Voice Indexing

All this discussion about encoding information has finally dredged up a memory of an anecdote about Alekhine, a world champion chess player after WW1. He used to give exhibitions in which he’d play simultaneous games against 12 players blindfold! He’d sit with his back to the audience, blindfolded and the players called out their moves to him. I think the record since is close to 70 but Alekhine was usually playing drunk which the others didn’t - I consider that cheating.

Anyway, he was asked how he remembered all those game and he explained that he imagined a tall chest of drawers and each time a move was called out, the sound of the player’s voice opened the right drawer.

I think of that as an “associate array” from software. Kind of an indexed list but not necessarily in order.


“he imagined a tall chest of drawers and each time a move was called out, the sound of the player’s voice opened the right drawer.”


I read somewhere that memory is the key to how humans play chess vs computers. Computers brute force every possible combination. Humans have some sort of memory about the current patterns on the board and what the next good pattern is. Hence, it is possible for masters to play against so many people at once, without much increase in effort. A computer playing against 70 people takes 70 times the amount of calculations.

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Yes, very much so. The chess “tree” of possibilities fans out so fast that 6 moves deep by brute force calculation overwhelmed supercomputers for a long time.

A strong player uses his knowledge of patterns to “prune” the tree. He sees the game as an argument and he knows from a glance what the fight is about and looks at just a few lines of play. With experience it’s like looking at a face. This comes from a vast knowledge of games and positions. So yes the strong players depend on fabulous memories.

There’s an anecdote about Fischer, who found himself with a very difficult endgame and less than a minute left on his clock. Fischer banged out the moves seconds apart and won the ending. His opponent asked him “Bobby, how did you calculate that ending so fast?” Fischer said, “Dmitri, this was your analysis. You wrote a paper on this ending 10 years ago! I played your moves!”


This is super interesting. I’m only rated at around 1500 ELO and recently I was surprised by how easy it actually is to play blindfolded. Now I can understand how magnus plays seven games at once but Alekhine was on a whole other level when I heard things about this I presumed he had been doing some level of mind palacing because keeping up with that many games is no longer about skill but just remembering which game was which. I could see how if it were just seven games he could easily say “table 3 was an English Najdorf and table 4 a Caro-Khan” and then just remember the rest. The problem would just be remembering how the game even started.

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Beautiful! wonderful anecdote.

Other blindfold demonstrators have commented that players will try to confuse them by making very unusual moves. Of course this only makes the master’s job easier since the game has this remarkable feature. Whereas, they say, if they all conspired to play minor variations of the same game it would be a lot harder.

It’s impressive that at 1500 you can visualize the board well enough to use it. You may have something there. That doesn’t usually appear until around 1800 and even then, not always. I had to work very hard at it. It was in fact the first my first major application of memory techniques. I still love the game but I have no natural talent. I got myself up to 1800 but it was very hard work and faded as soon as I let up.

After these exhibitions, opponents sometimes asked Alekhine about their games and he was able to reproduce the whole game for them on the spot, they couldn’t clearly remember what they played.

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I think it’s easier for me only because I love studying opening so I’m always thinking in terms of the algebraic notation and always having to go through each move in my head so it gives you a lot of practice visualising the board. I fell in love with chess only over a year ago and have been playing and studying it religiously ever since, the mind palace reallllly helps for memorising openings, I know this doesn’t really improve your game much but I certainly enjoy it


Really don’t think so. I did much the same. The notation was natural but forming a useful map of the board didn’t come easy to me or to most other’s in my experience. I have read a lot of chess books. You have something unusual there. I have heard some players, including a GM say that they see the board abstractly, as I think I do and others who say they can see the woodgrain on the pieces.