Chess and memorization

The assumption is this: the best chess players in the world memorize thousands of key games. This has been talked about by top players going back to the mid 1900’s, so it’s a fairly safe assumption that this is a key ingredient in becoming a world class chess player.

My question is, do you think it is enough to simply memorize, or is it the “becoming intimate” with a game, where you get a true understanding of how it played out? I am inclined to think that memorization alone may not be very helpful, without a deeper understanding of each game, and what happened in each game strategically speaking.

The TV show 60 Minutes did a piece on Magnus Carlsen, the number one chess player in the world.

From around 2:45 to 3:45 in the video, when he is playing the American #1 player, he says that he has memorized 10,000 chess games. It shows a moment in the game when Magnus already knows how the game is going to end (because he has seen it before in a similar game he has memorized), but the American is shown struggling trying to think through all of the details on the fly. I’m sure there was some creative editing involved, but it demonstrated the point well.

As previously stated, this is not surprising, given that a significant part of the classical Soviet school of chess improvement consists of memorizing games played between masters that illustrate some important concept. The idea is, when you are playing, you will remember the game that was similar and you will instantly know the right idea, instead of having to do a lot of in-depth calculating on the fly.

In the 60 Minutes: Web Extras, he talks about how he doesn’t have to figure out what the best move is, he just “knows”.

I think it’s the same for sports. The best players engage in deliberate practice away from the competition, and when it’s time for the game, they “just play”, and let their practice take over. They don’t think about “I am going to run over here, then I’m going to kick the ball there…”, there is no time for that in the heat of the moment. That has to come from instinct, learned from practice away from the game. This seems to be what is happening when a top chess player memorizes 10,000 important games. When it is game time, he just plays.

At about 5:45 to 6:20, it mentions that when he was 5 he memorized all of the countries in the world, and their capitols, and other things. It seems like he is probably not using any memory techniques. More likely he may have a better than average memory, and he works very hard and focuses intensely. In the Web Extras, he admits that he “sometimes stops thinking about chess”, which no doubt explains why he is so successful.

I found these videos interesting, and am interested to know what others think about this topic. He achieves an impressive memory feat, but it seems to be more of a side effect of his study rather than a primary cause of his success.

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Wow I can’t believe nobody responded to you. Being a FIDE international master myself, I can tell you that being intimate with the game is the most important aspect. Once you play enough games “the best players play thousands” your brains develops a great memory for the game through pattern recognition. As you become familiar with the game, the rules of the game and how pieces are related to each other in a particular position form the key associations which your brain can easily use to catalog and recall them later. In chess there is no substitute for playing, practice, practice, and more practice in order to become better.

I am not a chess player

But would it be useful to breakdown down majority of top level games into certain patterns or strategies?

First try to understand those pattern or strategies

Then memorize the certain patterns or strategies

Then memorize alternative endings or ways to defeat those patterns/strategies?

He memorized 10000 games? What does that mean?
I think it means he memorize a game, replayed it without the help of notes right after and did that at least 10000 times during his life. I don’t think it means that he can recall any of 10 000 chess games memorized.
I’m 99.9 % certain of that.

To prove my point, I don’t think he would be able to tell you how went the 6791 game that he memorized along with the players of that game etc. No, he can’t. I wouldn’t believe it unless he kept a record and offered me to challenge him.
Hey, what’s white’s 28th move of your 8502 memorized chess game? Can I see your record book to prove that you are correct, sir? No, he does not know and obviously he hasn’t said that he could do that either.
Let’s just be careful not to read more into what he has said than just what he has said.


Your “proof” is a straw-man argument which proves nothing. I doubt he has the games numbered, but that hardly “proves your point”. Who would number the games? That’s silly.

I do not doubt that he has memorized over 10,000 games of chess. He memorized all 424 cities of Norway and their populations, when he was 4. On many occasions people have setup a position on a chess board and he is able to recall the game it is from, the players, and the year it was played. I doubt his recall is perfect, maybe he gets the year wrong or one of the players wrong or maybe an unimportant move wrong, but I bet he could tell you the story about 10,000 games of chess and teach you the important lessons from every single one of them. Of that I’m 99.9% certain.

He is not attempting some pointless memory feat. Only us mental midgets have to resort to mnemonics like that. He studies games and it is quite clear he spends most of his waking hours thinking about chess, he seems to have a natural interest in memorizing things, and he has been doing so his entire life more or less. Why is it so hard to think he could have memorized 10,000 games? It is very common that world class players throughout history can instantly recall almost every game they ever played, even unimportant games decades ago, as well as important historical games. He is easily one of the top 5 players who ever lived, perhaps the best ever.

