Memory and chess

Of all the stories about a chess player’s skill, the most common is that chess players have a good memory.  However, there is normal memory and there is chess memory.  Some believe that people who become strong chess players have exceptional intelligence and/or memory. This belief is popular with highly rated chess players, but potentially discouraging to the general population. There is little solid evidence to support this viewpoint. General intelligence and memory by themselves do not appear to distinguish great chess players from ordinary ones.

To the average person, playing a game of chess without sight of the board represents an extremely difficult, if not impossible challenge for the memory. No other human memory feat can surpass the achievements of the best simultaneous blindfold players.  Blindfold chess players need knowledge and experience, imagination, and memory. Masters who were tested in blindfold games were generally able to remember all the moves played in a sequence of blindfold games. Masters differed on whether they used visual or abstract imagery to represent the chess board. The majority of masters said that they used only an abstract representation, combined with sub vocalizations of previous moves, to mentally examine the board.

In 1894, Alfred Binet conducted one of the first psychological studies into chess. He investigated the cognitive facilities of chess masters. Binet hypothesized that chess depends upon the phenomenological qualities of visual memory. He found that only chess masters were able to play chess successfully without seeing the board and intermediate players found it impossible to play a game of blindfold chess. Binet found that experience, imagination, and memories of abstract and concrete varieties were required in master chess.

In 1927, Soviet psychologists conducted extensive tests on top chess masters and came to the conclusion that their powers of memory were only greater than that of the layman as far as chess was concerned; in other areas of memory, there was no discernible superiority of a chess master and a layman.

In the 1940s, Edward Lasker wrote on an organized study that was made of a dozen leading chess masters by a group of psychologists. It was found that a chess master’s memory was only exceptional where positions on the chessboard were concerned.

In 1965, Adrian de Groot (1914-2006) published his book Thought and Choice in Chess. He found that visual memory and visual perception were important attributers and that problem-solving ability was of paramount importance. Memory was particularly important.

In 1973, William Chase (1940-1983) and Herbert Simon (1916-2001) showed superior memory for chess positions by chess experts through "chunking." A chunk is a pattern or a collection of elements that are strongly associated with one another, but are weakly associated with elements in other chunks.  A grouping of pieces that is seen is a single big chunk.  The ability to recall a position from an actual game increases as a function of chess skill. For positions, beginners were able to recall the correct location of about four pieces in 5 seconds, whereas grandmasters recalled virtually all of the more than 20 pieces.  Chess players store chunks in memory corresponding to patterns of pieces.  Each chunk consists of a small pattern that recurs frequently in the chess positions encountered while playing.

An example of chunking of numbers is how to remember 14929021064.  Can you remember that number in a few seconds?  Chunking the numbers becomes 1492  90210  64 or when Columbus sailed to America, a popular TV show that is the zip code of Beverly Hills and the number of squares on a chessboard.

For chess, a chunk might be a kingside castling position (Kg1, Rf1, Pf2, Pg2, Ph2, Nf3).  You have now memorized or chunked 6 chessmen on 6 out of 64 squares and can set up or visualize the position in a second or two.  A chess player can do this instantly, whereas a non-chess player sees it as a random setting of some chess pieces on a chess board.  Another example is the opening position out of a Ruy Lopez or Sicilian, Najdorf.  A chess player can set up that position in seconds, but a non-chess player again sees random pieces and would be difficult to reconstruct.  At the same token, if you had a random position of a bunch of chessmen, a chess player would not have any more advantage than a non-chess player in recreating the position, because he was not able to “chunk” the position into something meaningful.

You store chunks in long-term memory (LTM), but you process them through short-term memory (STM).  Adults are able to store 3-7 chunks in short-term or working memory at any one time in about one minute.  If all you can store is 3 chunks, then to visualize the entire chess board and hold it in working memory, you need to see the entire position in only 3 chunks at most.  Therefore, chunks need to be quite large.  You may be able to work with three chunks at any one time and process information rapidly between your short term memory and your long term memory in order to visualize the entire board.

