be able to go through 48 of them, come back to the first one, and then go through the second round, and then on to the third, fourth, and the fifth, and so on. And those very initial rounds which I described — those are the toughest challenge, at the beginning, when you are playing all around, the first moves. In a match that is that long it basically takes 30-45 minutes to make that one round of moves, so as you could tell, just even psychologically, that length — and I’m also kind of aware of the amount of time that the players are out there, so you kind of want to try to speed up the action as well, to be able to maintain the rhythm, whereas as you go through the initial stages, which are very tough when I have to slow down, on to the next stage which would be closer towards the middlegame, that’s when those patterns kind of end up sticking in my mind and to be able to access them.
So how am I able to pull it off? Basically one move at a time really.
I had a system for aligning some of those initial opening moves. There are certain visual techniques that could be worked out that could aid the process. I think the ultimate answer to “how is that possible” is that the chess mind [has] that ability to access the dimension of what’s going to happen within a few moves...as you’re predicting what’s going to happen if I play this and that. So the ability of blindfold chess is inherent to just playing one chess game at a time, but then the mind of a chess player — the chess mind is so resourceful that basically you can multiply that by how many boards you’re playing and if you have the practice the ability, the psychology, the patience to be able to pull it off, you can really multiply and be able to play that many games — from there on, obviously the factor becomes how’s the environment, how’s that that you’re playing and would you be able to sustain that over many hours. The level of competition and your ability to have that endurance and can you.
I think playing a match that long is kind of like running a 100 mile race.
I think a lot of us are capable of it. I’m not even talking about a marathon. A marathon is probably like playing 20 blindfold games, but it’s like a mega-marathon. I think a lot of people are capable of it, but if you ask, ‘can you run 100 miles’ it’s like less than 0.1 % of the world who would be able to attempt and succeed at that. Even though physiologically I think a lot of people would be capable of it, but they weren’t tempted because of the psychology and then at some point you’re going to be ready to give up. I was at that point in my world record event. I was like “oh man, i don’t know if this is ever going to end. I might start losing my mind, losing my focus, start blundering, like this is going to all go down the drain.” I did have that sensation that I might lose it, and yeah you got to keep on going and then if you do — in my case I was able to succeed.
Macauley: Tell me about this fire alarm incident, because that seemed to me like it could really derail it. But how did you experience that?
Timur: It was a friend of mine who was catering for the event and he was making some food out there in the building kitchen, and it just wasn’t designed for having any steam come off, and so just all of a sudden it just started going off. Now my friend who was bringing in all the food, he was catering for all the players, but he was also — and this is one of the great things — that the nutrition is what definitely got me through the event because it’s not even some of the things that I anticipate. The quality of nutrition was — the raw chocolate, apples, fruit, vegetables, hot peppers, some of the things that were just amazing in maintaining the levels of my concentration.But as far as what happened, he was frying some food and the alarm goes off... The police and the fire truck came in and they were like “hey, you have to evacuate” so I came out, took my blindfold off, and it was a beautiful sunny day in Las Vegas, so we get to walk around for 30 to 45 minutes, and then kind of had to get back and get back to action, and reinitiate the match, which was a little crazy. But I thought a little bit about the positions, kind of aligned them as I was walking and in a way that almost helped me, just because of the ability to switch it up and take in the fresh air. But had it happened sometime in let’s say the first two hours that could have certainly messed it up because I just needed that ultra focus, ultra concentration, staying in the moment, to be able to maintain the awareness of those initial moves, which really need to be anchored in.
The alarm incident happened about four hours after we started and by then I had it all pretty much planted and figured out in my mind as to what was the type of position, which board number, who was that player, what was that voice — the voice, the vocal, the tonality — I had the players deliver their moves, and I think that’s, in my view, like a 10 to 15 percent anchor.
Now Marc doesn’t have the players announce their moves. He was actually sighted, he saw — he didn’t have a blindfold on — he had the computer screen, he saw the chess moves pop-up there, he noticed which board that was, which player that was and basically the way they did it was they were still all around him... I think that’s another anchor, the ability to see the player and be like “oh, that’s that youngster right there who just played this gambit, or I played this gambit line against this older player,” and I know when one player’s cancelled for example, he’d have mentally painted a crown over their head, so like small anchors like that which could aid you throughout the game, but that certainly all accumulates on top of the big thing which is the ability, or quality of the chess mind to be able to access that blindfold chess ability.
Macauley: So Marc had the benefit of being able to actually see the opponents. You wore a physical blindfold so you didn’t have that but you could make use of the sound to help keep them separate.
Timur: I think the blindfold gives the experience of the blindfold chess match going on and has that spectacle, and the sound of the voices, when you hear that voice it had a particular quality whether you associate it with an older gentleman, or a youngster, somebody might have a raspy voice and you’re like “oh man, that’s that Albin gambit” or something. That’s definitely a big anchor.
Macauley: Going back to the fire alarm, you mention it was helpful that it was in the fourth hour, but still, concentration is very important, and this had the potential to completely shatter your concentration, didn’t it? But it didn’t seem to have that effect.
Timur: Yeah, I actually had a similar kind of distraction in a way which was something pre-planned when I played the 35 player event, I had several players who initially suggested that they had to leave a little bit early, so there was the last five boards. So as I was playing the match, after about hour five or six I had those guys lined up at the end of the tables, and then we actually took a break, there was a lunch break and I faced those five players, I played them, I told them hey you guys if you want to do it this way you’re gonna have to play the move within about 5 or 10 seconds, and then we went on with that rhythm. On board 1 basically I called them 31, 32, 33, 34, 35 and it went on like that until we finished those 5 games which was about 30 minutes that it took.
I think it added value to the event so that players weren’t forced to stay there for many hours, and added a little flexibility and also added a certain challenge, and changed up the rhythm, and was also kind of fun for people to watch — to have a little blindfold blitz in the middle of a classical event — which I actually had the option even at the world record event, for the players to just play out their moves... I did that with a few of the kids who were participating. I think that’s another great perspective and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in terms of breaking some of the rules that you would assume. In a way I think that’s an added challenge and keeps things somewhat flexible for some of the players if they want to play it out.
There was one fascinating idea that was kind of almost surreal. But in terms of breaks, one thing I may add to the experience if I do the very ultimate match, might be taking naps, maybe like 15-20 minute naps, especially I think there’s a time frame for that, especially if there’s a sort of performance for the audience. That could definitely boost the level of concentration. With the very last event adding more boards, I guess I could pull it off, but with a higher level of concentration the quality of the games would be much greater. Other than that just in terms of breaks as far as my events, those were primarily just rest room breaks, take a short walk, just kind of change things up for barely a minute or two and then just get back into the action.