Memorization: The Great Chess Conspiracy

Memorization: The Great Chess Conspiracy

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Rdecredico said:

Memorization is a big part of chess but hardly anyone wants to mention this because it doesn’t sell that many books. Instead, they will spew stuff like: “Don’t memorize! It is more important to understand ideas!” However, if one cannot actually remember what they study, no ideas will be remembered (memory again!).

The one characteristic ALL Strong players share is excellent memory skills and being able to memorize things. Memory is the single most important component to being a strong player. 

Dear Mr. Rdecredico:

I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you’re 99% wrong (it might be 98%, but I can’t remember the exact number). Of course, it’s true that a person who instantly forgets everything he studies has a problem. But you are missing the critically important difference between understanding and memorization.

In high school, success in tests was based on memory – you would memorize the necessary material, and then forget it as soon as the test was over. However, a person that decides to master a subject doesn’t just memorize the material, he learns to become intimate with it – he feels its pulse, he knows its moods, he swims ecstatically in its deepest secrets, he senses when the material is relevant and when it’s not; this is understanding.

When chess teachers tell you to learn ideas, they are saying that test-mentality memorization doesn’t work for chess. I have taught many super-intelligent people. Some are artists, some are politicians, some are movie moguls, etc. All of them want to be chess masters, all of them have magnificent memories, and they all enter into chess study thinking that it will be a piece of cake. And why not – they have completely mastered their chosen professions, so how hard can chess (a mere board game) be? So they read books, and more often than not memorize the various kinds of ABCs that are pushed in the endless cascade of chess primers. Yet, chess domination continues to elude them. And, when they look at master games, they can sometimes spot an attack or tactic, but they don’t really appreciate the game’s true beauty because they don’t understand the game’s soul.

In a way, the kind of understanding I’m talking about is actually a form of feeling – reciting memorized lists of chess priorities is not only useless (past the training wheels stage), it actually prevents you from focusing on the limitless beauty that’s dangling right before your eyes. But feeling … ah, once the basic concepts are part of your DNA you hear the pieces calling to you, you listen to the pawns explaining why their structures demand a certain move, the board itself does a Vulcan Mind Meld and becomes a part of your cerebral cortex. Instead of a move or moves, you see poetry.

So how do we move beyond memorization and embrace understanding? That’s a hard one! That calls for years and years of dedication and work. To accomplish this, you make use of endless repetition – this isn’t done to intellectually memorize some rules, it’s done to ultimately make those rules a part of who you are.

When I teach, I want to help the student become as strong as he can be (of course), but more importantly, I want him to learn to see the game in a whole other way. When he goes over master games (with me or by himself), I want him to see art where before he only saw threats. I want him to see the seamless melding and implementation of concepts where before he only saw isolated moves.

And this, dear reader, takes us into our next question:


Ishamael13 asked:

Is there any way you can give an insight into the inner goings on in the mind of a titled player of your level while you are pondering any given position. For example, is there any verbal analysis in your mind while you are evaluating, or only pure mental images? Not sure if my question makes sense, I was just wondering about the inner mechanism behind the scenes, how it operates while coming across a position of interest. Thank you for your attention.

Dear Ishamael13:

In my upcoming book, How to Reassess Your Chess - 4th Edition, I do my best to give players something to grasp onto. Rattling off random moves is a road to nowhere, so I begin by teaching the concept of imbalances: Space, minor pieces (Bishops vs. Knights, the correct use of both Bishops and Knights), pawn structure, weak pawns and weak squares, etc. The idea is that training your mind to think in terms of imbalances rather than isolated moves will not only make you a far stronger player, but it will also allow you to enjoy chess on a completely different level. Suddenly, when you look at a master game you’ll see concepts floating about on the board as if it was a physical thing, and you’ll develop an appreciation of the game that you previously didn’t think was possible.

Here is an example from the recently completed Kings’ Tournament that, hopefully, will give you some insight into the basic thought process of a titled player. I’ll ignore the theory and instead begin a personal dialogue once the main position of interest arrives. Remember that the comments have nothing to do with the actual players. In fact, they might have been entertaining completely different thoughts – the ones given will illustrate the kind of thing that would be crossing through my mind.


Magnus Carlsen - Ruslan Ponomariov, Kings’ Tournament 2010 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0–0 6.0–0 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.a4 Bd7 9.Qxc4 Bc6 10.Bg5 h6 11.Bxf6 Bxf6 12.Nc3 Bxf3 13.Bxf3 c6 14.Rad1 a5 15.e4 Nd7 16.e5 Be7 17.Be4 Qb6 18.f4 Rad8 19.Qe2

(Black would instantly see that the b4- and d5-squares are weak, that White has a central and kingside space advantage, that the d4-pawn is backward and stands on an open file, and that White will likely be looking for a chance to play f4-f5 and begin a kingside attack. Black would also be well aware that …c6-c5 is a common center crushing move in structures of this sort, but here …c6-c5 has to be hideous since it not only creates a hole on b5 but it also allows d4-d5 with an obvious advantage.)

