Memory game: The art of remembering lines in chess - Hindustan Times
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Memory game: The art of remembering lines in chess

Apr 14, 2024 10:13 PM IST

The world’s top players explain how they break down the insane amount of information they pack into the heads in the heat of battle and beyond

When R Praggnanandhaa walked in for a fan zone interaction after his Round 7 game at the Candidates in Toronto a couple of days ago, he was met with a question that perhaps crosses the minds of most people who follow chess. “How do you (chess players) possibly remember all those lines and moves?”

Grandmaster R Praggnanandhaa during Round 6 match against Grandmaster Nijat Abasov at the FIDE Candidates 2024 chess tournament, in Toronto, Canada.(PTI) PREMIUM
Grandmaster R Praggnanandhaa during Round 6 match against Grandmaster Nijat Abasov at the FIDE Candidates 2024 chess tournament, in Toronto, Canada.(PTI)

“Actually, before this game, I was telling Peter (Svidler, his trainer) that in this tournament my memory hasn’t been good,” responded the 18-year-old. “I’ve been forgetting stuff. Thankfully I haven’t forgotten any important lines. Those things you have to remember, where you have to be precise…If you try to remember everything you’ve seen before a game, it’s just impossible.”

Memory in chess is largely contextual. Chess players often remember through patterns, and ideas, and place information into a relatable context. A year ago, Chessbase India put five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand’s memory to the test by showing him random board positions from Olympiad games across history. “Korchnoi-Kasparov,” Anand responded instantly as the first position was pulled up on the screen. “It’s a nice bit of trivia – when did that knight leave e5? I think the answer is never. This is 1982, Lucerne. I think it was an orange Informant that had this particular game.”

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Anand was 13 when the Olympiad in question took place. What he recalls over four decades later is essentially a story, a pattern rather than a random position. Before computers and databases arrived, the Chess Informant was the window to elite chess, a treasure trove of information that was devoured by players around the world.

Famously, in a memory test of chess positions from history, Magnus Carlsen was shown at least six odd positions by English GM David Howell. The world No.1 could guess all barring one right away. When told it was from the entertainment industry, Carlsen answered promptly: “Okay, so Black is down a queen…So, from the first Harry Potter movie they played the Scandinavian and then they went knight c3, queen c6, so is it from that one?” A random chess position from a Harry Potter movie that someone who’s not a top chess player is perhaps unlikely to notice or retain.

That's not to say that chess players don’t cram lines into their heads. They can go through all the moves on the computer before a game which would hold good for a while. It isn't necessarily converted into long-term memory. Players can show up looking sullen at post-game press conferences for having forgotten/misremembered lines or mixed up the move order. “I forgot the moves,” Ding Liren said, after one of his games during the 2023 Grand Chess Tour. This was in the tournament right after he became world champion. He spoke of not being able to recall a line he prepared during the World Championship, less than a month later.

“The memorisation thing is a big question,” said world No.2 Fabiano Caruana, who features in the current Candidates, in an interview a couple of years ago. “If you just want to cram before a game and just go through all the moves on a computer, it will probably suffice — also from my experience, exit your memory very quickly: three days later you might not remember a thing of what you’ve seen. I think that also changed the approach because you don’t want to be cramming lines into your head before every game. It might work for a single game, but overall, it’s exhausting. People now look for small directions that might not lead to an advantage that their opponent might not be so familiar with… it’s a much more practical approach now.”

Players constantly revise and revisit the openings and lines that belong to their repertoire. Seeing and playing the positions numerous times has it stuck to their minds. Knowing the why, how and what of a line – understanding why a move is played, knowing what the plan is, both for themselves and their opponent, and what the best position is for their pieces and knowing the reasons behind the moves played in a line makes it harder to forget. Using hooks – perhaps the memory of a painful loss and the moves that led up to it, building relatability, and connecting new information to prior knowledge help.

GM Nate Solon vouches for the practice of spaced repetition – where you review a piece of information just before you’re likely to forget it and you keep reviewing it at increasing intervals till it's committed to memory. He finds them particularly beneficial, particularly as a system for remembering opening variations and tactics.

“People can think it’s all memorisation but very often it’s about trying to calculate lines to jog memory and trying to work through everything to regain that familiarity at the board. It comes back when you start thinking and calculating,” said Caruana. “One of the things is that you can’t analyse everything. It’s too much of a jungle. You might come across a sensible move — it looks sensible —but you know that it wasn’t something that was in the notes or the computer showed, and then you try to figure out, based on your knowledge, that this move might not be so good. You try to figure out why.”

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