To account the performance of masters, assuming that only 3-7 chunks can be held simultaneously in STM, skilled players would have to accumulate a store of chunks roughly at 50,000 or more, according to Simon & Gilmartin, who have studied chunking in chess memory.  Strong chess players possess both more and larger chunks in LTM, they recognize more and larger patters on the board and therefore recall more pieces from the positions.

In 1987-88, all students in a rural Pennsylvania 6th grade class were required to participate in chess lessons. None of the pupils had previously played chess. After a year, the pupils significantly improved in both memory and verbal reasoning. The program was called 'Development of Reasoning and Memory through Chess.'

In 2001, researchers wrote in Nature magazine that a chess grandmaster studies and practices for at least 10 years to learn more than 100,000 chess patterns (memory chunks).  Consequently, GMs can ‘recognize’ they key elements in a problem situation much more rapidly than amateurs.

Alekhine had a photographic memory (also known as eidetic memory) as a boy.  In 1925, Alexander Alekhine was given a few standard memory tests.  They revealed that if a test had nothing to do with chess, such as memorizing words, shapes, or objects, he did no better than an average person.  On the other hand, when a test involved memory of a chess position placed on a board in front of him, he performed exceptionally well.  Several articles have been written on Alekhine stating that he was able to remember all the master chess games during the last 25-30 years.

Vishy Anand lectured about chess skills and that chess players could easily remember ideas and patterns taken from millions of games.  The first skill needed was to develop memory hooks.  You learn a few mates and a few tricks.  Then you slowly progress, seeing the games of the great players, classic examples that every chess player must know.  The great player explains his game, and explains the key moments.  A lot of games are accompanied with diagrams of key positions where something interesting happened.  Thanks to all these hooks, it is easy to remember these games years later.  Anand’s mother says that he has always had a photographic memory.

Blackburne had a good memory and could memorize large lists of information and recalled a large number of chess games played by masters.  When author Anderson Graham was looking over some of Blackburne’s chess games with him in the late 1890s, he was astounded to find that Blackburne could recall chess games he had not seen for 30 or more years.

Capablanca said he had a photographic memory as a child.  He could read seven pages of history and recite them verbatim.  As he got older, Capablanca said he could hardly remember any of his games he played in the past, but had met experts you remembered every one of his serious games in the last 22 years.

Magnus Carlsen, in an interview on 60 Minutes, said that he has memorized 10,000 chess games.  When he was 2 year old, he was able to recite all the major car brands of Norway.  At age 5, he memorized all the world’s countries, their flags, and their capitals.  He was asked if he had a great memory with other things other than chess.  Carlsen responded, “No, I forget all kinds of stuff. I mean, I’m pretty good at remembering names, but I can never remember faces. I regularly lose my credit cards, my mobile phone, keys and so on.”

Bobby Fischer’s memory for chess was pretty good.  At the conclusion of the unofficial Blitz Championship of the World at Hercegnovi, Yugoslavia, in 1970, Fischer rattled off the scores of all his twenty-two games, involving more than 1,000 moves, from memory. And just prior to his historic match with Taimanov, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Fischer met the Russian player Vasiukov and showed him a speed game that the two had played in Moscow fifteen years before. Fischer recalled the game move by move.  Gudmundur Thorarinsson, the organizer of the 1972 world championship match between Fischer and Spassky, recounts a story of Bobby phoning Icelandic grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson to ask for some technical advice ahead of the match in 1972. The phone was answered by the Olafsson's 10-year-old daughter who spouted several sentences of Icelandic that baffled Fischer. The next day Fischer, who spoke no Icelandic, repeated those sentences exactly to Thorarinsson, every phrase, every inflection accurate, so that Thorarinsson could understand precisely what the young girl had said. Thorarinsson called it a "phonetic memory."

