Of Non-Theory and Non-Memorization

Of Non-Theory and Non-Memorization

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33speedy asked:

I was playing in a tournament today with the black pieces. I played the Budapest and my opponent declined it (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5 3.Nf3). I thought the way I responded was reasonable (3…exd4 4.Nxd4 b6 5.Nc3 Bb7), but when I went home to look through the line and see what information I could find on it, I didn’t find anything.

What are you thoughts about this?

Dear 33speedy:

You have to understand that 2…e5 is a dream move for Black. He’s gaining space, freeing his f8-Bishop, and hitting d4. Everyone would be foolish not to play 2…e5 if it wasn’t for one tiny fact: it loses a pawn to 3.dxe5. In fact, if 3.dxe5 proved bad for White, then 2…e5 would completely refute 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4.

This means that any move other than 3.dxe5 is simply bad. In general, serious opening memorization doesn’t occur until an over-the-board player is at least 1600 rated, and it becomes more important as one moves up the rating ladder. However, for the most part you’ll find that players under 1800 leave theory rather quickly. This means that an understanding of the ideas and basic plans trumps the memorization of reams of moves.

When facing the inevitable “leaving the theoretical pathways” move, you need to do two things:

* Look closely to see if it’s just a blunder that falls into some sort of tactic.

* If it doesn’t completely fall on its face, look to see what it accomplishes.

* Ask, “Why doesn’t anyone good play this?”

* Then look for ways to punish it positionally.

* And if you don’t see any major way to slap it down, just find a reasonable move that gives you a nice, playable game.

Here’s a case of someone playing a line that I was well acquainted with (conceptually), but that theory considered to be lame for White. Thus I had never given it respect in the past and, as a result, had no memorized moves to fall back on.

J. Plumb - Silman, National Open 1998

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.Nc3 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Be2 0-0 8.0-0 d5 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.e5 Nd7 11.f4 e6 12.Na4

My opponent (I think he was an Expert) played all these moves in a few seconds, and it was clear that he was very well versed in this position. After the game he told me he had played it in countless blitz games and was sure it favored White. Of course, I was out of any book I was aware of, but no matter – I understood the structure inside and out and didn’t need memorization to get me through. After giving it a careful once-over, I played a thematic central break.

12…f6! 13.exf6 Bxf6 14.Bd4

He was still playing quickly.

14…e5! 15.fxe5 Nxe5

My very active pieces assure Black of good play.


Still moving fast. White has claimed the advanced c5-square for his Knight and completely blockaded my center pawns. Very nice indeed! BUT … he failed to appreciate black’s dynamic potential.

16…Qd6! 17.c3 Bf5 18.b4 Rae8 

White’s positional plans have been realized, but black’s central mass of pieces, all working beautifully together, leave Black for choice.

19.Qd2 Qe7!

Creating possibilities down the e-file, and also setting up a potential …Bg5 strike.

20.Rae1 Bh4!

Quite annoying! 21.g3 creates holes on f3 and h3 (Black would meet it with 21…Bg5), while 21.Bf2 (best) 21…Bxf2+ 22.Rxf2 (22.Kxf2?? Nd3+!! wins) and now both 22…Nc4!? and 22…Ng4!? leave Black with the initiative.

21.Rd1? Bg5 22.Qb2 Ng4 23.Bf3?

The position after 23.Bxg4 Bxg4 is clearly in black’s favor, but White still had to give it a shot.

23…Be3+ 24.Kh1

Also losing was 24.Bxe3 Nxe3 25.Rde1 Qd6 26.Rf2 Ng4, gin.

24…Nxh2!, 0-1.

Returning to your Budapest, his 3.Nf3 is completely harmless and you have a variety of ways to ensure a good position for Black. Your choice of 3…exd4 4.Nxd4 b6 (which has only been played by a few amateurs in the past) is perfectly playable and leads to a more or less equal game, though you are giving his d4-Knight access to f5 in some lines. Black’s most combative way of dealing with the position after 3…exd4 4.Nxd4 is 4…Nc6. Here’s an example:

J. Lopez de Turiso (2153) - J. Sanchez (2507), Mostoles 2008

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5 3.Nf3 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.Nxc6

5.g3 Bb4+ 6.Bd2 Qe7 7.Nxc6 dxc6 8.a3 Bxd2+ 9.Nxd2 Bf5 10.Bg2 0-0-0 11.Qa4 Rhe8 12.0-0-0 Kb8 13.e4 Be6 14.f3 Nd7 15.Qc2 Ne5 and Black (who won on move 33) had an obvious advantage in the game V. Okhotnik (2462) - D. Svetushkin (2568), Gap 2008.

5…bxc6 6.g3 Bb4+ 7.Bd2 Qe7 8.a3 Qe4 9.f3 Bxd2+ 10.Nxd2 Qd4 11.Qb3 0-0 12.Rc1 a5 13.Qc3 Qc5 14.e3 Re8 15.Kf2 Rb8 16.Bh3 Ba6 17.Rc2 d5 18.Nb3 Qb6 19.Nxa5 dxc4 20.Nxc4 Bxc4 21.Qxc4 Qxe3+ 22.Kg2 Nd5 23.Qxc6 Qd3 24.Bd7 Re2+ 25.Rxe2 Qxe2+ 26.Kh3 Qxf3, 0-1.