I am not a chess player but lets make up some numbers:
Lets say a master chess player knows the top 1000 chess strategies
Each strategy has hundreds of possible outcomes or variations
that would be 10,000 games right there
If chess is his life, I think it is very reasonable that he has 10,000 games “memorized”

Top notch musicians can probably have 10,000 songs memorized
But that is after practicing and living music 5-12 hours a day for decades

Physicians like myself can have memorized/understood
thousands of medical diagnosis
the dozens of symptoms each diagnose causes
thousands of medications
dozens of doses, side effects, allergies, interactions etc regarding each medication
thousands of names of body parts, biochemical reactions
So in total well over 10,000 sets of complex information
However, the average physician has fine tuned his mind his entire life 40-100 hours per week for decades to get to that level

So it is not unreasonable that a master chess player who lives and breathes chess can claim to “know or understand” which is even a higher level than just memorizing that many games

I am a pretty good chessplayer between 1800 and 2000 on what is called the ELO rating system… Your comment about champion chessplayers is pretty accurate. But cognitive studies done on top level chessplayers have shown that they do not have incredile memories for games, but very specific memories for visualized positions on the chessboard. They can think back in in the past in very finite and specific ways what a position was, and how they moved in it to win effectively in that position. Boddy Fischer is thought to have a mild form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome, that probably helped him be such an incredible player. Also, Paul Morphy who was another chess prodigy and a lawyer by profession, could listen to long court proceedings without writing them down and then recount them verbatim from memory. Unfortunately later in life he developed mental problems, probably due to his unique abilities. Some top level players can play simultaneous opponents while they are blindfolded, and win against them all since they have this readily accessible storehouse of chess positions in their brains. Their feats of visual memory are not because they use memory techniques. And it is not limited to specific strategies that they have memorized in the strict sense. It is more of a broad vidual memory capabilty that they can access quickly in their minds. If you will, there are specific openings in the game of chess that have names which cover the first six or eight moves, but from then on it gets complicated to “memorize” all the different variations of moves that can occur for people who are not champions. Also, one should keep in mind that if two opponents both play a perfect game of chess, it should end in a draw which often hapens when you see the results of tornament games that I have personally participated in.
Other cognitive studies done on champion level chessplayers also showed that when they are given a random arrangement of pieces on a chessboard to memorize, they do not do any better than the normal population. It is only when the pieces have a position that is consistent with normal chess playing rules that they are able to recall in memory the position.

I just can’t believe this post was created 2 years ago and people are commenting at these times.

Any way, I am a good chess player (just like Xaireignapos) and I disagree in memorizing 10000 games, why? By the fact that if in a game my oponent makes a move (one that I haven’n memorized in the sequence) I’m lost, also it takes a lot of time. ( I’m lost because I don’t have a plan in mind)

I agree in memorizing 10000 opening moves with a huge depht with their respective variations (in one of the games of the 2006 WCC, Topalov knew the opening up to 40 moves!!! Guess what, he won that game.)

I also agree in memorizing games that contain my favourite opening variation.

And, I believe that memorizing 10000 digits of pi is easier and faster than 10000 games.

That would almost certainly be a bad bet on your part.
Do you know how much time it takes to go over a 10000 peg system? That is just one image for one number. I estimate that a top memorizer like Simon R. could revise mentally all his 10 000 peg system in about one full day, more than that if he has to describe all his images to someone verbally.
Now, we’re talking about going over an entire chess game for every number 0 to 9999. There is just not enough time in one day to go over all these games. How many days would that take? 5? 10? 20, 30, 60? I don’t know for sure but I would be inclined to think that it would take him at least 2 months. Now, given the amount of time this would take, how would he know that he isn’t recalling a game that he has already recited five days ago? If he hasn’t numbered his games, (a silly idea?) then that would already be an incredible memory feat he managed not to repeat any game. And what if that happened, what if he did repeat a game? Does it prove he hasn’t memorized 10000 games? In my opinion, I think that yes, it can be argued that this would show he doesn’t remember very well the 10000 chess games that he claims to know. (But does he really make that claim or are others claiming this on his behalf? The chess champ only memorized the games once and then is able to recall it immediately after. He has done so 10000 times.)
Simon R. knows his 10000 images. A good proof of that is that you would never catch him repeating any single one of his images as he recites his repertoire.
Also, given the amount of time it would take the chess champion to do the memory test that you suggest, I’m 99.9 certain that he would never ever want to make the demonstration. So we will never know for sure and of that I am 99.9% certain.
Simon L.

Dear Simon L.
Memorizing chess games is not like memorizing cards in sequence, people’s names, etc. I see that the greatest difficulty in memorizing chess games verbatim is that each move has two many exponential possibilities that one would not be able to memorize. You could see this if you were a chessplayer. Chess not only has descrete moves that you must memorize, but each move has consequential ramifications that would make it grossly impractical to try to better one’s game by simply memorizing games. What people do who play a lot of chess is to memorize the first ten moves between black and white which are called openings. When you memorize the openings, you try to understand what is going on in the opening position to make one person in a better position to win the game than the other. A good game of chess has the opening, middle game, and endgame. The opening is when players first start to move, the middle game is where pieces and players jockey for position and taking more of his opponent’s pieces (or as we say in chess terms “material”), and the endgame is where oe opponent tries to get a pawn to the eigth square to promote the pawn to a more powerful piece to ostensibly win the game, if the possibility exists. There are certain positions in the endgame where memorized positions can be clearly seen to lose or win, but in order to understand fully this dynamic, one has to know the rules of chess. In knowing the rules, you would be able to appreciate the real momentous task of trying to memoirize verbatim whole sets of chess games. As I wrote in my previous post, the one thing that very good players have is not a memorized list of moves, it is a visual broad accessible sort of database in their mind that tells them the situation they see on the board is winning or losing based on how they move. It is that visual memory sense theat distinguishes top level players from your average player. I hope this helps in understanding this about chess.

No, it doesn’t help me.
I used to be an A class tournament chess player; I never quite made it to expert level as my official national rating is just below 2000.) Thanks anyway, I appreciate your politeness and concern.