The game has just started… Your opponent plays a couple of moves you anticipated thanks to your preparation the day before and suddenly, it all goes blank… Despite all your efforts to look inside your head, it’s impossible to recall the correct continuation, leading to the advantage you worked so hard to establish yesterday, exactly as if your brain decided to abandon you by erasing the information. And here you are, embarked on a variant you don’t remember leaving the field free for your adversary to demonstrate all her/his experience in the line.
If it can be frustrating not to play what you specifically studied in advance, the feeling can be even worse when such a memory loss happens. With the importance of opening preparations today, having a reliable memory is a must, and guess what, it is not only a privilege reserved to those who inherently have good memories.
I invite you to plunge into the intricate patterns of memory to see how exactly you can use it efficiently for your chess preparation, and help you avoid any similar experience.
Understanding the basics of memory within the chess context
Don’t worry, I’m not a scientist and the objective here is not to overwhelm you with details on the memory subject. However, I do think it is necessary to briefly expose you to the basics of memory to make you understand how it works within the chess context.
Short term memory (STM) vs working memory
If you’ve ever had to recall a chess position you only saw a few seconds, you’ve likely forgotten a few pieces here and there while attempting to reproduce it on the board. When a chess beginner does such an exercise, he will use his/her short memory the same way he/she will try to recall a telephone number or an item on a grocery list.
Basically, STM defines the average number of items you can remember after being exposed to them for 30 seconds. It has long been proven that adults can on average retain roughly 7 items (+ or – 2 items to be precise depending on the person).
So based on that fact, how is it possible that chess masters can replicate complete positions with many more pieces than the magic number 7?
Here is the trick: instead of remembering each piece separately, they create and retain group of pieces, commonly called “chunks”, based on their long-term knowledge. This way of proceeding has been verified by an experiment on chess players and calls upon your working memory which, according this other study, includes short-term memory and other processing mechanisms that help use your short-term memory more efficiently.
This video with Susan Polgar illustrates quite well the “grouping” concept and shows also even famous GM can have a limited memory capacity.
What influences Long-term memory (LTM)?
Good news is you have more than 30 seconds to store your chess preparation in your head, which as you guessed from the STM definition, will pervade inside your long-term memory. But as you know from your past experiences, not all LTMs are created equal.Ssome last a few days or hours while you can carry others with you for a lifetime.
To understand why some memories are better embedded you have to get back to the day you were first exposed to them. Your faculty to memorize depends indeed on 3 factors which Jim Kwik, a memory expert, baptized the “MOM” system:[i]
- Motivation: how motivated are you to remember? The more interest you show towards something, the better results you are likely to have.
- Observation: The clarity of your memory depends mostly on your level of alertness when your brain is encoding the information. Memory deficiencies are mostly attention issues, not retention issues.
- Mechanics: Find your own way of memorizing and practice it. Repetition is the key here.
So apart from these conclusions, how do we manage to keep track of our chess work for more than a few days? (Let’s be honest, in 95% of cases, you won’t have the luck to use your preparation during the targeted game).
How to memorize and recall efficiently a chess preparation move by move
Well, I guess most of you won’t suffer from lack of motivation so the question of your memory failures will reside either in focus trouble or a bad method.
Now that you’ve got the whole picture, let’s see first how you can develop your own method of studying your chess preparation.
First choose the way you will memorize
Here are the 5 ways to help your brain encode your opening homework. Even if some research suggests practice should be ideal to remember more, I personally believe everyone is different. You may prefer visualizing or even listening to get moves into your long-term memory. I think it all depends on what helps you the most so that you can easily retrieve the information afterwards.
This is probably the most used technique as with programs like Chessbase, it has become really easy to build your tree and scroll through the moves.
Mentally or physically play the sequence
This consists of replaying the sequences in your head or simply on the board, physically moving the pieces.
It is interesting to note that a chess study showed these 2 methods work better for chess experts compared to simple exposure to the lines.
Listen to the variants
Listening to chess sequences is probably the least convenient as you need to record all the possible variants of your preparation before. But for some of you who always had facilities remembering oral discourses and other school lessons, you might highly consider it.
This term refers to the tools used by memory masters to achieve extraordinary performances like remembering thousands of Pi decimals or playing cards. That’s also how Timur Gareyev managed to play blindly against 48 opponents, establishing the record with an impressive score of 35 wins, 7 draws and only 6 losses.[ii]
You could naturally think the mnemonics technique is certainly by far the most useful way of remembering variants, but it also results from a highly complex system and is thus extremely time-consuming.
I won’t give you the details here but for some of you who are interested in the process, I strongly suggest you read this interesting series of articles recently released on the Chessbase website.
And if it seems too complicated at first sight, I saw another alternative in a comment in one of these articles mentioning that Domonic O’Brien’s book, “How to Develop a Perfect Memory” devoted a complete chapter to memorizing chess moves. I haven’t read it yet but just in case, you have the info.