“If I goof around, he’ll play f4-f5 and take over the game. The other thing that disturbs me is my god-awful Knight – what’s it doing on d7? Nothing. It’s clear that I need to keep him off balance by swatting at d4 (the most glaring weak spot in his position), but I also have to get that horse into the game. As for his f4-f5, I might eventually have to deal with that by …f7-f5. The problem is that it badly weakens e6. For example, 19…f5 20.Bb1 (He won’t play 20.exf6 since that not only allows 20…Nxf6, which improves the position of my Knight, but it also gives me 20…Bxf6, when I’m putting some serious heat on d4.) when his Bishop is going to poke e6 with Ba2. I can try and defend that by somehow bringing the Knight to f8, but then I’m completely passive and White has all sorts of tasty possibilities. No, I want my Knight to be a major player, not a groveling piece of garbage.

“So the position is all about my Knight, the weakness of d4, and white’s f5 advance. The squares b4, d5, and even e6 are also hotspots. How can I get my Knight into this dance? The most obvious idea is 19…Qb4 followed by 20…Nb6 and 21…Nd5. However, that breaks the pin along the g1-a7 diagonal and allows White to get his attack going by 20.f5. No, I don’t want to make things so easy for him.

“That leaves 19…Nb8. I love this kind of retreat move, so it really appeals to me. And by moving the Knight (which opens the d-file for the d8-Rook) I instantly create a threat against d4. White will have to defend d4 when I continue with …Na6 and the Knight can hop to b4 (targeting d5) in some lines, but perhaps …Nc7 would be even better since it would also target d5 but would defend e6 too if I chose to toss in …f7-f5. I like this – everything is suddenly working together, and I can’t say no to a team effort.”

19…Nb8! 20.Qf2

“I want to play 20…Na6, but let’s take a moment to make sure there’s nothing wrong with it. Well, after 20…Na6 the only threatening move would be 21.f5 when I have 21…exf5 22.Qxf5 g6 23.Qf2 Nc7 24.Kh1 Kg7 and I’ve tightened up my position and it seems to be okay – probably equal. However, his f4-f5 seems a tad fast to me since he’s left his King on the vulnerable g1-a7 diagonal. So perhaps I could meet 20…Na6 21.f5 with the far more aggressive 21…f6!? when his King is extremely uncomfortable on g1. After 22.exf6 Bxf6 his d4-pawn is already cracking: 23.Kh1 (23.Ne2 would admit that he’s on the run. I love my game after 23…Nc7) 23…Bxd4 24.Qe2. Hmmm … everything’s great except for the fact that he might wipe me on the kingside light-squares by Qe2-g4/h5-g6 or even Bb1 when the Queen hits e6 and can also move to e4. Dangerous! I have to look deeper after 24.Qe2 and see just how real the danger is.”

[At this point I might take quite a while figuring out the position’s truth after 24.Qe2, but I could also save clock time by tossing out 20…Na6 since I already ascertained that I would be fine if I answered 21.f5 with 21…exf5. I could decide between 21.f5 exf5 and 21.f5 f6 if White actually entered this by 21.f5. If he doesn’t play 21.f5, the whole issue is moot.]

20…Na6 21.Kh1

“I have to be fine here. But now I have a big choice since I can play my earlier idea of …f7-f5, killing his dreams of kingside expansion and leaving me in the driver’s seat due to the weakness of d4 if he can’t get something going on the kingside, or I can hold off and make use of the much sharper but riskier …f7-f6 idea that I also thought about. So both 21…f5 and 21…f6 are tempting!”

[If I was playing this game, I would then analyze 21…f6 in depth (unless I was low on time, whereupon I would choose the solid 21…f5 without a second thought) and would most likely decide that it was a bit too much – crazy lines like 21…f6 22.Bb1 Nc7 23.exf6 Bxf6 24.Qc2 Rxd4 25.Qh7+ are best left to postmortem analysis! Then I’d play the safe and sane 21…f5 and enjoy a good position without the risk!]

The rest of the game showed that Black was doing just fine after 21…f5:

21…f5! 22.Bb1 h5 23.h3 g6 24.Ba2 Nc7 25.g4 hxg4 26.hxg4 Kf7 27.Kg2 Rh8 28.g5 Rh7 29.Rh1 Rxh1 30.Kxh1 Rh8+ 31.Kg2 Qa6, 1/2-1/2. 

As you can see, the highest levels of chess call for equal parts positional understanding and calculation ability. Memorization is only important in openings, but even then if you don’t understand the opening’s soul, all the memorized moves in the world won’t help you play the resulting middlegame properly. Nor will memorization help you if your opponent dares to step away from theory, leaving you on your own.

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