Garry Kasparov says that he was able to remember all the master games he has played. In 1987-88, the German magazine Der Spiegel went to considerable effort and expense to find out Kasparov's IQ and test his memory. Under the supervision of an international team of psychologists, Kasparov was given a large battery of tests designed to measure his memory, spatial ability, and abstract reasoning. They measured his IQ as 135 and his memory as one of the very best.  Kasparov was asked if he had to re-evaluate the positions on each board every time he had returned to make a move in a simul, or if he remembered the positions all the time.  Kasparov replied that he in fact remembered all the positions.  He also said he could recall the moves of all the games he had played in the past 6 months.

George Koltanowski had a powerful memory that allowed him to play a large number of blindfold games simultaneously.  He claimed he had a “phonographic memory” (a keen memory for sequences) that allowed him to do a blindfold knight’s tour.   In the early 1980s, George Koltanowski conducted a blindfold knight’s tour at the Dayton Chess Club, where I was President.  A month later, I wrote a letter to George, and, in fun, asked him what was on c4.  When he got the letter, he phoned me up and was able to recall what was on all the chess squares (c4 was my name).  One time at his apartment, I asked George Koltanowski’s wife, Leah, if George had a good memory about anything else.  She replied, “George can go to the supermarket and forget his loaf of bread.”

Boris Kostic had a good memory and could recall a large number of master games.

Irina Krush says she knows people that remember hundreds of games, but she says she does not have that talent.  She says that she remembers her games from a tournament, but will forget them in a few days.  She only remembers a general shape, a pattern of every game, but not the details.

Emanuel Lasker wrote this about memory.  “Chess must not be memorized, simply because it is not important enough. If you load your memory, you should know why. Memory is too valuable to be stocked with trifles. Of my fifty-seven years I have applied at least thirty to forgetting what I had learned or read, and since I succeeded in this I have acquired a certain ease and cheer which I should never again like to be without. If need be, I can increase my skill in Chess, if need be I can do that of which I have no idea at present. I have stored little in my memory, but I can apply that little, and it is of good use in many and varied emergencies. I keep it in order, but resist every attempt to increase its dead weight.”

Frank Marshall had a good memory.  In January 1922, Frank Marshall played 155 opponents on Montreal.  He won 126, lost 8, and drew 21 (88%) after 7 hours of play.  A week later, he was able to replay 153 of the games from memory.  What bothered him was forgetting the other two games.  He thought he was losing his memory.

Many article about Paul Morphy report that he was able to recite from memory nearly the entire Civil Code of Louisiana (3,500 articles).

Armenian International Master Ashot Nadanian once mentioned that he can easily recall chess games some 20 years ago, but cannot remember his mobile phone number

Miguel Najdorf possessed a strong chess memory.  He was able to play a large number of blindfold simultaneous games.

When Philidor played two blindfold games at once in 1783, it was written up as one of the greatest memory skills ever displayed.  A newspaper wrote, “This brief article is the record of more than sport and fashion: it is a phenomenon in the history of man so should be hoarded among the best samples of human memory, till memory shall be no more.

Harry Nelson Pillsbury had a good memory, being able to play 15 games of chess and 15 games of checkers at the same time, blindfolded, while also playing cards and memorizing a list of complicated words.  His obituary in the New York Times stated that he died from an “illness contracted through overexertion of his memory cells.”  He actually died of syphilis.

Grandmaster Lev Psakhis was able to remember every one of Bobby Fischer’s games by heart.  In 1973, Grandmaster Salo Flohr brought some Chess Informants with him during a simultaneous exhibition in Krasnoyarsk, USSR.  14-year-old Psakhis astounded Flohr by telling him in each diagram who the players were.  Psakhis had memorized every diagram in the book.  Psakhis was asked if he was a prodigy.  Psakhis replied, “No, I just have a good memory,”

Richard Reti had a strong chess memory, but in other areas, his memory wasn’t so good.  In 1925 Reti played 29 opponents blindfold simultaneously in Sao Paulo and was able to recall all the games. After the exhibition, he was going home and forgot his suitcase. When somebody reminded him about it, Reti said, "Thank you very much. My memory is so bad..."

Akiba Rubinstein was said to know every chess game he played by heart, though unsubstantiated.

Bernard Zukerman has a very good chess memory, which made him one of the outstanding openings expert.