Memory and Chess
by Bill Wall

Of all the stories about a chess player's skill, the most common is that chess players have a good memory. Memory researchers and psychologists love chess a study field. Chess has been regarded as the ultimate test of cognitive ability. However, there is normal memory and there is chess memory. Some believe that people who become strong chess players have exceptional intelligence and/or memory. This belief is popular with highly rated chess players, but potentially discouraging to the general population. There is little solid evidence to support this viewpoint. General intelligence and memory by themselves do not appear to distinguish great chess players from ordinary ones.

Studies of chess players have confirmed that the ability to memorize board positions was one of the best overall indicators of how good a chess player is.

To the average person, playing a game of chess without sight of the board represents an extremely difficult, if not impossible challenge for the memory. No other human memory feat can surpass the achievements of the best simultaneous blindfold players. Blindfold chess players need knowledge and experience, imagination, and memory. Masters who were tested in blindfold games were generally able to remember all the moves played in a sequence of blindfold games. Masters differed on whether they used visual or abstract imagery to represent the chess board. The majority of masters said that they used only an abstract representation, combined with sub vocalizations of previous moves, to mentally examine the board.

In 1881, an article called "Memory in Chess Playing," appeared in Scientific American. It stated that wonderful as are the feats of chess-players who can work out a game or a series of games without seeing the board, there is nothing really remarkable in them. When once mastered, the trick is not only fairly easy of performance, but the fact that the process is purely mental rather facilitates than impedes the action of the mind. To the "blindfold" chess player, there is present a mental picture of the board with the pieces in position. He can change the position of the men as easily as he can think, and after he has mastered the difficulty of fixing the mental picture, it is distinctly before him. As a rule, chess-players are mental-picture-readers, and can at pleasure call up any one of several pictures of boards as they last conceived them. The most difficult feat is to play two or three games simultaneously blindfold, the moves made by their opponents being told them in close sequence and their own moves being directed after all the reports of the proceedings of their opponents have been received. (source: Scientific American, Dec 10, 1881, Vol. 45, # 24, p. 378)

In 1893 and 1894, Alfred Binet (1857-1911) conducted perhaps the first psychological studies into chess. He investigated the cognitive facilities of chess masters who could play blindfold chess. He hypothesized that chess depends upon the phenomenological qualities of visual memory. He found that only chess masters were able to play chess successfully without seeing the board and intermediate players found it impossible to play a game of blindfold chess. Binet found that experience, imagination, and memories of abstract and concrete varieties were required in master chess.

In 1927, Soviet psychologists (Djakow, Petrowski, and Rudik) conducted extensive tests on top chess masters 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 other areas of memory, there was no discernible superiority of a chess master and a layman. The superior memory of skilled chess players was limited to chess and was not observed for other types of materials and information. Chess masters were three time better in reconstructing positions from actual chess positions than non-chess players.

In the 1940s, Edward Lasker wrote on an organized study that was made of a dozen leading chess masters by a group of psychologists. It was found that a chess master's memory was only exceptional where positions on the chessboard were concerned. Chess masters did not seem to think faster than any other groups of people whom the psychologists selected at random and subjected to the same tests. They did see that chess masters showed a well-developed reasoning faculty, similar in type to mathematicians. Chess players appeared to be better able to think in the abstract rather than concrete terms.

In 1962, Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001) and Peter A. Simon published an article called, "Trial and error search in solving difficult problems: Evidence from the game of chess." Grandmasters of chess seem intellectual prodigies, who perform feats of memory and discovery unachievable by ordinary mortals. The great chess players are also a puzzle to psychologists, who find it difficult to reconcile these exploits with current theories about the problem-solving process. This paper attempted to clear away some of the mythology which surrounded the game of chess by showing that successful problem solving was based on a highly selective, heuristic "program" rather than on prodigies of memory and insight. (source: Behavioral Science, Volume 7 Issue 4, pp. 425-429, October 1962)

In 1965, Adriaan de Groot (1914-2006), the father of chess psychology, published his book Thought and Choice in Chess. He found that visual memory and visual perception were important attributers and that problem-solving ability was of paramount importance. Memory was particularly important. De Groot was able to show the differences in the way that experts and novices reconstruct certain aspects of chess in their minds. In a chess position of 22 pieces, the grandmaster (Max Euwe) reconstructed all 22 pieces correctly in their proper position after looking at the position for 30 seconds. A master was able to get 21 out of the 22 pieces on the proper squares correctly. A chess expert got 16 pieces right, and the average player was only able to place 9 pieces correctly on the chess board.

