Hands-on games

Graeme Turner
When it comes to chess, you would think that you need to see the board. So how do people with a vision impairment play the game? The white squares on the chess board are higher than the black ones. Each square also has a peg hole to fix the pieces so they are not knocked over. Don has a vision impairment. He has been playing chess for more than 30 years. He also plays Scrabble online. He says playing board games is a way to make friends and keep the mind active.
Posted by: 
Graeme Turner on 11/10/2012
A chess board with holes in each square and the darker squares raised.
blind chess board

Players use an adapted chessboard.

It may seem like just an ordinary game of chess but something is different. The player reaches out a hand and does not just pick up one piece. Instead he seems to touch a number of them across the board.

This particular player is blind. So how does he play a game which is, you would think, quite a visual operation?

The white squares are raised. The black squares are lower than the white squares, says long-time chess enthusiast Don who has a vision impairment.

Another adaptation to the chess board is a hole in each square to place each chess piece on. This of course prevents hands eager to sense the game plan from sweeping the entire array of pieces from the board. It might seem a tempting way to clean up your opponent, but this is not the idea of the game.

Players are able to distinguish their chess pieces from their opponent's. The white chess pieces have a bump on their tops, while the black pieces are smooth.

Don enjoyed chess as a child and used to play it with his father. When his sight declined later in life, he decided it wasn't going to checkmate his efforts at the game.

The chess club

Chess has been played by people with a vision impairment for many decades. Ben, who has a vision impairment, recalls how he organised a chess club in the 1970s at the former Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. Shielded from the hum of the St Kilda Road traffic, pawns were sacrificed and rooks seized in the tranquil surrounds of the organisation's dining room

Half-a-dozen players soon expanded to a group of between 15 and 20. Each player used his or her own board as roving hands might otherwise give an indication of what moves were being planned. A player would inform their opponent of the move just made, for example castle to black king four.

There was no problem with this type of contest, other than the usual mental gymnastics. The toughest ask was organising participants to travel to and from the institute by taxis.

In time the group played against a group without vision impairments at a chess club. They lost fifteen games to one, but say they certainly enjoyed themselves.

I remember I nearly had a divorce, recalls Don. In one particularly notable game, Don's wife under instruction misunderstood Don and moved a piece to the left instead of right. She lost the queen for him. It seems he may have almost lost not one queen but two.

Playing scrabble

Don is seldom lost for words too when he plays scrabble. A board with a raised grid holds the letter tiles and the valuable scoring squares are marked in Braille.

When he plays online Don uses an Excel spreadsheet that he devised to represent the board.

He gains pleasure from his many chess matches with a fellow from NSW, who also has a vision impairment, and is simply known as Curly.

I've met a lot of friends. It keeps your mind active, says Don. He notes there may be an emphasis these days on achievements in physical sport but many with blindness are not capable of such activities and still enjoy a mental challenge. This is an avenue for them to become far more than pawns.

Have you played chess with someone who is blind? Are you looking for opponents?

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