How do Chess Players Remember All of Their Games?

There is this video of Magnus Carlsen recalling games that he played many years ago along with the details of the match and his opinion of it.

This is incredibly mesmerizing if you are someone that only picked up chess, being able to remember all of these positions must have taken a lot of intellectual talent. 

Although Magnus is certainly very gifted, he is not the only one that can do this. Many chess masters in fact remember their games since they have some secrets that you don’t know about.

You see, memorizing chess positions is easier than memorizing random digits, or even the capital of the countries. 

There are good reasons why chess players remember most of their games easily. This article will share my take on it as someone who had been playing for years, let’s get started. 

Chess players compare similar positions for better recollection

I have a sneaking suspicion that a big part of why chess players remember all their games easily has to do with how people interpret the many kinds of significance on the pieces, included in the way that the pieces are arranged.

These kinds of impressions aid in the process of remembering things. Recollection of other similar playing positions was compared to the position that is being remembered.

For example, remembering a game played in a variation of the Ruy Lopez where a weird capture in e5 is made is quite simple.

You don’t have to remember everything from scratch, you just need to remember that it is a game played from the Ruy Lopez with a weird e5 capture.

This way instead of recollecting everything from scratch, you only really have to recall a few different moves from other more memorable games. You will have a “base” of variations and this will be the foundation (usually these are the openings).

Then you will naturally remember all of the little sidelines that your opponent has played over time, this is especially true if the sideline is weird since it will be more memorable. 

This how chess players remember their games, they are only remembering the variations

After meeting a lot of chess players over the years, I can tell that there is little to no correlation between having a better recollection and being a stronger chess player.

It is not more probable that they have an outstanding memory than any other individual you choose at a whim off the road. They do, however, have a great deal of expertise with different chess variations.

They have experience with thousands of different games, both intense and lighthearted, and have seen thousands and thousands. Many variations tend to occur repeatedly, and seasoned players are better able to spot them when they do.

They recall a single portion (such as the capture in e5 in the ruy lopez line) very immediately, or that there will be an opposite castle in this particular game featuring the yugoslav attack, this will make recollection way easier.  

Someone who has never played the game before will need to commit to memory 12 different pieces that are placed in squares that look pretty random, one for each component of the game.

On the other hand, a person who has been playing for years knows of the main line and its variations. If you don’t want to believe me we can make a bet. Present a chess 960 position in front of a chess master and play some 15 moves.

I bet the chess master will have a hard time with this. Chess960 (also known as fischer random) is a chess game where the pieces are placed at random, due to this memorization is harder.

Suddenly there is no main line as a foundation (since the placements are random), memorization will be difficult. 

De groot experiment on how chess players remember their chess games

During the middle of the 20th century, a chess player and psychiatrist by the moniker of de Groot carried out a series of highly intriguing tests along similar lines.

He would begin by establishing a position from a match between chess masters and then present the position to a specimen “dummy player” for a little period of time. After that, he will take it out from the player’s line of vision and challenge him to recreate it.

He performed this with players with varying levels of experience, from highly skilled grandmasters to beginners.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he discovered a very substantial association between chess aptitude and the capacity to recall positions, yet he did find this correlation.

The GMs were capable of appropriately placing around 93% of the pieces. The percentage of correct answers obtained by experts was 72%, while those of a casual chess player was just at 51%.

Later researchers repeated the process, but this time they included an additional step. They were able to verify de Groot’s work in standard chess situations.

However, when they attempted arranging pieces haphazardly on the board in ways that would make absolutely no sense from a chess perspective, the grandmasters performed no differently than the novices. They were all comparable to one another.

It’s not about being blessed from birth with some kind of freakish excellent memory recall. It is necessary to have hundreds of variations ingrained in your mind, which is something that can only be accomplished through time, practice, and education.

Chess masters don’t remember the entire games only the important parts

Most players don’t really remember all of the details of the game, just the important parts.

From my personal experience I instinctively memorize a short series of the move order rather than the entire game, I don’t remember 100% of the details, just the important parts.

I suspect that other chess players are also used to short sequences (or move order) rather than remembering the entire game in itself.

They do not recall a series of 60 moves in a single game, rather they are able to remember short snippets of 5-6 move orders that are critical to the result of the game.