Another thing that de Groot did was to select a chess position with only one correct, but not so obvious move, to be made. He then presented the position to chess masters and top club players. He asked them to think aloud as they studied the position to come up with the right move. What he discovered was that the chess masters did not look more moves ahead, nor consider more possible moves. Rather, they tended to see the right moves almost right away. The masters were looking at pawn structures and if pieces were exposed. They did not see the chess board as 32 pieces. What the masters saw were chunks of pieces.

In 1973, William Chase (1940-1983) and Herbert Simon (1916-2001) showed superior memory for chess positions by chess experts through "chunking." A chunk is a pattern or a collection of elements that are strongly associated with one another but are weakly associated with elements in other chunks. A grouping of pieces that is seen is a single big chunk. The ability to recall a position from an actual game increases as a function of chess skill. For positions, beginners were able to recall the correct location of about four pieces in 5 seconds, whereas grandmasters recalled virtually all of the more than 20 pieces. Chess players store chunks in memory corresponding to patterns of pieces. Each chunk consists of a small pattern that recurs frequently in the chess positions encountered while playing.

Simon estimated that each chunk takes about 30 seconds of focused attention to create. A chess grandmaster would have created somewhere between 50,000 and 1.8 million chunks, which would have taken about 10 years of four hours of practice per day.

An article called "Perception in Chess," by William Chase and Herbert Simon appeared in Cognitive Psychology. The authors developed a technique for isolating and studying the perceptual structures that chess players perceive. Three chess players of varying strength - from master to novice - were confronted with two tasks: ( 1) A perception task, where the player reproduces a chess position in plain view, and (2) short-term recall task, where the player reproduces a chess position after viewing it for 5 sec. The successive glances at the position in the perceptual task and long pauses in the memory task were used to segment the structures in the reconstruction protocol. The size and nature of these structures were then analyzed as a function of chess skill. By analyzing an expert player's eye movements, it had been shown that, among other things, he is looking at how pieces attack and defend each other. But we know from other considerations that he is seeing much more. The authors' work was concerned with just what the expert chess pIayer perceives. (source: Cognitive Psychology, Jan 1973, Vol. 4, # 1, pp. 55-81)

An example of chunking of numbers is how to remember 14929021064. Can you remember that number in a few seconds? Chunking the numbers becomes 1492 90210 64 or when Columbus sailed to America, a popular TV show that is the zip code of Beverly Hills and the number of squares on a chessboard. For a chess example, instead of remembering strings of letters such as E-L-O-F-I-D-E-U-S-C-F, chess players will find it easier to remember the chunks Elo-FIDE-USCF consisting of the same letters.

A chunk in chess is a unit of information in long-term memory containing a meaningful grouping of some of the chess pieces on squares (POSs) that appear on a chessboard, plus associated moves and ideas. It is a patterned cluster of chess pieces. The action of chunking is the grouping together of chess pieces. Chess chunk examples would be a castled position (kingside or queenside), or a fianchettoed bishop, or a familiar pawn chain, or common bank-rank piece positions. A chunk representing a standard castled white king can be represented as the set {Rf1, Kg1, Pf2, Pg2, Ph2}. These five pieces can make up to 31 different chunks.

For chess, a chunk might be a kingside castling position (Kg1, Rf1, Pf2, Pg2, Ph2, Nf3). You have now memorized or chunked 6 chessmen on 6 out of 64 squares and can set up or visualize the position in a second or two. A chess player can do this instantly, whereas a non-chess player sees it as a random setting of some chess pieces on a chess board. Another example is the opening position out of a Ruy Lopez, Marshall Gambit or Sicilian, Najdorf Variation. A chess player can set up that position in seconds, but a non-chess player again sees random pieces and would be difficult to reconstruct. At the same token, if you had a random position of a bunch of chessmen, a chess player would not have any more advantage than a non-chess player in recreating the position, because he was not able to "chunk" the position into something meaningful.