WaterAlch asked:

I am disappointed with this article (Memorization: the Great Chess Conspiracy), only because I was hoping to get some insight on the uses of memorization and some effective methods of utilizing learning an opening.

I know it seems like basic things that you just learn through trial and error or enough repetition, but what about things like end game positions? I’ve heard plenty enough, “Oh, this game is completely drawn.” and I can only sit there and think why/how?

Memorizing, how do I go about it in the long-term sense?

Dear Mr. WaterAlch:

I’m not the Amazing Kreskin, and thus wasn’t able to psychically anticipate your question or wax poetic about ways to develop one’s memory. Though one can write thousands of pages on the uses of memory in chess, and on ways to improve memory, I’m no expert in that field and thus address the whole topic in as basic a manner as possible. Nevertheless, let’s me take a light look at your queries. 

Memorization plays an important role in everything we do. As children, we reach for fire, get burned, and the memory of that pain stops us from doing it again (or in my case, the memory of reaching into flames 20 times finally stopped me from repeating it for the 21st time). When one takes up boxing and you’re striking a heavy bag, you remember such things as turning the hand for power, and pulling the punch back quickly to defend your face. But basic memories aren’t very useful if they can’t morph into unconscious muscle memory. In a fight, thinking too much will lead to certain defeat. And the same goes for chess – trying to recite a bunch of basic rules during actual battle won’t get you very far.

This is why you need to absorb most chess memories (turn memories into pattern recognition) during your study time. And that’s why I recommend avoiding conscious memory by looking over thousands of master games. Doing that makes you subconsciously absorb one pawn structure after another, one tactical theme after another, endgame techniques, and even basic opening moves.

It’s true that you need to memorize a few opening moves when creating a repertoire. And the stronger you are, the more opening memorization will be required. This means that those with great memories will eat up monster theory systems like the Najdorf, while those that overdid the 60s (losing billions of brain cells in the process) will prefer a calm Caro-Kann. But please keep in mind that the more you understand chess, and the more you understand the soul of your openings, the easier it will be to retain specific moves.

An example of this occurred when I was 13 (I learned at the age of 12). I decided to study the Four Knights from black's perspective (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Bb4 5.0-0 0-0 6.d3 d6 7.Bg5 Bxc3 8.bxc3 Qe7). A simpler series of moves will be hard to find, but I just couldn’t retain it! I tried and tried, but it just went through my mind like water through one’s fingers. Okay, I had no chess talent and I was also rather dense, but how hard could memorizing these moves really be?

About a month after trying and trying again to memorize those moves (in my childish brain, I felt that if I could master those moves I would have mastered the opening and would even be a real expert on it), I was staring at the opening book (and making the moves on a board) between rounds in the tournament skittles room, which was fairly empty. A very strong player came by (I have no idea who he was), noticed me (he was most likely bored) and asked, “What do all those moves mean? What do they do?”

I realized he was an idiot, and said: “Uhhh, they develop pieces and get castled, which all the books tell you to do.” I was quite proud of this answer.

“Yes, but other than development, what else are they actually trying to accomplish? And what is 8…Qe7 all about?”

I remember thinking, “This guy is a complete moron.” and I said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m developing. What more am I supposed to be doing?”

He then shocked me with a mini-lecture: “Both sides are indeed developing and castling, and they are also fighting for control of all the key central squares. Also, at any moment the structure can change if one side decides to chop on c3 or c6 and double the enemy pawns. However, if one side does that, he’s also giving the side with doubled pawns more control over the d4 or d5 square. So that’s a trade off – weakening the enemy pawn structure but giving him more central control. The line you played on the board has Black chopping on c3, but now White has two Bishops and control over d4. As for 8…Qe7, Black wants to get out of that pin by the g5-Bishop. By moving the Queen to e7, he vacates d8 and prepares to play the maneuver …Nc6-d8-e6, hitting the Bishop. If it retreats to h4 and continues the pin, then …Rd8 followed by …Nf8-g6 ends the pin once and for all [JS - He moved the c6-Knight about on my board as he explained its journey.]. Got it? Okay, I have to go!”

I remember sitting there stunned. Oddly, I no longer had any problem remembering those particular moves since they suddenly meant something – they made sense! I even remembered the Knight maneuver from c6-d8-e6-f8-g6 since it made a huge emotional impression on me. The moral is: brute force memorization is useless if you can’t make sense of what it all means. However, if you learn the meaning/goals behind something first, the actual steps are easy to remember and often easy to create.

Here’s what that sequence of moves would look like:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Bb4 5.0–0 0–0 6.d3 d6 7.Bg5 Bxc3 8.bxc3 Qe7 9.Re1 Nd8 10.d4 Ne6 11.Bh4 Rd8 12.Bd3 Nf8 13.Nd2 Ng6 14.Bg3 c5, =, Shirov – Yusupov, Munich 1993.

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