Why Do Chess Players Look Away From The Board?

Chess has many rules but there is no rule, at least not yet, that says where a player must look but if you spend some time studying chess players in action, you might notice that they do seem to look away from the board at times. But why? What drives this behavior? Surely, there’s an advantage in keeping a hawk-like eye on your pieces and the other player, instead?

So why do chess players look away? There are no rules in chess about where a player’s eyes should remain. Players may look away for many different reasons such as bluffing, thinking, taking a break, visualization and just personal habits.

Let’s take a look at why chess players might choose to look away from the board in more detail.

Why do chess players look away? ChessPulse.com
Why do chess players look away? ChessPulse.com

Why Do Chess Players Never Take Their Eyes Off The Board?

This is an easier question to answer because it’s the same reasoning that drives this kind of behavior as it does in any other game of skill or even games of chance. The player keeps their entire focus on the game to prevent themselves from becoming distracted by external factors, it’s much easier to ignore noise outside the hall in which you’re playing if you focus on the board, for example.

It also means that there might be a slight time advantage, when you’re always looking at the board, you ought to be ready to spring into action when your opponent makes their move. This might not be particularly substantial but in a game of, say, bullet chess – tiny time advantages can add up. In fact, in fast chess, we’d recommend that you don’t look away from the board unless you really have to.

You might also think that there’s an advantage in watching the board because it prevents your opponent from cheating and in an informal game, this might be right. Though we wonder why you would choose to play with someone who cheats for fun? It’s not going to be much fun if you can’t get an honest game is it?

But in competitive chess, each player is required to record all their moves on the sheet and to present this sheet to the arbiter for validation at the end of the match. There is, quite literally, no point in cheating in chess of any real standard because it’s certain that you will be found out. So, there’s no need to watch your opponent with a beady eye, either.

Why Do Chess Players Look Away?

Despite the advantages posed by watching the game closely, most chess players will look away from the board during the game. That doesn’t mean that this is a sign of a player giving up or that they are losing and no longer care about the game, though that might be the reason that they’re looking away – to compose themselves in order to offer a draw or even to resign.

However, we think that there are better reasons for a chess player to look away from the board during a game and they include:

Taking A Break

Competitive chess is something of an endurance sport. It may not be as physically demanding as squash or football, but it is a highly mentally demanding game. We’ve all got to a point when we’ve been concentrating on something for so long that it feels like a sort of fog has descended over our brains.

For example, the author is a writer (well, duh) and during the course of a day, despite their love of creating words for readers, there are points when all words seem to run into each other, where errors in typing start to creep in. You can’t stop working just because you’re not quite there but you can take a short break to recharge your intellectual batteries – a coffee will normally suffice for this.

Chess players generally don’t wander away from the board during a match unless it is with agreement from the arbiter to seek the use of a bathroom. The potential for a player to “accidentally” look something up on the internet is probably too great to allow players the room to wander round but they can at least refresh the visual cortex by looking away and so, they do.

To Consider Issues That Aren’t Board Related

Chess is played on a board, but it’s also played in other ways too. There is a strategic element to chess, particularly at higher levels, that gets players asking the big questions, such as “should I swap queens and simplify things or is this player going to struggle more in the complexity of our current situation?”

These questions are sometimes better answered by looking away from the board and then dwelling on them without the tactical distractions of the board (should I move there or there?) creeping in.

There may also be psychological questions to answer that also are better pondered off the board. You might be asking whether putting your opponent in time trouble would be worth your effort and how they might bear up under the strain or considering the emotional impact of your capture of a clearly prized knight.

You might also, if playing in a team, be asking yourself what you need to do for the team to succeed. Might it be better to offer a draw now that you are in a winning position to ensure that the team triumphs than to play for the win and risk making mistakes and losing? Again, you probably don’t need to stare at the board for this.

To Visualize And Recalculate Your Board Positions

The best chess players aren’t devoted to memorizing every game in history. Firstly, this would be impossible and secondly, it would take all the fun out of an activity which is, first and foremost, a game. Instead, they concern themselves with the ability to quickly look forward a few moves and see how the game might play out.

It’s a good idea to do this while looking at the board because it can help to remind you of where everything is but once you visualize chess regularly enough, you don’t need to look at the board and it might even distract you as you work through your moves.

So, many players choose to do both. They start by working through the move on the board in front of them and then they look away and go through the whole thing again in their heads to make sure that they haven’t missed anything important.

To Bluff Or To Relax

Our final reason for glancing away from the board is that player may be trying to either relax a little (chess can be stressful and too much stress can interfere with your play) or just to try and project the image of being relaxed even when they aren’t.

That’s because when a game is between two opponents, there is always a psychological aspect to the game and appearing chill can unsettle an opponent who thought, right up to that point, that they had a guaranteed win on their hands. Bluffing never hurt anyone, not even chess players.


So why do chess players look away? Perhaps this should be the opening line of a joke rather like “why do chickens cross the road?” because there’s no easy conclusive answer and some chess players never look away from the board and they do just fine. However, it’s probably fair to conclude that chess players are like most people and typically, they look away for a change of scenery and/or some visual stimulation.

There are other reasonable reasons to look away from the board though and they might include when a player is trying to bluff the opponent into thinking they are completely relaxed about what’s on the board, or when a player wants to visualize the board and run through a combination in their head and so on. In short, there’s no single reason that chess players look away from the board and there’s nothing in the rules to stop them from doing it.

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