Chess players have an advantage in remembering the positions of pieces on the board because they can "chunk" sets of pieces into meaningful groups. Chess masters can recall more pieces compared to novices from a chess board that could occur in an actual chess game but not from a board with randomly-placed chess pieces. A chess board of randomly arranged chess pieces has not context. There are no similar chess positions from the past to compare to. There is no meaningful way to chunk the position of the pieces and reconstruct it on a chess board.

You store chunks in long-term memory (LTM), but you process them through short-term memory (STM). Adults are able to store 3-7 chunks in short-term or working memory at any one time in about one minute. If all you can store is 3 chunks, then to visualize the entire chess board and hold it in working memory, you need to see the entire position in only 3 chunks at most. Therefore, chunks need to be quite large. You may be able to work with three chunks at any one time and process information rapidly between your short-term memory and your long term memory in order to visualize the entire board.

To account the performance of masters, assuming that only 3-7 chunks can be held simultaneously in STM, skilled players would have to accumulate a store of chunks roughly at 50,000 or more, according to Simon and Gilmartin, who have studied chunking in chess memory. Strong chess players possess both more and larger chunks in LTM, they recognize more and larger patters on the board and therefore recall more pieces from the positions.

When a chess player plays bullet or blitz chess, they move without thought, relying on intuition. A stronger player will almost always trounce a weaker player in blitz matches. So where does intuition come from? It comes from LTM. When the brain creates a chunk, it is saved in long-term memory. A chess master who has studies many grandmaster games has created tens or hundreds of thousands of such chunks, with each chunk being something like a board position and what moves are strong and which moves are not so strong. What looks like intuition is the brain pattern-matching against what it has seen before. A chess master looks at the board, similar positions and strong moves are automatically retrieved from LTM, and he makes one of those moves.

In 1979, David Lane and Lauren Roberton, both from Rice University, tested the hypothesis that memory for chess positions is a function of the depth of processing and, particularly, of the richness of stimulus elaboration afforded by the combination of task and skill-level conditions.  They tested non-rated beginners and rated chess players and could not find a relationship between chess skill and recall under formal orienting instructions or no relationship between chess skill and memory for random positions.  Only when the subjects were able to perceive the 64 squares and various pieces as a meaningful configuration does the player with the better understanding of chess show any superiority.  In addition to being familiar with more patterns of chess pieces, stronger players are better that weaker players at integrating familiar configurations into a coherent whole.  (source: "The generality of the levels of processing hypothesis: An application to memory for chess positions," Memory & Cognition, Vol. 7, # 4, pp. 253-256, 1979)

In 1987-88, all students in a rural Pennsylvania 6th grade class were required to participate in chess lessons. None of the pupils had previously played chess. After a year, the pupils significantly improved in both memory and verbal reasoning. The program was called 'Development of Reasoning and Memory through Chess.'

In 1991, Pertti Saariluoma (1951- ) wrote an article called "Visuo-Spatial Interference and Apperception in Chess." Chess players' calculation cannot be based on perception alone, because chess players generate moves in chess protocols that are never made on the board. This is not possible without some mediating representation. Direct object perception is not sufficient, but the visible positions must be transformed into some format that allows players to distance themselves from current visual input. This article focused on what this format could be and what is the processing system that supports these cognitive operations. The experiments on visual search for chess pieces show only that information intake is impaired by concurrent visuo-spatial suppression, but such evidence does not provide direct proof that visuo-spatial processing is involved in thought processes. Only protocol analysis can provide direct evidence for the involvement of visuo-spatial working memory in thinking in chess. (source: Advances in Psychology, Vol. 80, 1991, pp. 83-94)

