Do grandmasters have a photographic memory? Explained!

Chess is a competitive game, especially at the top. Chess grandmasters have to spend countless hours perfecting their skills to keep getting stronger.

Many of them are so well versed with their games that they can remember positions they’ve reached before, as well as famous games that have been played before.

Seeing them recall games years ago really makes one wonder if chess grandmasters have some sort of photographic memory.

After all, seeing them recall so many games seems impossible for the ordinary person to do, but do they really have a photographic memory?

As a chess player here is what I know:

Grandmasters possess extraordinary memory capabilities but are not good enough to be considered photographic. Grandmasters can forget lines even from popular openings that they have studied years ago. Although they are good, they are not exactly photographic.

The ability of chess grandmasters to recall games years ago can also simply be attributed to their great memorization, or even because they’ve analyzed many games they’ve played and other famous games in their journey to the top. 

Modern grandmasters are more likely to have a photographic memory

As the world goes on chess play keeps getting analyzed more and more. This is especially true today with modern engines being able to beat even the best chess players in the world.

Chess grandmasters have a whole lot more information at their disposal than their older counterparts. This information could be better utilized by those with a great memory, and even better by those with a photographic memory.

If a grandmaster will have a photographic memory it is likely that they are of modern origins, contemporary grandmasters specialize in memorization, unlike their old counterparts.

Past grandmasters are unlikely to have a photographic memory

Chess games before were not as analyzed as it is today. This is more pronounced in the openings where many of the best theoretical follow-up moves have been confirmed through multiple games by top-level players and engines. 

Chess games before did not necessarily require you to memorize countless openings and positions. In fact, some of the best chess grandmasters back then excel in very aggressive plays. 

Because of this, grandmasters of the past are unlikely to possess a photographic memory since memorization is still not a huge aspect of the game.

Modern grandmasters do not have a photographic memory

Because of their excellence, many chess players admire chess grandmasters and sometimes glorify them. Although they are very good players you must forget that they are still human after all.

Chess grandmasters do not just rely on their memorization to win, many different skills are also needed to win like their ability to formulate long-term strategies, their analytical ability, their concentration, etc.

Modern grandmasters train in the memorization aspect since we are in the era of preparation over creativity. Sure they can memorize well, but not in the sense that their memories are photographic.

Grandmasters, faster time controls, and photographic memory

Many chess grandmasters usually train to play chess in different time formats be it classic, rapid, blitz, bullet, etc. If a grandmaster has photographic memory he would have a huge advantage in faster time controls especially in the openings.

If grandmasters have photographic memory he would be able to memorize entire lines of popular openings up until the end of the game and do this indefinitely, we would also see a lot of draws even at faster time controls. But this is not the case, there are creative games in faster time formats.

Super grandmasters do not have a photographic memory

Because of the extraordinary ability of super grandmasters to remember many opening lines even up to 40 lines deep or higher, some people believe they have a photographic memory.

However this is not the case as this ability of super grandmasters is simply the result of a great memory, countless games that they have played, and its analysis.

Super grandmasters have very good memory capabilities but are not considered to be so good that they have a photographic memory.

Reaching super grandmaster level in chess is hard, but there is no need for them to have an innate ability of photographic memory to reach their title.

In any case, it is even doubtful if a photographic memory would be enough to compete with super grandmasters.

There are more possible variations of chess moves that can be made in a game than there are atoms in the observable universe, even someone with photographic memory cannot memorize all of that. 

How many hours does it take to become a chess grandmaster?

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This is an awesome article that I have written with in-depth research, was wondering if you want to check it out?

Magnus Carlsen does not have a photographic memory

Of course, if there is someone who would be suspected of having photographic memory what better target than the world champion?

Especially with him claiming that he can remember 10,000 chess games and youtube videos of him remembering chess positions correctly.

Magnus Carlsen has occasionally been claimed to possess photographic memory but this is complete baloney with little backing. Magnus is a prodigy in memorization but is definitely not considered to be photographic.

These rumors of Magnus Carlsen are further amplified by the amazing achievements that he has accomplished like beating ten players simultaneously while he is blindfolded, but saying that he possesses photographic memory is nothing more than the fantasies of fans who seek to glorify him even more.

Examples of Magnus Carlsen not having a photographic memory

Magnus Carlsen had an incredible memory ever since he was a child which most likely was a great benefit to his professional chess play.

Despite this, we can see that his memory is not perfect and he still forgets about things from time to time. In fact, he even claimed that his memory has worsened over the years compared to when he was younger.

If we are talking about Magnus, he literally has hundreds of cases on youtube where he cannot remember a position or who has played it despite studying it a long time ago.

He remembers a lot of them but he still forgets, which invalidates the idea that he has a photographic memory.

Lies in forums, grandmasters, and photographic memory

I have done research by going to forums answering this exact question, and some of the replies say that grandmasters have a photographic memory. This is completely false, there has been no verified case of a grandmaster having a photographic memory.

The idea that humans can recall a memory as though it was a picture is simply not possible as the human brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, we usually develop our memory through imagery, association, linking, etc.

Best players of other fields do not have a photographic memory

There are a lot of other fields that require memorization at large in order for its participants to succeed (not just chess). Even in other fields (not just on grandmasters), there is no confirmed case of a photographic memory.

Even a winner of a memory Olympics still had to keep sticky notes on the refrigerator to remember what she had to do during the day.

So if you hear people claiming that a particular famous person has photographic memory take it with a huge pinch of salt. A photographic memory is unlikely to exist and is usually popularized by fiction.

Grandmasters, photographic memory, and fiction

There was once a memory test conducted on master chess players. They had to look at a middle game position from a real game and then reproduce it on another board.

Most of them could do it but when presented on a board with pawns and pieces placed in a random manner they could not recall more than the average person off the street.

So when chess grandmasters memorize positions they don’t just see the board they see patterns on the board, most of which he is familiar with because of the countless times he played and analyzed games. 

They remember the position because of constant repetition and patterns that they have seen.

This is how the brain can remember things more easily by seeing patterns in similar situations, allowing chess grandmasters without photographic memory to remember thousands of chess positions in their minds.

Realistically, there is no human on earth (not even a grandmaster) that is capable of a photographic memory since it literally is a fictional ability. The human brain has features that make photographic memory almost impossible.

Final Thoughts

When we think of someone with photographic memory we often imagine someone who can record what they see as a photograph, they can remember every single detail in what they saw.

However, there has never been any study that has proven that photographic memory exists.

The people closest to having photographic memory would be people with eidetic memory, but even for them, they can usually only vividly remember an image for several minutes before it disappears from their mind.

Even the accuracy of their memory is often imperfect, it is not unusual for them to alter visual details to invent details that were not from the original image( also known as false memories)

The next time you see grandmasters remembering a lot of games, know that it is only possible due to the countless practice and training that they have to improve their skills.

It is unlikely for them to have a photographic memory, no matter how great their memory might seem. That is all, sleep well and play chess.

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