The astounding Bao Yun

WE HAVE featured blind go already in these pages - see Item 49. The achievements of players who are permanently blind have been both remarkable and inspiring. But we have yet to consider the case where a player chooses to be blind temporarily. Blindfold go, in other words. Is this an even more remarkable achievement?

Possibly. Truly blind players have the advantage of being able to feel the stones on specially made live boards. Blindfolded players use only what they see in their heads. On the other hand, a blindfolded player will typically have had the major advantage of already becoming strong on actual boards, whereas blind players will typically have not had normal access even to books, let alone normal ways of learning the game.

What seems certain, though, is that blindfold go seems very, very hard. Blindfold chess is reputed to go back at least to a 7th century Arab and was a success d'estime in 13th century Florence. By the 19th century exhibitions of simultaneous chess games by blindfolded masters became common.

In contrast, the best historical go can muster is references to masters memorising games, which is a long way from visualising variations in actual play.

Blindfold chess became known in Japan as the result of a famous visit by Alexander Alekhine to Tokyo in 1933. He defeated even the shogi Meijin Kimura Yoshio in simultaneous play. Shogi players took up the gauntlet, and blindfold shogi became popular enough that pros would give exhibitions, with no loss of quality detectable by amateurs.

Go players tried to join the circus, too, but it was soon concluded that it was too hard, and even if possible would require too much of an undignified handicap. The first real achievement managed appears to have been when Hane Yasumasa 8-dan flirted with blindfold go in the 1970s by playing a game with Amateur Women's Honinbo finalist Nishida Harumi. Hane got to about move 100 before apparently finding it too difficult to continue.

The only example we know since then, and the only example of blindfold go between top pros on a full board, was an exhibition game in Amagasaki in 1987 between 9-dans Hashimoto Shoji and Sonoda Yuichi. It was a fairly simple game - see the final position below - and was suspended after just 104 moves. This was, however, exceptional in that both players were blindfolded.


Hashimoto

Sonoda

There is a book, Moves in Mind: The Psychology of Board Games by Fernand Gobet, Alexander J. de Voogt and Jean Retschitzki (Psychology Press, 2004. ISBN:1841693367), which looks at blindfold play in several games and also concludes (page 91) "blindfold go does not seem common."

Discounting the famous legend of Wang the Firewood Collector losing to a mysterious lady in a forest in Tang China, blindfold go does not have much of a history there either. Chen Zude 9-dan once, in 1968, tried a game with national trainer Zhu Yuanzhi on an 11x11 board. He took White and won by 5 points, having thus played a complete game. Evidently, though, the decision to play on a small board implied that a large board was too difficult. This was against a background where, as with chess and shogi, xiangqi (Chinese chess) players regularly gave exhibitions of blindfold play. (The current Chinese record appears to be 19 simultaneous games by Liu Dahua, though there are reports of a 45-board event.)

Korea came into the mix later. A televised invitation event in 1995 produced what was then declared a world record when Mok Chin-seok 1-dan got to 121 moves - still not a completed game.

Then along came Bao Yun, right. Bao - 鲍云 or 鲍橒 - is a Chinese amateur 6-dan (but also, among amateurs, regarded as one of the very strongest - on the European scale he is actually 7-dan, or 2745). He was born in 1981 and learnt go in 1987. He will be known to several western players as organiser of Go To China trips. From Beijing, he came up with the notion of playing blindfolded at a party - he even gives the precise date: 22 June 2001 - at the Qinghua Go Club (he played Board 1 at Qinghua University). A friend who had just returned from Korea was regaling everyone with what he saw there, and that included the television programme on blindfold go. It had been a well-fuelled party, Bao relates, and this tale triggered his "patriotic fervour." The result was a game with his friend, Pan Yijun 5-dan, which lasted well into the night, but which got as far as move 171 before Pan resigned. 171 moves thus became a new, Chinese, world record.

Patriotic fervour soon melted into a passion for blindfold go. A significant step in that evangelism was a visit to the Gothenburg (Goteborg) Open in 2004 where he played former European champion Matthew Macfadyen, also a 6-dan, with Romanian pro Catalin Taranu giving a large-board commentary.

Interestingly, Bao on this occasion was able to play without actually being blindfolded - he sat with his back to the board, though he normally wears an airline sleeping mask. He was apparently able to avoid being distracted. The book mentioned above reports studies that, in any event, blindfold players do not see actual boards in their head. It says, for example that data "also led Binet [in a famous 1894 study] to conclude that knowledge, and not concrete visual images, was critical."

Matthew's impression of the game, which he lost, will be of interest in that connection:

"Discussing the game afterwards, it appeared that Bao had no real difficulty in picturing local positions with complete precision. His reading of cuts, eyeshape, liberties and life and death seemed to be as good when looking at the board as when imagining it.

"He said that the only stage of the game where he was in danger of losing focus was (I'd guess around move 40) where I had a chance to make a big central moyo. He said that he found sabaki manoeuvres in large moyos difficult because there are no familiar shapes, and making good shape with respect to stones at a distance could not be done visually.

"I infer that most of his reckoning was being done in the visual part of the brain, and definitely not by a sort of ' g4, g5, g6, h6, that must be a keima' type of calculation.

"However he seemed to be able to do this for one area of the board at a time and not for the whole board simultaneously. Perhaps on a 9x9 board he would have a complete, focused visual image with every stone on it.

"As to the actual game, having failed to take my chance to make a big moyo to confuse him with, I kept on playing amateurish local fighting moves against his professionally fluent ones, and it felt like a game I could not have won with 2 stones, though perhaps 3 would have been enough."

Bao afterwards became something of a celebrity in China, appearing on television as he gradually tried to push the envelope of how many moves he could play. He was able to beat a noted server champion, TOM 7-dan, in 225 moves, which was especially significant in that he was playing at 20 seconds a move. Whatever processing is going on in his head, it seems to happen extremely fast. There is in general some drop-off in performance - Bao himself seems to believe that he loses 10 to 15 points a game through being blindfolded - and he also concedes that time pressure can be a factor. He would prefer a minute a move, but is nevertheless happy with 30 seconds.

No matter how fast a game can be completed, it is clearly a strenuous exercise. Blindfold chess was supposedly banned in the Soviet Union in the 1930s as a health hazard, and Bao was able to play only about 60 games between 2004 and 2006. The effort also cut down the number of ordinary games he could play to about the same level.

Yet, astounding as all this has been, he has since moved to a stratospherically high new level. The new world record is a game of 345 moves with the Singaporean 5-dan amateur, Chen Jiacheng. Bao lost that game by 4.5 points, but he can also point to a 313-move jigo on 2 stones with the young pro Zhou Ruiyang.

Mere numbers can be discounted - never mind the quality, feel the width. But in this case we would suggest real quality is there, too, and certainly genuine complexity rather than the simplistic shapes of the Hashimoto-Sonoda game above. Look at Bao's game in Kuala Lumpur in July 2007 with Teng Boon Ping 5-dan on the Malaysia Weiqi Association website, , as one example (illustrated below - our thanks to Billy Chia).

Serious researchers should also refer to a long article by Bao himself in the 15 April 2008 issue of Weiqi Tiandi, which also has Bao's first and latest world record games. He hopes to feature eventually in the Guinness Book of Records as, in his words, "the only person in the world who can finish a blindfold game of go", but clearly his record-breaking achievements are not finished yet.

Here is a brief summary of Bao Yun's go career to date. The Chinese tournaments mentioned are major national events for amateurs. Those who get top places often become pros.