In 1992, an article called "The Impact of Chess Research on Cognitive Science" appeared in Psychological Research. The chess research of de Groot (1965) and Chase and Simon (1973) have accumulated over 250 citations each. Chess playing has provided a model task environment for the study of basic cognitive processes, such as perception, memory, and problem solving. It also offers a unique opportunity for the study of individual differences (chess expertise) because of Arpad Elo's development of a chess-skill rating scale. Chess has also enjoyed a privileged position in Artificial-Intelligence research as a model domain for exploring search and evaluation processes. (source: Psychological Research, Mar 1992, Vol. 54, # 1, pp. 4-9)

In 1993, W. Schneider, H. Gruber, A. Gold, and K. Opwis wrote an article called, "Chess Expertise and Memory for Chess Positions in Children and Adults." The major goal of this study was to explore the effects of the following task characteristics on memory performance: (1) Familiarity with the constellation of chess pieces (i.e., meaningful versus random positions) and (2) familiarity with both the geometrical structure of the board and the form and color of chess pieces. The tasks presented to the four groups of subjects (i.e., child experts and novices, adult experts and novices) included memory for meaningful and random chess positions as well as memory for the location of wooden pieces of different forms on a board geometrically structured by circles, triangles, rhombuses, etc. (control task 1). Further, a digit span memory task was given (control task 2). The major assumption was that the superiority of experts should be greatest for the meaningful chess positions, somewhat reduced but still significant for the random positions, and nonsignificant for the board control task. Only age effects were expected for the digit span task. The results conformed to this pattern, showing that each type of knowledge contributed to the experts? superior memory span for chess positions. (source: Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Vol. 56, # 3, Dec 1993, pp. 328-349)

In 1996, cognitive scientist and International Master Fernand Gobet (1962- ) and Herbert Simon looked at the hypothesis of chess masters' superiority in recalling meaningful material from their domain of expertise vanished when random material is used.  However, they found that strong players generally do maintain some superiority over weak players even with random positions, although the relative difference between skill levels is much smaller than with game positions.  With thousands of hours of intense practice and study, one would expect a master to have stored numerous chunks in their long-term memory, including some unusual features, which would allow them to recognize, more often than weak players, familiar chunks that occur in random positions, thereby obtaining an advantage in recall.  It is also possible that masters have developed strategies to cope with uncommon situations, which occur sometimes in practice.  In addition, their familiarity with the materials (better knowledge of the topology of the chess board and its attributes) could give them some advantage in comparison with non-experts.  Gobet's and Simon's findings showed that the recall of a random position varies somewhat as a function of chess skill.  This could be due to three possibilities: (1) a large database of chunks in long-term memory, occasionally allowing the recognition of stored patterns that occur by chance in random positions; (2) the possession of strategies for coping with uncommon positions; (3) better knowledge of the topology of the chessboard. (source: "Recall of rapidly presented random chess positions is a function of skill," Memory & Cognition, Vol. 24, pp. 493-503, 1996)

In 2000, Reingold, Charness, Pomplun, and Stampe employed eye movement-monitoring techniques in order to provide direct evidence for the hypothesis that a perceptual advantage is a fundamental component of chess skill.  They predicted that the perceptual advantage accruing to master chess players would be reflected in a larger view span for chess-related visual patterns, but not for patterns unrelated to chess.  The encoding of chunks rather than individual pieces by chess masters would result in fewer fixations, and fixations between rather than on individual pieces.  Prior research on eye fixations in chess has shown differences in variables such as fixation duration and coverage of the chessboard.  Previous studies showed that the chess master has an advantage in immediate memory for chess-related information following a very brief exposure to an unfamiliar position.  This study extended the findings by showing that masters have an advantage in extracting perceptual information in an individual fixation.  For check-to-the-king detection, the master extracts the necessary interpiece relations from both the foveal (part of the retina that permits 100% visual acuity) and parafoveal (region of the retina that covers 10 degrees radius around the fovea) regions.  Advanced chess skill attenuates change blindness by improving target detection in meaningful, but not scrambled, chess configurations, and this effect is due to greater span size relative to less-skilled chess players.  (source: "Visual Span in expert chess players: Evidence From Eye Movements," Psychological Science, Vol. 12, # 1, January 2001)