You have to understand that chess masters don’t really need to remember the opening lines anymore since they have probably memorized it. Titled chess players have a good opening repertoire that they can easily relate to similar openings.

This means that recollection is actually allocated to only the important parts, not the game as a whole. Because of the characteristics of the recollection, they are able to remember positions considerably more quickly.

They can use a marker for the beginning of the sequence like an endgame with a knight vs. three pawns, this can be the trigger for the remembrance of the sequence. When done in this manner, the recollection is readily activated.

Repeating something over and over again is important in part because it forces people to commit the order to memory so that they don’t get the move order mixed up.

The number of short move sequences remembered is what differentiates most of the best players from one another since there are various ways to get up in the same position.

In most cases, it is the impetus of similar openings studied in the past that causes them to correctly recollect the exact move sequence. It is focused memorization not full memorization which is more efficient in my opinion. 

Chess positions are easier to memorize since they are in logical sequences

I think being able to remember move sequences rather than the whole game is an important detail, but I also think that there are things that make memorizing chess positions much easier than your normal historical facts.

Chess players like Magnus and Kasparov can remember multiple sequences in a row.

I’m not sure whether having the capacity to recognize a couple of complete games requires an exceptional memory, however I am sure that being able to recall thousands of games of other players (including the year played)  requires an exceptional memory.

You must come to the realization that remembering a chess game from memory is not the same as learning anything at whim, such as a list of people or statistics or a series of digits.

The greatest quality of chess is played at a stage when the participants are highly rational and most of the movements are evident to both parties. Because of this, the professional players just need to recall the critical plays that were not evident.

I can picture a grandmaster reflecting on a game they’ve played by thinking that they have chosen a very popular opening but the opponent only deviates at move 20.

The position is probably the main line until move 20 where the opponent played this weird a6 move.

He then played aggressively and was able to place multiple pieces on the kingside which eventually led to a breakdown of the position and eventually having a material advantage.

I can envision that this is how they consider the match. Because chess is played as a series of logical actions, it is likely that they will be able remember remember in between the blanks and recreate the complete game even if all they can recall are the most important moves.

The situation is the same as with songs. Because melody is likewise a sequence of logic, a person who has a superb knowledge of music is able to memorize hundreds of different rhythms and tunes.

Because of this, an internationally renowned singer may be able to perform an entire composition that is thirty minutes long and contains hundreds of notes using their memory only. I think this is similar to the situation between chess players.

This is why super grandmasters are able to recall almost 100% of the details of their games, they know more openings (plus the common moves in the sidelines) so any deviation is really memorable. 

Chess players remember games easily because they have their interest on it

The thing is, memorization is way easier if you connect with the thing being memorized on a personal level.

Recollection is something that can be taught rather easily, and it becomes much simpler to retain and retrieve knowledge if you have a larger level of expertise with a certain profession or subject matter.

Consider how much simpler it is to recall a statement written in your mother tongue as opposed to one written in a foreign language. Being able to contextualize and focus the data helps with both short term and long term memory.

When you add to it some simple but consistent memory workouts (say memorizing multiple main lines of famous chess openings), everybody is capable of doing it.

They do possess a mental capability that is above normal, which gives them an advantage over their contemporaries.

However, another reason is that their mind is so trained for chess that each and every piece of chess knowledge is processed as if it were significant, which ensures that it is retained.

Even though I do not have a memory recollection like that of Magnus Carlsen, I am able to recollect a lot of information on the personality and background info. of my preferred movie characters.

It’s all about how you organize your priorities. If playing chess is your prime concern, you will find that your memory is preoccupied with that game to the exclusion of anything else.

Conclusion

I hope this article clears out a lot of misconceptions on how chess masters remember all of their games.

They are not some superior intellectual beings that are secretly plotting to take over the world, it is simple actually. They don’t remember everything, they only remember the parts that stand out from the main opening line.

Chess masters know many main lines from many openings, they use this as a foundation in remembering any deviation from the main line since it becomes memorable.

Also chess masters don’t remember all of their games 100% of the details included, usually only the critical positions that are important for the game.

It also helps that chess masters just love chess, their interest makes chess positions naturally memorable. That is all, thank you for reading. 

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