Bringing Chess to Visually Impaired People

How We Play

Chess is a very accessible game for people with a vision impairment. Many of our members play in local leagues and congresses throughout the UK. There are certain modifications which are made to equipment and the rules used in formal tournaments and matches accommodate players with a visually impared players.

Tactile Chess Sets

The dark squares on a tactile board are slightly raised above the light squares and the black pieces are capped with a small spike or pin. The pieces are all secured in place by pegs that fit holes drilled into the centre of each square. A more expensive option which has recently become popular is to have pairs of magnets, one in the base of the piece and the other in the centre of the square.

There is a second type of tactile chess set developed by F. H. Merrick who founded the Braille Chess Club in the early nineteen-hundreds. The pieces are of a simpler design and all the same hight. In these sets, it is the white pieces that are marked with a point. Merrick sets are not easy to find and the regular “Staunton“ design is much more common, although there are some visually impaired people who still use them.

Two boards

Two boards are used if either player has a vision impairement. This is because a visually impaired player needs to feel the board at all times and this would prevent their opponent from seeing or feeling the position.

Each player moves all of the pieces on their own board – including their opponents – so that both boards always reflect the same position.

Announcing moves

When a player makes a move, they speak the move aloud so that their opponent can copy the move on their own board.

The name of the piece is spoken and followed by the square it is moving to. For pawn moves only the square is spoken. The squares are described using the modern algebraic notation found in chess books (a1, Nc4, fxg6, etc). Many chess boards now have the coordinates printed around the edge of the board and fully sighted people can make use of this when playing against a person with a vision impairment.

For clarity, it is preferred if the files are announced using words in place of just the letter. The words used for the files vary between countries but the two most common systems are the European system (Anna, Bella, Cezar, David, Eva, Felix, Gustaf and Hector) and the international phonetic alphabet preferred in the United States (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Fox-trot, Golf, Hotel).

Type a move into the form below and press Enter to see how it would be announced. The form expects moves in algebraic notation (e4, Nf3, Bc4, etc).

Clocks

For clarity, the word “chessclock” refers to a device which has two clocks – one for each player – connected so that stopping one clock starts the other clock.

Historically, visually impaired players used tactile chessclocks which had no glass covers over the clock face. This made it possible to feel the hands on the clock. However, most players now use talking digital chessclocks.

Only one chessclock is required if either player is vision impaired. The time and move counter are spoken through an earpiece so as not to disturb the other player. A sighted player can use the display in the usual way.

Only the player making a move needs to operate the chessclock. That is, they press their clock after their own move and not after their opponents.

Tournaments and the Laws of Chess

Appendix D of the laws of chess laid out by the International Chess Federation governs games in which either player has a visual impairment. The rules in this appendix can be amended at the discretion of the arbiter however there are certain formalities that any player should expect to be asked to follow.

Scoresheets (Recording Moves)

Most tournaments require players to keep a record of the moves but it is useful to do so even in friendly games so that games can be reviewed later. Sighted players simply write the moves down on a scoresheet but people with a vision impairment are allowed to use a voice recorder or write moves in Braille.

Apart from this accommodation, the rules relating to the recording of moves are the same as they are for sighted players. If the tournament is following FIDE laws, moves must not be recorded before they have been made on the board and although a player can record their last move after the opponent’s reply, it must be recorded before they make their next move.

Repeating Moves

The FIDE laws state that after a player has announced a move, the opponent must repeat the move as well as move the piece on their own board. Repeating the moves in this way helps avoid discrepancies between the two boards. It also lets the players know that moves have been heard and correctly understood.