In 2001, Pertti Saariluoma of the University of Helsinki published an article called "Chess and content-oriented psychology of thinking." In this paper a number of principles for content-oriented cognitive psychology was presented in the context of research into chess players' information processing. It will be argued that modern theoretical concepts of attention, imagery and memory are based on underlying concepts of capacity and format and that these concepts are not sufficiently powerful to express all phenomena associated with mental contents. Instead, one must develop a genuinely content-oriented theoretical language to discuss, for example, contents and their integration into thinking. The main problem is how to explain the contents of representations. Why do representations have precisely the contents that they have? Here the main attention was focused on the question how can one explain the selection of content elements in representations? To formulate the basic concepts of content-oriented thought research several issues were discussed. Firstly, it was shown that traditional attention and memory research is capacity-oriented and therefore unable to express mental contents. Secondly, it was argued that there are content phenomena which must be explained by properties of other content phenomena. Thirdly, it was shown that in chess, people integrate information into representations by using functional rules or reasons, i.e. concepts and rules, which tell why some information contents must be included in a representation. It was then shown that people integrate information around learned 'thought models' whose contents, together with functional rules or reasons, explain and clarify the content-structure of a mental representation. (source: Psicologica, Vol. 22, pp. 143-164, 2001)

In 2001, researchers wrote in Nature magazine that a chess grandmaster studies and practices for at least 10 years to learn more than 100,000 chess patterns (memory chunks). Consequently, GMs can 'recognize' they key elements in a problem situation much more rapidly than amateurs. (source: "Pattern of focal gamma-bursts in chess players," Nature, Vol. 412, No. 603, Aug 9, 2001)

In 2003, Christopher Chabris (1966- ) and Eliot Hearst (1932-2018) wrote an article called, "Visualization, Pattern Recognition, and Forward Search: Effects of Playing Speed and Sight on the Position on Grandmaster Errors." A new approach examined two aspects of chess skill, long a popular topic in cognitive science. A powerful computer-chess program calculated the number and magnitude of blunders made by the same 23 grandmasters in hundreds of serious games of slow ("classical") chess, regular "rapid" chess, and rapid "blindfold" chess, in which opponents transmit moves without ever seeing the actual position. Rapid chess led to substantially more and larger blunders than classical chess. Perhaps more surprisingly, the frequency and magnitude of blunders did not differ in rapid versus blindfold play, despite the additional memory and visualization load imposed by the latter. The authors discuss the involvement of various cognitive processes in human problem-solving and expertise, especially with respect to chess. Prior opposing views about the basis of general chess skill have emphasized the dominance of either (a) swift pattern recognition or (b) analyzing ahead, but both seem important and the controversy appears currently unresolvable and perhaps fruitless. (source: Cognitive Science, Vol. 27, # 4, Jul-Aug 2003, pp. 637-648).

In the August 1, 2006 issue of Scientific American, there was an article called "The Expert Mind" by Philip Ross in which studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in some other fields as well. The article summarizes the research that has been done in an attempt to explain such feats of the human mind as grandmaster play. He mentions Capablanca's quick simultaneous play and concludes that the chess master's advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought. Researchers have found evidence that chess grandmasters rely on a vast store of knowledge of game positions. Some scientists have theorized that GMs organize the information in chunks, which can be quickly retrieved from long-term memory and manipulated in working memory. (source: Scientific American, Vol. 295, Aug 1, 2006, pp. 64-71, and ChessBase, Aug 14, 2006)

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published his book, Outliers. He hypothesized that world class grandmasters don't depend on talent, but on thousands of hours of deliberate practice. He concluded that it took about 10,000 hours of practice, or about 10 years, to achieve world-class mastery of chess. He pointed out the exception was Bobby Fischer. It took him 9 years.

