Memorization and why it's good for your chess

NM linlaoda
Sep 6, 2015, 5:19 PM |

A lot of people have probably read somewhere that it isn't good to just memorize things in chess. Typically these kinds of comments show up when talking about openings, when we mean not to just memorize specific lines, but they also come in play in middlegame and endgame (for example, don't just memorize how to draw a rook vs pawn endgame, KNOW it etc)


There is nothing wrong with this statement, basically it says that we really should understand the ideas as well. But the problem is that many people have misinterpreted this saying to mean

don't memorize anything

and even worse:

you just need to "know" it

When I say "know" here, what I mean is that some players might study a particular variation of an opening, and just "know" those ideas. The problem here is that when they get this position on the board, even though they "know" the ideas, they end up missing the opportunity and somehow showing that they did not really "know" the idea...

Why does this happen? The player didn't really "know" the idea - I argue that for one to really "know" the idea, one should really aim to memorize the line/variation as well. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing with the grandmasters who had claimed not to just memorize things. However, I am stating what I believe is the interpretation this grandmaster meant when he made this comment, and that is:


Don't just blindly memorize a line or variation. Aim to also understand all the key ideas and the reasons why we make these moves. In the process you will memorize the line or variation - but don't make memorization the process!


There may be some skeptics... to them I say: remember when you studied for a history test or math test back in school. To get that A++ you had to study and study those key points until you basically memorized every little fact for the history class or you knew the exact computational operation in math class... it isn't that you aimed to memorize it, but it's that you knew it so well that you just happened to memorize it.


The results of this assertion:

When we study an opening variation, we should probably have some level of memorization going on there. It's up to you if you want to memorize the entire line, but I argue, why not? Being able to recite the entire line would indicate ultimate understanding and guarantee that you will not miss that in a game (I'm assuming that we gained memorization through understanding of course!)


While sometimes it is OK to just "know" some key ideas (not much memorization of lines/variations), the takeaway here is that one at least should not avoid memorizing particular lines/variations, and specific sequences like how to draw certain positions or certain opening variations require razor-sharp accuracy must be memorized.


~hope this helps.