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The Chess Memory

By David Norwood

“Hmm, you’re a chessplayer,” people say, struggling to avoid saying “you must be boring”; then, they decide to opt for “you must have a good memory” instead.

Of all the stories about the transferral of skills, the most common one is that good chessplayers have good memories and that playing chess helps to improve memories. Pillsbury is the most famous example; he could play fifteen games of chess and fifteen games of draughts at the same time, all blindfold, while also playing a game of cards and memorising an enormous list of esoteric words which he would recite at the end of the display. More recently, it has been said that Kasparov can remember all the master games he has played. This makes an incident on Thames Television seem even more amusing. Garry Kasparov was loudly demonstrating his victory over Sofia Polgar in the Thames Television European Speed Championships. Suddenly the commentator Ray Keene interjected to inform the World Champion that he had remembered the moves of the game incorrectly: it had only been played the day before!

Yet it is crucial that we distinguish between normal memory and chess memory. For when we talk about the transferral of chess skills it is normal memory we want to discuss; do chessplayers have better normal memories than non-chessplayers, or do the two groups perform on a par? I remember playing a tournament in Marseilles at which I proudly explained to a reporter how good our memories were, only to walk back to the wrong hotel (admittedly I had been sampling the local rose). The fact of the matter is, however, that normal feats of chess memory on a chessboard are regarded by the layman as incredible feats of ordinary memory; for instance, most reasonable players can remember all the moves of a game they have just played, but if you mention this to a layman he might well consider you a genius. But every chessplayer will assure him that, really such a feat is nothing special. When Philidor played two blindfold games at once in 1783 ( which is a good achievement, but nothing out of the ordinary), ‘The World’ hailed in the most glowing of colours: “This brief article is the record of more than sport and fashion: it is a phenomenon in the history of man and so should be hoarded among the best samples of human memory, till memory shall be no more.”

Alfred Binet, the inventor of intelligence tests, was extremely impressed with blindfold chess. He investigated the phenomenon, thinking that the skill of playing blindfold chess would require strong powers of memory and of visualisation. He found however, that this was not the case. Particularly in the matter of visualisation, his assumptions were blatantly wrong. It was not that the expert blindfold player could visualise a chessboard better than the amateur; quite the opposite. The fact was that the good blindfold player could play so well without a board precisely because he was not so dependent on the visual aspect of the game. It was the amateur who, playing blindfold, found himself compelled to try and picture the whole board, with its sixty-four squares and the pieces on their individual squares. The strong player, on the other hand, seemed to have a far more efficient way of storing the position in his mind.

In 1927 Djakow, Rudik and Petrovsky, three Soviet psychologists, conducted extensive tests on Grandmasters and came to the conclusion that their powers of memory were only greater than that of the layman as far as chess was concerned; in their areas they showed no discernible superiority.

In 1944 de Groot, a chessmaster and psychologist, conceived a seminal test known as board reconstruction, which tests not only the power of memory of a chessplayer but also the means by which information is stored. A group of players, ranging from Grandmaster to beginner, was shown a set of positions very briefly and was asked to reconstruct them as accurately as possible. It was found that the ability to remember the position corresponded almost directly to the individual’s playing strength. Moreover, the stronger players tended to perceive the position in terms of clusters; a castled king with three pawns in front of it and a knight in front of the pawns might constitute one cluster, for instance, while an isolated pawn blockaded by a bishop might constitute another. The weaker players, on the other hand, tended to memorise the position piece by piece; thus, one could hypothesise that their efforts at reconstruction would inevitably be much worse, because they did not have the master’s shorthand method of storing information by means of clusters.

An important follow-up to this experiment took place in 1973, in an experiment conducted by Chase and Simon. Again, a range of players had to try and reconstruct positions which they glimpsed only for a few seconds. Yet unlike the de Groot experiment, they were also shown positions on the chessboard which were completely random: positions which would never occur in an actual game and which had been created simply by sticking the pieces onto random squares. Significantly, it was found that strong players were no better at remembering these positions than weak players. Thus, their normal memory was shown to be no better at all; the fact was that when they could not make use of their shorthand method of looking at positions in terms of familiar clusters or groups of activity, their powers of memory were the same as everybody else’s.

We have seen, then, that strong chessplayers do not need to have extraordinary powers of visualisation and memory; rather, they tend to be relatively free from having to visualise the board, and they have their own efficient ways of storing information so that they are not dependent on the power of their memory. As a matter of fact, we may say that in all these respects chess is rather like language. A fianchetto – which is when the white pawn on b2 or g2 or the black pawn on b7 or g7 is moved one square forward and the bishop fills its place – is thus, in a sense, like a phrase or word.

Every chessplayer will recognise a fianchetto; it is common parlance in a game of chess. So is a castled king, or a knight on c3 which defends a pawn on e4, or a bishop on g4 which pins a knight on f3 to the queen on d1. Every chessplayer has these phrases at their fingertips, and when they arise in a game they will be familiar to them. Seen from this angle, many ‘ extraordinary feats of memory’ on the chessboard are not so extraordinary at all; the player is simply remembering a string of common phrases, like a child remembers a nursery rhyme.

Remembering fifteen common English words would be no astonishing feat for an English person; it would be for someone who was not acquainted with the language. That is why the layman (the foreigner) marvels at the chessplayer (the English person) who can play a blindfold game. But his admiration is misplaced; he thinks that the chessplayer is remembering an enormous string of random patterns, for that is how the game appears to him, but in fact the chessplayer is merely speaking in the language of chess, a language with which he is familiar and whose patterns he has seen many times and knows by heart.

We find then, that what is commonly regarded as ‘proof’ that chessplayers have superior memories (blindfold chess and simultaneous exhibitions) is, in fact, nothing of the sort. of course it is an impressive feat when a chessplayer takes on thirty opponents blindfold, but it is not as sensational an achievement as might appear to the layman. Likewise, the ability to play a simul exhibition, in which the expert takes on a number of opponents at the same time, requires as much memory prowess as a businessman opening letters; he is merely going through very familiar motions and repeating patterns he has often encountered in the past.

Having discussed (and hopefully dispelled) the myth that chessplayers have extraordinary memories, we should now talk about their powers of calculation. It is often supposed that, apart from their ‘extraordinary powers of memory’, expert players have phenomenal powers of calculation. The beginner believes that experts can calculate dozens of moves ahead and he will lose to them only because he cannot calculate ahead so far. Yet this is utter nonsense. From my own experience I can say that grandmasters do not do an inordinate amount of calculating. Tests (notably de Groot’s experiments) supports me in this claim. If anything, grandmasters often consider fewer alternatives; they tend not to look at as many possible moves as weaker players do. And so, perversely, chess skill often seems to reflect the ability to avoid calculations. It is, in truth, not clear that chess is a game of calculation. Of course there are times when intense calculation is called for, and often the master is better at dealing with these situations than the amateur. No wonder, he has had more practise than the amateur, but all the same his innate calculating ability need not be any greater. Most of the time it is something quite different that is required in chess, something more akin to ‘understanding’ or ‘insight’.

So far I have argued that, in order to be a good chessplayer, you do not need to have great powers of visualisation, or a good memory, or an inordinate analytical gift. The question now arises: what the devil do you need? If chess is not about these skills, one can hardly expect any transferral of skills in these areas; clearly, chess will not significantly boost your memory if you do not need particularly strong powers of memory to play it in the first place. Does that mean, then, that I have argued myself into a corner? Perhaps not, for I will now quote what every chessplayer quotes when he tries to expound the virtues of his kind -Bletchley Park.

Source: Chess & Education by David Norwood and published by Gresham College from Chess Connection

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