In 2014, A. Schaigorodsky, J. Perotti, and O. Billoni wrote a research paper called, "Memory and Long-Range Correlations in Chess Games." In this paper the authors reported the existence of long-range memory in the opening moves of a chronologically ordered set of chess games using an extensive chess database. They used two mapping rules to build discrete time series and analyzed them using two methods for detecting long-range correlations; rescaled range analysis and detrended fluctuation analysis. They found that long-range memory is related to the level of the players. When the database was filtered according to player levels, they found differences in the persistence of the different subsets. For high level players, correlations were stronger at long time scales; whereas in intermediate and low-level players they reached the maximum value at shorter time scales. This can be interpreted as a signature of the different strategies used by players with different levels of expertise. These results were robust against the assignation rules and the method employed in the analysis of the time series. (source: Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, Vol. 394, Jan 15, 2014, pp. 304-311)

In 2014, P. Flesner and F. Gliga wrote an article called, "Cognitive Benefits of Chess Training in Novice Children." The study aimed to demonstrate the role chess training has on school performance, memory, sustained attention and creativity. A group of 20 novice primary school students took part in 10 blended learning chess lessons and in a final chess competition. Eighteen control students participated in 10 fun math lessons. Most cognitive skills increased from pretest to posttest in both groups but the School Performance Test increased significantly more in the chess group. Resistance to monotony and not IQ at pretest predicted success in the chess contest. (source: Procedia — Social and Behavioral Sciences, Vol 116, Feb 21, 2014, pp. 962-967)

A. Ericsson, Y. Gong, and J Moxley published an article called "Recall of Briefly Presented Chess Positions and Its Relation to Chess Skill." Individual differences in memory performance in a domain of expertise have traditionally been accounted for by previously acquired chunks of knowledge and patterns. These accounts have been examined experimentally mainly in chess. The role of chunks (clusters of chess pieces recalled in rapid succession during recall of chess positions) and their relations to chess skill are, however, under debate. By introducing an independent chunk-identification technique, namely repeated-recall technique, this study identified individual chunks for particular chess players. The study not only tested chess players with increasing chess expertise, but also tested non-chess players who should not have previously acquired any chess related chunks in memory. For recall of game positions significant differences between players and non-players were found in virtually all the characteristics of chunks recalled. Size of the largest chunks also correlates with chess skill within the group of rated chess players. (source: Public Library of Science, March 2015)

In 2016, B. Burgoyne, G. Sala, F. Gobet, B. Macnamara, G. Campitelli, and D. Hambrick, authored an article called, "The Relationship Between Cognitive Ability and Chess Skill: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis." Why are some people more skilled in complex domains than other people? The study showed that chess skill correlated positively with numerical, visuospatial, and verbal ability. Chess skill also correlated positively and significantly with fluid reasoning, comprehension-knowledge, short-term memory, and processing speed. Moreover, the correlation between fluid reasoning and chess skill was moderated by age, and skill level. Interestingly, chess skill correlated more strongly with numerical ability than with verbal ability or visuospatial ability. The results suggested that cognitive ability contributes meaningfully to individual differences in chess skill, particularly in young chess players and/or at lower levels of skill. The study reviewed 2,287 relevant articles on chess. "Chess is probably the single most studied domain in research on expertise, yet the evidence for the relationship between chess skill and cognitive ability is mixed," said Alexander Burgoyne, one of the authors "We analyzed a half-century worth of research on intelligence and chess skill and found that cognitive ability contributes meaningfully to individual differences in chess skill." (source: Intelligence, Nov-Dec 2016, Vol. 59, pp. 72-83)

Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) had a photographic memory (also known as eidetic memory) as a boy. In 1925, Alexander Alekhine was given a few standard memory tests. They revealed that if a test had nothing to do with chess, such as memorizing words, shapes, or objects, he did no better than an average person. On the other hand, when a test involved memory of a chess position placed on a board in front of him, he performed exceptionally well. Several articles have been written on Alekhine stating that he was able to remember all the master chess games during the last 25-30 years.

Alekhine described how he played blindfold games in a way that is similar to what almost all the top blindfold champions have reported. None of them found it easy to explain their visualization in words. Alekhine's mental representation of positions was abstract and not at all concrete. He said that he saw before him "only a very indistinct surface, representing the chessboard, a colorless surface vaguely divided into sections." In choosing a move, for example, he did not make a decision because he actually visualized real pawns but because he knew "where they were. Each part of the chessboard developed a meaning" for him.

