Monday, October 14, 2013


To be a good chess player requires memorization of lots of information. This does not mean that you have to have a great memory, but you have to do the work of memorizing things.

Some of this memory work can be fun. Doing chess problems regularly on one of the online sites will train your memory (and visualization) in tactical patterns.

Some of the memory work can be tedious like memorizing the proper sequence of opening moves, or the patterns for theoretical endgames.

 My wife recently bought a short course in memory from The Great Courses company. It covers some memorization techniques and a general overview the current state of science on memory. The basic techniques do not have much direct application to chess, but the science does suggest some possibilities.

Memorization is best done by layering on top of known concepts. We can hold in short term memory about 7 things. How complex those things can be depend on our current knowledge and understanding. The "real" starting positions for some openings is very deep. One of the daunting things about the Ruy Lopez is how deep the mainline can be. Memorizing the 15 moves to get to the mainline start can be near impossible for a beginning player. Of course, they do not have to memorize that deep, because their opponents do not know it either. If you understand the concepts behind each move, have a small "story" that explains how to deal with variations, and understand the tactical patterns behind each of the traps it becomes much easier.
After 13...Bf8, the starting position for the Ruy Lopez Breyer

Memorizing K&P endings is another near impossible task for the beginner, but learning counting, the square of the pawn, and the opposition help immensely in learning these patterns.

We memorize things better when we have an emotional connection to the information.  Great chess players are often good at several other things. One of these is music, which also requires a great deal of memorization. Musicians often stress how important it is to feel while playing, to make an emotional connection to the music. Stevie Ray Vaughan went so far as to say he got in trouble when he tried to think about what he was playing rather than just feel. Since we have emotional connection to our recent games, especially the losses, it is important to analyze them as soon as possible after the game, and to use that emotion to help memorize opening lines, precise endgames, and tactical patterns from those games.

One key to better memorization is to understand forgetting. After studying material the amount we retain falls off dramatically. Ebbinghaus was an early pioneer in the study of memory, and his meticulous research allowed him to display the forgetting function (notice the logarithmic scale on the horizontal time axis)

This lead to further research that indicates we should review newly learned material very shortly after the initial study, and that review can be shorter than the initial study. Further review can be shorter still and after a longer period of time.

In my experience the broad concepts are more easily remembered and the details get lost first. I suspect that subsequent review allows us to better chunk up the hard details based on the more easily remembered concepts. Or you might be the opposite, and some details are easily remembered and the concepts become clearer as more details are retained.

I will get down to brass tacks on how this will change how I study chess in subsequent posts.

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