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My Lichess rapid rating is around 2100 and I'm quickly realising how poor my visualisation skills are, causing my calculation to be horrible even just two or three moves deep. I have worked on The Woodpecker Method for a while on Chessable and am going pretty well, and generally find tactics pretty quickly in my games, so I think my tactical pattern recognition is fine, but my raw calculation skills are very bad as a consequence of poor visualisation.

Most similar questions on this site are answered from a pattern recognition perspective which isn't really what I'm going for; I'm wanting to calculate variations from a complex middlegame position, not solve tactics. And just pulling up master games and trying to calculate variations from the middlegame to practice doesn't get me very far, since I just get so foggy a few moves in. I very quickly mix up pieces that have moved in my variation with pieces that are still on the board.

Has anyone realised their visualisation was terrible at a similar level, and managed to improve it? How could I do this?

A side note: I have heard of aphantasia, but I don't think that's the problem. I can picture things in a general foggy way that I'm assuming is normal.

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    I do not think this question should be closed. Answers to similar questions focus on how to visualize, but there are many people with no capacity to visualize at all. I am one of them, but my peak rating was about 2300 ELO. The question title does not refer to playing chess without visualising, but aphantasia is mentioned in the post and in the one answer. Perhaps with a slightly different title the question might attract interest in new ground.
    – Philip Roe
    Jan 5 at 21:20
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    @PhilipRoe voting to reopen. How to think while playing chess is handled too generically given all there ways there are to think. The title does make it look like a duplicate. I'd love to see your answer to this question. Jan 5 at 22:46
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    I discover that there is ongoing scientific interest into aphantasia. For details see medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind It affect between one and two percent of people. How many are chess players?
    – Philip Roe
    Jan 6 at 19:54
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    Here is a tool for improving visualisation! Jan 6 at 20:50

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You might like to check out medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind to see exactly how your visualizing capabilities compare with others. You say that you "can picture things in a general foggy way that I'm assuming is normal." but you may find that you are well below average (for a few people the picture in their head is the same as normal sight). In that case you will have to adjust to this situation, and advice about how to use good visualization will have little value. Even if so, your situation is far from hopeless.

I am myself extremely aphantasic. I see no mental images (and do not imagine any other sensory experiences) which puts me in less than 1% of the population. But my best rating (many years ago now) was 207 on the old British Chess Federation system. Roughly equivalent to 2300 FIDE and maybe 2600 Lichess (If you check, you will see that I have fallen far) I have played blindfold well enough to beat a weak player. Strong visualisers find this hard to believe.

I can see a great deal from the current position and forecast quite far into the future without in any way seeing the future. Questions such as

Where are my and my opponents weaknesses?

Are my pieces harmonious (Supporting each other but free to move)?

What is the balance of attackers and defenders for some vulnerable piece or square?

Which pieces do I want to exchange?

Where should I direct my attack?

do not (at least for me) require any visualization. Neither do short combinations. I know where the pieces will go without having to see them. I do occasionally mess up. At the end of a combination I have to ask, is that mate? I check each square around the King and ask which of my pieces is covering it or which of my oppenents pieces is blocking it. I can do this by recalling which moves each piece has made, but sometimes I forget.

In the immediate position I do not have much difficulty "seeing" possible moves that are enabled by a pin, or by a fork on the following move. There is a difference here between seeing and perceiving.

My advice to the OP is as follows. First establish how (ab)normal your visualizing ability is, Many people do not discover until quite late in life that they are different. If you do discover that you have aphantasis, it is a permanent condition and there is very little you can do about it. Ignore all the advice about how to play blindfold. Concentrate on what you can perceive in the position before you. Ask the questions that I suggest but make up your own. How much can you make use of what you CAN see?

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    Thanks you for this, very interesting. I used to play blindfold and would try to rely on visualization constantly. The edges of the board would get foggy and I would forget about rook pawns. I think it was a mistake to try to rely on visualization so much when that is only part of my normal chess thinking. Jan 7 at 14:17
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Mixing up your visualization with what is on the board is a standard type of error. Not looking at the board while calculating may help.

I do not think there is a normal in the general public of how thinking works. For example, some people never visualize at all, called "aphantasia " as you say. I don't know if people like that play chess. There are degrees of visualization. Do you normally visualize when thinking about anything? Do you only visualize when explicitly deciding to or does it just happen? It may be that this method of thinking isn't your way.

How is not visualizing well a problem for your chess? I mean are you working on it because it is causing issues in your games or because visualization exercises are a standard recommendation? If you have specific chess problem perhaps there is a non-visual way to improve them.

One thing I do when trying to calculate past fog is to stop and fix a position in my mind. When I have it solidly I calculate from there. When I say solidly I mean not foggy at all.

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  • When you say you fix a position in your mind? Do you mean you see the full chess board as if you were really looking at one?
    – Matt
    Jan 7 at 4:15
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    @Matt yes, like I am looking at one. I only do this when trying to think as accurately as far as I can. Then I throw it away and do my usual process from there. Sometimes I just "see" variations without deciding to, this is also visual. There are patterns which don't require thinking much. Usually when I am calculating variations I see the final position but not the ones leading to it. The "I go here, you go there" steps are not visual for me unless I decide to do that. Jan 7 at 14:13

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