Vishwanathn Anand (1969- ) lectured about chess skills and that chess players could easily remember ideas and patterns taken from millions of games. The first skill needed was to develop memory hooks. You learn a few mates and a few tricks. Then you slowly progress, seeing the games of the great players, classic examples that every chess player must know. The great player explains his game and explains the key moments. A lot of games are accompanied with diagrams of key positions where something interesting happened. Thanks to all these hooks, it is easy to remember these games years later. Anand's mother says that he has always had a photographic memory.

Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924) had a good memory and could memorize large lists of information and recalled a large number of chess games played by masters. When author Anderson Graham was looking over some of Blackburne's chess games with him in the late 1890s, he was astounded to find that Blackburne could recall chess games he had not seen for 30 or more years.

Jose Capablanca (1888-1942) said he had a photographic memory as a child. He could read seven pages of history and recite them verbatim. As he got older, Capablanca said he could hardly remember any of his games he played in the past but had met experts you remembered every one of his serious games in the last 22 years. Capablanca was also very good at doing mental math calculations quickly.

Magnus Carlsen (1990- ), in an interview on 60 Minutes, said that he has memorized 10,000 chess games. When he was 2 years old, he was able to recite all the major car brands of Norway. At age 5, he memorized all the world's countries, their flags, and their capitals. He was asked if he had a great memory with other things other than chess. Carlsen responded, "No, I forget all kinds of stuff. I mean, I'm pretty good at remembering names, but I can never remember faces. I regularly lose my credit cards, my mobile phone, keys and so on." (source: 60 minutes interview -

Bobby Fischer's (1943-2008) memory for chess was pretty good. At the conclusion of the unofficial Blitz Championship of the World at Hercegnovi, Yugoslavia, in 1970, Fischer rattled off the scores of all his twenty-two games, involving more than 1,000 moves, from memory. And just prior to his historic match with Taimanov, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Fischer met the Russian player Vasiukov and showed him a speed game that the two had played in Moscow fifteen years before. Fischer recalled the game move by move. Gudmundur Thorarinsson, the organizer of the 1972 world championship match between Fischer and Spassky, recounts a story of Bobby phoning Icelandic grandmaster Fridrik Olafsson to ask for some technical advice ahead of the match in 1972. The phone was answered by the Olafsson's 10-year-old daughter who spouted several sentences of Icelandic that baffled Fischer. The next day Fischer, who spoke no Icelandic, repeated those sentences exactly to Thorarinsson, every phrase, every inflection accurate, so that Thorarinsson could understand precisely what the young girl had said. Thorarinsson called it a "phonetic memory."

Timur Gareyev (1988- ), who holds the world record for a blindfold simul, uses mnemonic techniques and what is called the memory palace. He says that the most essential stage for practicing memory palace in the openings. The memory palace technique involved in translating chess moves into images and placing those images in 48 mental rooms (for 48 opponents that he played blindfolded simultaneously). On December 3-4, 2016, he gave a world record 48-game blindfold simul at the University of Nevada Foundations Building in Las Vegas. He won 35, drew 7, and lost 6 in just under 19 hours. During the exhibition, he actually wore a blindfold and rode the equivalent of 50 miles on a stationary bicycle. Gareyev broke the old record of Miquel Najdorf's 45 games at Sao Paulo in 1947.

Garry Kasparov (1963- ) says that he was able to remember all the master games he has played. In 1987-88, the German magazine Der Spiegel went to considerable effort and expense to find out Kasparov's IQ and test his memory. Under the supervision of an international team of psychologists, Kasparov was given a large battery of tests designed to measure his memory, spatial ability, and abstract reasoning. They measured his IQ as 135 and his memory as one of the very best. Kasparov was asked if he had to re-evaluate the positions on each board every time he had returned to make a move in a simul, or if he remembered the positions all the time. Kasparov replied that he in fact remembered all the positions. He also said he could recall the moves of all the games he had played in the past 6 months.