Second, rely on focused repeated sessions during which you will use appropriate material
Have you chosen your technique? If not, it has to be noted that you can obviously combine some of these methods which can be quite interesting whether you are unsure about what suits you the most, or have more time to consolidate.
When to study my preparation for optimal efficiency?
To come back to our MOM system, we are still in the mechanical part where we have to refine our approach.
When we need to memorize many lines of an opening, it can be tempting to review all of it in a cram-session the day before. This idea reveals to be ineffective mainly because our memory function requires repetitive sessions to progressively embed the needed data into our LTM.
This study with over 1,300 subjects demonstrated the optimal time between the first and second study sessions increases in relation to how far away the test is.
Benedict Carey, author of “How We Learn”, interpreted this data in his book and came up with the following optimal intervals based on different test dates
So if you’ve got your chess game coming up in a week, you should study your preparation today, and then do the next memorizing session either tomorrow or the day after. I’d also suggest adding a third session either the day before the test (or any event during which you will evaluate your knowledge and skills).
Optimal lasting of each memorizing session
According to psychology professor Dr. Marty Lobdell, famous for his video “study less, study smart”, your ability to retain information diminishes after about 25-30 minutes.
Besides that, additionally to the above, this chess research showed the speed of learning decreases substantially after 100 – 150 positions. Even if the players involved in the experiment were beginners, it correlates well with the relevance of multiple, smaller study sessions.
Use your board or at least the same colors in your chess program
Interestingly enough, results from the piece of research mentioned above also suggest that the use of easily recognizable chess-specific characteristics, like color and type of pieces, guides associative processes during chess players’ learning of chess-specific chunks.
So, try using your chess board (even ideally the same used in your regular competitions) or at least, the same color pieces with your chess program to help your brain memorize more easily.
Third, be focused and use sports plus sleep strategically
The last part of our better memorization approach we haven’t checked is observation. This other key to remembering efficiently requires from you to be as focused as you can when you try to memorize. As a reminder, I have written many articles on the subject which should help you boost your attention abilities.
Another trick you can use to anchor your moves in your head is sleep. I have already mentioned here how sleeping after your preparation, even if it is only for a few minutes, can expand free recall memory. Studying your preparation the night before your chess game is thus highly advised as well.
A final step I suggest you employ is to review your preparation while walking or doing indoor cycling at the gym. Not only have German researchers showed that walking or cycling during (but not before) learning helped new foreign language vocabulary to stick, but it also seems that the hippocampus, which is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems, grows as people get fitter[iii].
To sum it up, get in the zone before memorizing your chess preparation the previous evening, sleep on it and exercise while you revise in the morning.
Concrete tips to improve your memory
To study your chess preparation, doing it the right way is already a good start. And talking about memory, the truth is some people are probably more gifted than others. But that’s no reason to despair, though.
While there is no magical way to have a better memory, some motivation and a bit of technique can dramatically boost your capacity to remember. So here are concrete tips to do so:
Get your mind free
The human brain can only process a specific amount of information at one time and too many distractions can make it difficult for you to transfer information to your long-term memory. If you are curious about how to get your mind free, I experimented myself the effects and here is what I discovered.
It is well-known that lifestyle affect performances, both physical and mental. So memory is impacted too.
Sticking to a diet that aims to protect memory and your thought process, sleeping well and exercising regularly are all suggestions which will help memorize better.
Challenge Your Brain
Challenging your brain strengthens your neural pathways so that your mental abilities will develop. So if you want to take your memory to the next level, search for ways to test your mind. And as chess lovers, many solutions are offered to us. Blind play is certainly the most beneficial but apart from it, literally any chess training is good too (tactics, playing, analyzing…).
Meditating for even just 10 minutes each day will improve your ability to focus, making it that much easier for you to remember. Apps like Headspace can help you achieve this in a organized way.
I have already pointed out this piece of research. Some of you may have noticed coaching tops the ranking with a retention rate of not less than 90%. Consequently, if you have the occasion, maybe you could consider giving some lessons on your own openings here.
Yes mnemonics can be hard to put in place, but science is clear on how it can multiply exponentially your memory abilities.
After spending six weeks cultivating an internal “memory palace”, people involved in the study more than doubled the number of words they could retain in a short time period and their performance remained impressive four months later.
It would be nice if we could look at our chess preparation once and remember all the sequences, but only a small percentage of us have such abilities[iv]. You will probably never remember 10.000 games like Magnus Carlsen[v], But we can actually maximize our brain’s filing in different ways and retain our chess preparation more easily by employing the right method.
All it remains now is to find your motivation, improve your focus, train your memory and of course, reread this article to make sure you don’t forget the precious tips!
[i] He actually revealed his secret during an interview with Lewis Howes on The School of Greatness podcast. Here is the link of the video if you are interested.
[iii] Research proved memory improvements associated with aerobic activities for all categories of age, children, adults and the elderly.