George Koltanowski (1903-2000) had a powerful memory that allowed him to play a large number of blindfold games simultaneously. He claimed he had a "phonographic memory" (a keen memory for sequences) that allowed him to do a blindfold knight's tour. In the early 1980s, George Koltanowski conducted a blindfold knight's tour at the Dayton Chess Club, where I was President. A month later, I wrote a letter to George, and, in fun, asked him what was on c4. When he got the letter, he phoned me up and was able to recall what was on all the chess squares (c4 was my name). One time at his apartment, I asked George Koltanowski's wife, Leah, if George had a good memory about anything else. She replied, "George can go to the supermarket and forget his loaf of bread."

Boris Kostic (1887-1963) had a good memory and could recall a large number of master games. Capablanca wrote that he knew by heart every game played by a master for the last 20 years. However, Kostic denied this claim.

Irina Krush (1983- ) says she knows people that remember hundreds of games, but she says she does not have that talent. She says that she remembers her games from a tournament but will forget them in a few days. She only remembers a general shape, a pattern of every game, but not the details. She says she is much better with historical dates and facts.

Emanuel Lasker (1866-1941) wrote this about memory. "Chess must not be memorized, simply because it is not important enough. If you load your memory, you should know why. Memory is too valuable to be stocked with trifles. Of my fifty-seven years I have applied at least thirty to forgetting what I had learned or read, and since I succeeded in this I have acquired a certain ease and cheer which I should never again like to be without. If need be, I can increase my skill in Chess, if need be I can do that of which I have no idea at present. I have stored little in my memory, but I can apply that little, and it is of good use in many and varied emergencies. I keep it in order but resist every attempt to increase its dead weight."

Frank Marshall (1877-1944) had a good memory. In January 1922, Frank Marshall played 155 opponents on Montreal.  He won 126, lost 8, and drew 21 (88%) after 7 hours of play.  A week later, he was able to replay 153 of the games from memory.  What bothered him was forgetting the other two games.  He thought he was losing his memory.

Many articles about Paul Morphy (1837-1884) report that he was able to recite from memory nearly the entire Civil Code of Louisiana (3,500 articles).

Armenian International Master Ashot Nadanian once mentioned that he can easily recall chess games some 20 years ago, but cannot remember his mobile phone number.

Miguel Najdorf (1910-1997) possessed a strong chess memory. He was able to play a large number of blindfold simultaneous games.

When Francois Andre Danican Philidor (1726-1795) played two blindfold games at once in 1783, it was written up as one of the greatest memory skills ever displayed. A newspaper wrote, "This brief article is the record of more than sport and fashion: it is a phenomenon in the history of man so should be hoarded among the best samples of human memory, till memory shall be no more.

Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906) had a good memory, being able to play 15 games of chess and 15 games of checkers at the same time, blindfolded, while also playing cards and memorizing a list of complicated words. His obituary in the New York Times stated that he died from an "illness contracted through overexertion of his memory cells." He actually died of syphilis.

Grandmaster Lev Psakhis (1958- ) was able to remember every one of Bobby Fischer's games by heart. In 1973, Grandmaster Salo Flohr brought some Chess Informants with him during a simultaneous exhibition in Krasnoyarsk, USSR. 14-year-old Psakhis astounded Flohr by telling him in each diagram who the players were. Psakhis had memorized every diagram in the book. Psakhis was asked if he was a prodigy. Psakhis replied, "No, I just have a good memory."

Richard Reti (1889-1929) had a strong chess memory, but in other areas, his memory wasn't so good. In 1925 Reti played 29 opponents blindfold simultaneously in Sao Paulo and was able to recall all the games. After the exhibition, he was going home and forgot his suitcase. When somebody reminded him about it, Reti said, "Thank you very much. My memory is so bad..."

Akiba Rubinstein (1880-1961) was said to know every chess game he played by heart, though unsubstantiated.

In 1998, GM Patrick Wolff (1968- ) performed a classic chess memory task of reconstruction a practical chess position and a random chess position. He viewed each position for 5 seconds and then immediately tried to reconstruct the position on a chess board. (source:

Bernard Zukerman (1943- ) has a very good chess memory, which made him one of the outstanding openings expert.


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